You’re so Cool! Compliment Dialogues in Mexican Cinema

María Reyes López
When a student of Spanish as a second language says to his teacher: “Estás buena, maestra” [in a colloquial Mexican context, this expression can be equivalent to “You’re hot, mate”], he is expressing his intention to positively value something about her. The student certainly means that she is a good teacher. However, his saying provokes laughter because of what our culture understands in such a statement. Foreign students goes through this type of utterance very frequently during their learning process, which reflects failures in their mastery of Spanish morphosyntax and semantics (difficulties with the differences between the verbs ser and estar [both mean “to be” in English], lack of familiarity with the use of the term maestra [literally: teacher; colloquially: mate] to refer colloquially to a person, and lack of awareness of the various senses of the word buena [literally good, colloquially “hot”]). This also exposes a type of incompetence related to the use of language and the specific customs of our speech community.

A way to know cultural relationships between speakers in a speech community can be achieved by identifying and describing the different speech acts, that is, acts that speakers perform when interacting, such as greeting, saying goodbye, asking for a favor, thanking for a favor, complaining for a bad service, apologizing for something not done, warning about a delay, recommending to watch a movie, scolding for something done, giving a compliment, and so on.

This text addresses the speech act representd by compliments, which are “the verbal expression of a positive evaluation of something relative to the interlocutor in an interaction”. And, specifically concerning this act, we will see what it is performed for (one of the topics most studied in research on the act of complimenting) and, at the same time, a point that provides information to make contrasts between languages and cultures and that provides elements to bring to the Spanish as a foreign language classroom.

Compliments: Speech Acts

Ana Cecilia Terrazas Valdés

The psycholinguists at the Max Planck Institute in the Netherlands, Penelope Brown & Stephen C. Levinson, may not have envisioned the barrage of responses, opinions, counter-studies, and controversies unchained by that their 1978 text, Politeness. Some universals in language usage.

At the center of this conversational, academic, interdisciplinary, and cross-border (communication, philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, linguistics, semiotics) swirl, emerge speech acts: what compliments are, can be or cannot be, and how discourse analysis varies depending on the country, the context of speech, the cultural customs, habits and preferences, and, above all, how it is always possible to shape, mold or pervert any speaker’s intention of cordiality.

Over the years, different functions of the use of compliments in interaction have been identified; most of them are grouped in the fact that the compliment is intended to bring the interlocutors closer to each other. In the different societies where it has been studied, there is a broad tendency to consider that the use of compliments has functions such as “to create solidarity” (Manes & Wolfson, 1981), “to strengthen a desired attitude” (Manes, 1983), as a “social lubricant” (Wolfson, 1981), as a “verbal gift” (Kebrat-Orecchioni, 2004), “to create or maintain an atmosphere of kindness” (Havertake, 1994) or “to express admiration or approval of a property of the addressee” (Holmes, 1988).

However, there are also some considerations contrary to these perspectives that claim that this act is used to “express sarcasm” (Jaworski, 1995) and that its use is threatening to the interlocutor by expressing a positive evaluation of something in his or her world (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Lorenzo-Dus, 2001), or that it “places the addressee in debt to the speaker” (Holmes, 1988).

Similarly, it has been identified that the way of complimenting and reacting to compliments varies from one culture to another. This has been demonstrated by many comparative studies on compliments between two languages and cultures (Lorenzo-Dus, 2001; Matsuura, 2004; Huth, 2006; Maíz-Arévalo, 2010). Different examples of the above are the following: in Dutch culture compliments play a secondary role, the addressee is not used to it and it seems to be neither a comfortable act to perform nor to respond to (Havertake, 1994). On the other hand, it happens that among Iranians and Arabs, the act of compliment is expressed using proverbs and ritualized phrases (Wolfson, 1981). It also happens that, while what for speakers from the United States is an act of compliment, for other speakers may be an insult (Wolfson, 1981). Japanese express them mostly to people of higher social status and, to a lesser extent, to family members (Matssura, 2004). 

What are compliments given about? 
What entities Mexican speakers value positively about their interlocutor and tell them so? To answer this question, we analyzed 144 acts of compliment obtained from dialogues of 22 Mexican films produced between 2000 and 2011. Cinema is an excellent source of language samples where we can observe what the speech community expresses at certain moments (Rossi, 2011). The films analyzed represent possible real situations with basically colloquial language, not stiff or artificial, and with an accessible and popular vocabulary. Likewise, they allow us to observe a very wide variety of situations in which different speech acts are used, and compliments are no exception.

The explicit positive evaluation made by a speaker when expressing an act of compliment is one of the central features of this act. There are two conditions, generally speaking, by which an act of compliment is expressed: 
  1. If it is made concerning a person (either the interlocutor or someone related to them). 
  2. If it refers to an object or thing (something that belongs to the interlocutor, a car for example, or something they have produced, like a work of art). 
That is, whether it is performed on the person or their belongings or creations. The most commonly identified acts of compliment target the person. Out of a total of 144 acts of compliment, 117 are of this kind, while 27 are said about an object (Table 1).

Table 1. Target of the compliment
Target of the compliment  Frequency Percentage
Person 117 81.2
Objects 27 18.7
Total 144 99.9

Within the category person, six subcategories are identified. Out of the total number of acts of compliment expressed about the person, 56 are addressed to quality; in second place, to the acquired appearance (21); in third place are those attending to the natural appearance (14); about an activity performed by the person (13); followed by the presence (12) and, in last place, those referring to a third person with whom the interlocutor has a relationship (1) (table 2).

Table 2. Objects of compliments expressed about the Person
Objeto del cumplido persona
Frecuencia Porcentaje
Cualidad 56   47.8 
Apariencia adquirida 21 17.9 
Apariencia natural 14  11.9 
Actividad 13  11.1 
Presencia 12  10.2 
Tercera persona 1 0.8 
Total 117

Let’s see what each of these subcategories refers to. Quality. Acts of compliment made concerning the being of the interlocutor. Generally speaking, we can identify four different groups that refer to expressions of: a) admiration or affection; b) highlighting the interlocutor’s capabilities for different physical and intellectual actions; c) about the interlocutor’s personality, and d) about the interlocutor’s bravery and honorability. This allows us to affirm that the characteristics of the interlocutor’s personality (the person’s quality), in the sociocultural context of the dialogues analyzed here, are valued above the other expressions about the person. 

Although this study is not comparative with the English one, the data show a difference concerning those of Manes & Wolfson (1981), who find that the target of compliments most frequently presented in US society in the late 1970s is possessions and acquired appearance. In contrast, here we find out that in the dialogues of Mexican films compliments are expressed mainly about the quality of the person: 

Examples of compliments on the quality of the person [see Spanish originals in the opposite column]: 
  1. Macarena: So, how do you manage to be like that, so extroverted, I don’t know... You’re so cool. (All Inclusive: Todo incluido). 
  2. Fan: Shit! How cool! I’m sure you are the best scorer in history, Cursi. (Rudo y Cursi). 
  3. Don José: You have to thank God things worked out this way. This merch had already been promised to the gringos... You behaved like real machitos this time. (El infierno). 
Appearance. It is important to distinguish natural appearance from acquired appearance because it is something that different cultures mark in different ways. In the results of some of the works with a cross-cultural perspective, appearance is one of the most valued themes; however, a difference exists between natural appearance and that which requires an effort by the person to procure their image or acquired appearance. We found, for example, that Egyptians pay more attention to natural appearance, while people in the US pay more attention to acquired appearance (Nelson, El Bakary & Al Batal, 1996) as do the Mexicans depicted in the films analyzed.

Examples of compliments about acquired appearance: 
  1. Lucía: Your tattoo is so nice! (Viaje redondo). 
  2. Blanca: It looks super cute on you. (All inclusive: todo incluido). 
  3. Patrick: You, you, on your side, look so... Wow! (Viento en contra). 
Examples of compliments on natural appearance: 
  1. Roberto: Have I told you lately that you are beautiful? (Cansada de besar sapos). 
  2. Gonzalo: How are you, the most beautiful woman on this planet, huh? (La mujer de mi hermano). 
  3. Gaytano: It’s the same, you’re always the prettiest. (El viaje de la Nonna). 
Activity. The speaker expresses his appreciation of the interlocutor’s activities, actions, or skills, ranging from good food preparation to a child’s theatrical performance (said by a mother), dancing, boxing, auditioning, playing soccer, and singing; these are the most frequent.  

Examples of activity compliments: 
  1. Moisés: Hey, you cook such an excellent chicken. (Cinco días sin Nora). 
  2. Andrea: Just saying, you made it really good. (Cansada de besar sapos). 
  3. You sing beautifully, but the goals you score are even more beautiful. (Rudo y Cursi). 
Presence. Particularly noteworthy are the acts of complimenting the interlocutor’s presence in the speaker’s visible world, and the speaker expresses the pleasure this makes them feel. A positive evaluation on the presence of the interlocutor is expressed in three moments of the interchange: at the beginning, along the encounter, and at the end. The beginning of the conversation is typically the time to greet. It is observed in the dialogues that, in addition to conventional expressions such as “Hi”, “How is it going?”, “How are you?”, the greeting is also expressed through the positive evaluation of the interlocutor’s physical presence in cases such as “So Nice to see you!”

Examples of compliments about presence (in the three moments of the conversation): 
  1. Beny: You, fat-ass Mata, such a pleasure to see you! (El infierno). 
  2. Ignacio: We are brothers, Gonzalo. On the contrary, I’m glad you’re here, this is your home, having dinner with the family. Let’s go, let’s go, Mom is waiting for us. In fact, we should eat together once a week. (La mujer de mi hermano). 
  3. Meche: I’m so glad! Well... hum, I must go now because they left my niece with me and I have to pick her up, but it was good to see you. (Efectos secundarios). 
Third person. This subcategory refers to compliments about someone who has a close or familiar relationship with the interlocutor. A relative or someone very close is alluded to and a compliment is made about them, both concerning personal quality and natural appearance. 

Example of a third person compliment: 
Cochiloco: Look, my Benny, this brat is El Cachorro, this is El Tapón, this cutie is La Barbie, we used to call this one El Chimuelo, but now he is El Tuco, this one is El Mariachi, this baby is La Princesa, and this motherfucker is my very firstborn, El Cochiloquito. 
García: …They look great. (El infierno). 

Object. The other category for which a compliment is expressed is concerning some entity other than the person, generally, some object (a total of 27 were obtained). In the same way, as with the person’s quality, several groups are identified in this compliment’s target according to the type of object to which they refer.

Group 1. Objects produced by the interlocutor’s creativity: a poem, a story, a painting, a drawing, some photographs. 
Group 2. Artificial objects produced by people: a house, a ring, a dress, ornamental images, a model of a spaceship, a blender, a bracelet, a van. 
Group 3. Objects that mention natural references: flowers and a donkey. 
Group 4. State: the country. 

Some examples of these groups in their interactive sequence: 
  1. Ricardo: They are very cool; you shoot them? [photographs] (El segundo aire). 
  2. Gonzalo: Yeah, long ago. That dress is really hot. (La mujer de mi hermano). 
  3. Macarena: I knew, my mom is Chilean. I’ve been to Chile, it’s nice. (All Inclusive: Todo incluido). 
The perspective of analyzing the data in terms of what is valued by the speaker brings the result that 85.6% of the compliment speech acts refer to the person, while the remaining 14.3% are about an object, contrary to the results of Manes & Wolfson (1981), who found that the possession of something material ranks first among the motives for making an act of compliment in the US in the late 1970s. This allows us to identify that, socioculturally, in the interactions analyzed here, the person is valued more than an object. Nelson and Hall (1999) state that “People flatter what they value and, in Mexico, people value what a person is more than what they do or have.” We have reached the same conclusion: the Mexicans represented in film dialogues analyzed show a clear tendency to value in a positive way what the person is and not so much what they have or do. 

This information allows the elaboration of didactic material that shows people learning Spanish as a foreign language the expression of the act of compliment as it is done in this speech community, that is to say, favoring his pragmatic competence. On the other hand, many questions remain open to research; undoubtedly one of them is how the opposite (and, of course, much less pleasant) speech act is performed: verbal harassment. 
María Reyes López holds a PhD in Linguistics. She is a fulltime teacher at the Teaching Center for Foreigners (CEPE).
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