He, Yun (2008) ‘Buzz off’ or ‘Thank you’? Responses to Compliments in Contemporary Chinese. In: 4th International Symposium on Politeness 'East meets West', 2nd - 4th July 2008, Budapest, Hungary. (Unpublished)

Theories of politeness formulated by Western theoreticians like Lakoff (1973), Brown and Levinson (1987), Leech (1983) and Watts (2003) are, implicitly or explicitly, claimed to be universal across languages and cultures. Brown and Levinson’s model is, for example, the one that most clearly maintains its pan-cultural validity in cross-cultural studies (O’Driscoll 1996) despite much counterevidence that has been found in many non-Western cultures. Compared with Western colleagues, politeness scholars from the East seem more inclined to test out or modify the existing theories. For instance, Gu’s (1990) theory, distilled from millennia’s Chinese cultural tradition, is obviously a follower of Leech’s maxim approach. Nevertheless, his culture-specific theory is still likely to be empirically challenged because politeness in Chinese always seems on the move. As has been observed by both Western and Chinese practitioners of politeness (e.g., Wierzbicka 1986, Gu 1990 and Pan 2000), no research on Chinese politeness can afford to ignore linguistic change if it is meant to capture the full picture. This can well explain why Gu in his theorization mentions several times the palpable changes of politeness though he reassures readers that the essential notions underlying the Chinese conceptions of politeness remain intact. Despite this, Gu’s reminder suggests that the dynamic nature of Chinese politeness always seems in a position to creep into any explanation for linguistic behaviour. Therefore, my paper, as a preliminary result of my ongoing PhD research, aims (1) to discover similarities and differences between the younger and older generations in politeness strategies in responding to compliments, and provide empirical evidence for or against any deviation of the younger generation’s politeness behaviour from their counterparts in the same speech interactions; (2) to identify, if any, the weakening or tightening of the Self-denigration Maxim, which Gu argues is most Chinese culturespecific; and (3) to attempt to account for the underlying reasons. To achieve this, questionnaires are designed according to the findings of Wolfson and Manes’ (1980) study that most of compliments focus on appearance, possessions, abilities and accomplishments. Then they are distributed to subjects from both generations in four cities across the mainland of China. Statistics of the questionnaire data indicate that there is a significant difference between two generations under study in their preference of politeness strategies manifested in their responses to compliments in the four situations. First, as expected, the younger subjects tend to use the self-denigrating strategy much less than their older counterparts, who are readier to denigrate themselves while elevating interlocutors. That is to say, the constraint of what Gu calls a maxim most characteristic of politeness in Chinese on two generation groups’ responses is unequal in weight: the younger respondents are now generally happy to accept compliments, particularly on their looks and clothes. Second, when analyzed within Gu’s and Leech’s theoretical frameworks of politeness, Gu’s Selfdenigration Maxim explains most of the responses from the older generation and Leech’s Modesty Maxim and Agreement Maxim account for all the responses from two generations. To some degree, I might venture to assume that Gu’s Maxim of Self-denigration appears somewhat generation-specific in Chinese compliments responding practice, though further in-depth substantiations are needed. Responses of an increasing number of Chinese, especially of the young, are highly motivated by Leech’s Agreement Maxim. The young have a larger repertoire of politeness formulae and use them frequently in responding to compliments partly as a result of the observation that a new value system has been emerging in China since the inception of socio-economic reform in the late 1970s, under which selfdenigration is often evaluated negatively amongst the younger generation. Lastly, selection of responding strategies to compliments is to a large degree determined by the contexts. Although the younger subjects agree with their complimenters more often, both groups accept compliments more readily in equal encounters, e.g., between friends and colleagues, but tend to refuse or appear hesitating in accepting superiors’ compliments no matter whether they are on appearance, clothes, possessions or achievements. In other words, traditional politeness features seem to prevail in formal and unequal interactions. Changes in politeness triggered by socio-economic transformations may sometimes be amazingly enormous as shown by Bencze (2005). The similarities and differences between two generations in responding to compliments in the four situations can be attributed to fundamental changes in social structure, cultural values and norms brought about by such overlapping socio cultural factors as launching of the open door policy, democracy reform, market economy, and one-child policy (Zheng 1995, Ouyang 2006). As Chen (1993) suggests, ‘thank you’ is an American’s conventionalized response to the compliment ‘you are so pretty’ just as ‘buzz off’ is a Chinese typical reaction to ‘ni tai piaoliang le (you are so pretty)’. My research findings show that Chinese responding to compliments seems to be undergoing a move from ‘buzz off’ to ‘thank you’. In this sense, politeness behaviour of Chinese, especially of the younger generation, seems to have embarked on a process of Westernization due to multiple socio cultural reasons.

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