Noelie Rodriguez
Hawaii Community College

Alan L. Ryave
California State University, Dominguez Hills

Joseph Tracewell
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

"I think we all need to compliment people more
because a compliment really makes you feel good."

Nina Yuen, age 12

"Give a compliment. It could provide someone with a
badly needed lift."

Ann Landers

* Paper accepted for publication in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography

A compliment can readily enhance face and affiliation (Goffman 1967; Wolfson and Manes 1980). Thus, the decision to withhold a deserved compliment contrasts with the fact that in everyday interactions, participants strive for the promotion and maintenance of face and affiliation . As Goffman argued, interactants not only defend their own face, but also protect the face of others in the expectation that their face will be afforded the same protection (Goffman 1967, Holtgraves 1992). This suggests that there is a systematic interactional preference toward affiliative actions, as documented by conversation analysts. They have demonstrated that in interaction, the acceptance or rejection of such actions as an invitation, request, offer, assessment, and the like, are not equivalent options. Acceptances occur with much greater frequency than rejections. Further, acceptances are usually done explicitly, and without delay; whereas, rejections are regularly delayed, muted and/or accompanied by accounts (Davidson 1984; Heritage 1984; Pomerantz 1978, 1984; Rodriguez and Ryave 1990; Sacks 1987; Schegloff, et. al. 1977). Given the preference for affiliative actions, why aren't compliments more common; and why do individuals refrain from praising others?

In exploring these questions, our study of the factors that inhibit compliments leads us to consider the practices that regulate the expression of underlying disaffiliative conditions and sentiments. Seminal thinkers, such as Hobbes (1965), Rousseau (1969), Durkheim (1933) and Cooley (1922), all focused on the normative structures which maintain the social bond in the face of competing and hierarchically generated interests. In this investigation, we observe the boundary of the affiliative preference system (Heritage 1984) and locate that boundary in relation to various facets of social science literature including Goffman's work and conversation analysis.

Our research suggests that, in many cases, social comparison processes, with their undertow of competitiveness, lead to the defensive silencing of "unsafe" compliments (Sacks 1992; Woods 1989). In competitively defined situations, subjects appear to experience fearful, defensive emotions as they perceive an upward social comparison with a peer-turned-rival in a real or an imagined contest where suddenly face, status and relationships are at stake (Goffman 1967; Tesser 1986). We locate another major source of withheld praise in an upwelling of antagonistic, critical, and punitive sentiments directed toward the otherwise deserving other. Interestingly, the majority of these reports focus on facework offenses and breaches of the norms having to do with the giving and the receiving of compliments (Goffman 1967; Manes and Wolfson 1981; Pomerantz 1978).

The structural and normative features of compliment behavior increase the likelihood that a withholding will be a sheltered (non)action. Withheld compliments tend to yield to the general preference for affiliativeness by providing for the covert management of the disaffiliative situations and sentiments that fuel them. An overview of our data suggests that the sociability norms of everyday life interactions may be concealing a substantial undercurrent of furtive competitive, critical, and otherwise hostile sentiments and moments (Rodriguez and Ryave 1993, 1995a).


In his definition of the interpretive understanding of social conduct, Max Weber includes the study of the omission to act as part of the task of sociology (Weber 1967, 1). However, interpretive sociology lacks an adequate methodology for studying the omission to act. Data from interviews, field notes or tape- recordings have a limited capacity to generate valid and reliable data on a furtive and internal non-action like the withholding of a compliment. In contrast to these conventional research strategies, the method of systematic self-observation draws on people's capacity to directly access their own experience and describe it from their own point of view and in their own words (Rodriguez and Ryave 1995b).

We recruited the informants for this study from sociology classes on two very different campuses: a Los Angeles university campus and an outer island community college campus in Hawaii. Both campuses are predominantly working class but, otherwise, the students of these two colleges comprise a notable diversity. The L. A. campus is predominantly White, African-American, Chicano and older. This population is more urban than the more rurally based Hawaiian campus which has a predominance of Asian-American, native Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese and younger students. Despite the diversity in the background variables of the informants, we found a homogeneity to the data and the themes addressed in this paper.

In explaining systematic self-observation to the informants, we gave no examples in order to avoid biasing the data and to encourage the inclusion of idiosyncratic definitions of the phenomenon into the data. The researcher told the informants that the challenge of this assignment is to simply notice the occurrence of the phenomenon as it naturally occurs--or does not occur--in their everyday life. They must not alter the natural flow of things. If they observe an occurrence, they are to, as soon as practically possible, write an accurate reconstruction of the details of the phenomena under study.

The student informants were given a few other systematic self-observation studies to develop their interest and skills in this kind of research before they were given the assignment to systematically self-observe withheld compliments. In most cases the students spent weeks observing, writing up and analyzing the telling of secrets, the telling of lies, and the social comparisons they make in their lives before they began observing withheld compliments. While the training exercises differed for some classes, in all cases these exercises progressed from observing verbal behavior to observing thought processes.

For the present study, the informants were told: Go about your daily social life as you normally do. As you do, try to develop the capacity to notice those occasions when you find yourself withholding a compliment from another--or--when you believe that a compliment has been withheld from you. Do not withhold a compliment on purpose. Do not force it. Do not alter its production--just focus on observing its occurrence in the normal course of everyday life. Once you become aware that a compliment is being withheld by you--or from you: do not judge it, rush it, or change it in any way from what you would normally and naturally do. Just observe it.

We further instructed the informants to carry pen and paper in order to write up the experience as soon as it was practically possible to do so. The format for writing up an occasion of the withholding of a compliment involved indicating the situation, the relationship between those involved, and any real or internal dialogue and the thoughts that accompanied the withholding of a compliment or the perception of a compliment being withheld.(1) In this research, as in all the warm-up studies, the student's field notes were submitted anonymously to discourage self-censorship, phony reports, and to respond to ethical concerns.(2)

We collected the anonymous reports of 351 informant's self-observed occasions of withholding a compliment (259 instances) and of compliments perceived to be withheld from them (92 instances). These reports formed the data base for the present study.

While systematic self-observation is an appropriate strategy for generating data on the withholding of compliments, it is not without problems. Little is known about the validity and reliability of reconstruction from memory of conscious thought processes. The written reconstructions of one's thoughts, like all translations, undoubtedly result in alterations--but in unknown ways. Reconstructions from memory of overt verbal interactions have shown flaws and biases. Another concern is the potential selectivity of processes that may be biasing those instances of withholding of compliments that the informants observed and, again, those they reported. It is difficult to know how much of an activity that entails a subtle not-doing of something is unknowingly missed. Another unknown is the extent of reactivity of this research strategy, where the very fact of the assigned task may influence the perception, the production and the frequency of the activity.

The lack of knowledge of these processes confounds the assessment of this research strategy and the data generated from self-observation. These problems are mitigated by formulating the analysis to be responsive to the strengths and weaknesses of the data. These data should be taken for what they are: those instances of withholding of compliments in everyday life that were perceived and reported by the informants. The analysis proposed in this paper focuses on two common and salient themes that emerged from the data. It does not rely on knowing all the details of the phenomena, nor does it exhaustively address every instance in the data. Furthermore, we do not attempt to develop a general theory of all forms of withholding compliments.

Given the exploratory nature of the research and the qualitative nature of the data, no attempt is made to produce a quantitative description of the results. The corpus of data is employed in the context of discovery where it serves as the basis for an inductive analysis. In this preliminary research context, the data are used to illustrate the analysis.


The field notes generated by the informants' systematic self-observations show that the occasional non-production of a compliment can be a conscious, motivated action. The informants report choosing not to produce a compliment and readily explain why they made this choice. Two primary motivations for withholding a compliment emerge from the informants' reports:

(1) competitive situations and (2) critical sentiments.(3)


A compliment is frequently withheld when the informant perceives that the compliment, in some manner, will threaten or injure their own or some other's face or sense of self. The informants' field notes relate that they are responding to the competitive features of social comparisons, where one indivi-dual's achievement implicates someone else's comparative failing. The competitive winner/loser form can establish an antagonism. In these cases, withholding a compliment is a defensive action that is intended to conceal the relative disparity between individuals. Envious, self-protective and antagonistic sentiments prevail; but even when the individual's sentiments and intentions are generous or egalitarian, these situations require judicious management--as the expressions of competition can threaten or damage face and/or injure the affiliative bond.

Avoiding the Unsafe Compliment to Protect Other

A compliment to one party can injure or threaten the face and sense of self of another. The following instance, reported by one of the researchers, illustrates the inferential mechanisms by which withholding a deserved compliment can preserve and protect face:

Instance One

Situation: Teaching a class. Having finished a lesson, there was an opportunity for class participation/discussion. Numerous students offered opinions and/or questions. I was particularly impressed with the observations made by the fifth student to comment. I wanted to respond to this student's observations by praising their insightfulness. However, I withheld the praise I was feeling because I thought that it might make the other students who had previously commented feel bad--in comparison, which might undermine their morale. What praise I gave this exceptional student was minimal and did not contrast from the remarks I made to the other students.

This teacher's decision to withhold a compliment was informed by the awareness that the other students who spoke might hear the praise as an implicit criticism of their contribution, thus injuring their face. If participants see one another as peers or "comparable others" with regard to a quality or issue, they may construct a relative assessment of themselves through that comparison (Dakin and Arrowood 1981; Rodriguez and Ryave 1993, 1994). The students in Instance One are comparable-others with regard to the issue of proffering comments in class. Sacks characterized compliments which inferentially provide a negative reflection on another party as "unsafe compliments" (1992, 461-466).

Avoiding the Unsafe Compliment to Protect Self

The data from our informants provides only three instances of a compliment being withheld because it is unsafe for the face of a third party; however, it contains almost seventy instances where a compliment is withheld because it is unsafe for the face of the potential complimenter (the informant). In Instances Two, Three, and Four, saying something praiseworthy to the other may reveal the informant's comparatively diminished self with respect to the issue at hand and implicate a threat to their own face:

Instance Two

I work at a job that is very intense where you have to interview people on a constant basis. An applicant came in that was 23 years old with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, a Bachelor of Science in Applied Math from Yale University and will be graduating in August from USC with a Master of Arts in Industrial Economic Production. I usually commend all of my applicants on there [sic] educational achievements. I felt so envious of him because I have not achieved as much as he has. I did not say anything because it hurt so much.

Instance Three

Place: At a friend's house

Who: Friend and myself

Occasion: My friend was showing me some papers that she had written and I thought they were very good but could not tell her because I think it was my jealousy that she had a better paper than I did.

Instance Four

A friend and myself went out to dinner. She had lost weight and looked really slim. I didn't compliment her because I felt overweight.

When a hierarchical comparison is generated between comparable-others, the basic ingredients of a character contest are in place (Goffman 1967). The language of many of the protocols are rich with competitive and contest metaphors where self and face are at stake. Instance Five exhibits this competitiveness and shows a strategy used to hide a diminished self in the interest of preserving face:

Instance Five

Situation: Shooting pool in a bar with some friends from work. I'm getting my butt kicked for the third time in a row by my friend Stuart. He comes within two balls of running the table after breaking. It impressed the heck out out of me, but I didn't say anything.

Reason: I realize that I am one lousy pool player, and this bums me out just a little. In order to appear indifferent to my inability to sink even the simplest shot, I pretend that I could care less about the whole game, and am un-impressed by someone who is better than me.

The option of verbally acknowledging the other's achievement is interrupted by the experience of an upward social comparison(4) which renders the potential complimenter feeling inferior to the candidate complimentee (Rodriguez and Ryave 1993, 1994). Invidious and painful emotions are manifest in the language of many of the protocols containing an upward social comparison. The informant in Instance Two felt "so envious" that she/he "...did not say anything because it hurt so much." The informant in Instance Three felt "jealousy" regarding the achievement of the potential complimentee.

Self-diminishing comparisons and face-deflating emotions accompany most of the reports of competitively inspired withheld compliments. The following two instances illustrate the decision by the informants to withhold praise in order to avoid directing the social focus to their embarrassment and to having been wrong:

Instance Six

My roommates and I planned a Valentine Dinner for our boyfriends but we did not organize our plans nor decide who was in charge. We did not put out much effort, except for Sharon who did all the work. She purchased the groceries, cooked and decorated the apartment herself...That evening when we arrived everything was ready. We were all shocked and amazed, but no one really said anything to Sharon. I believe the reason for not bringing up the subject was because we were all embarrassed that Sharon had done all the work for us.

Instance Seven

Situation: On one occasion, a VCR malfunctioned. My husband wanted to repair it. I doubt [sic] and told him to take it to the repair shop. He immediately refused and tried to fix it himself. He made the VCR functions [sic] again. I wanted to compliment him, but I didn't want to admit I was wrong.

Negotiating the Comparability of Self and Other

Once the self has been diminished by the construction of an upward comparison, the self, face-work and social bonds may need to be negotiated and redefined. Affiliativeness can be undermined by the invidious hierarchical sentiments that are structured by a visible disparity in the performance of peers. An unsafe compliment may be perceived as the public acknowledgement of one's socially diminished face in these competitive situations. The damage to affiliation of a competitively inspired situation is shown in the following instance:

Instance Eight

It was September 21, in Biology class and we had taken a test the previous Wednesday. I studied about 20 hours all together. The teacher began passing the test back! One girl that sits next to me, got a 92% on her test. She kept showing everyone and then she turned to show to me. I would have complimented her, but she acted like she knew everything. My score was worse than hers. I thought to myself (why is science so hard for me). Later on she came up to me on campus and asked what I got on the test and I told her an 84%. She told me why don't we study together for the next one. I didn't say anything. She then told me the reason science came easier to her is because she is a science major. (Well that explains it.) I then accepted her offer. If I would of made the compliment we probably would of made the arrangement to study together sooner. I'm glad I have someone to help me get through this class.

The significance of this instance is that the negative evaluation of the other student and the informant's feelings of envy and dismay evaporate when they learn that the competitive-other is, in fact, not a comparable-other (science major vs. non-science major). When the grounds for the competitive sentiments are lifted, affiliative sentiments and actions flourish.

Suspicions of Face Defenses

The informants' awareness of their own capacity to withhold a compliment due to its unsafe implications for self is invoked in reports of why another withheld a compliment from them. Instances Nine and Ten illustrate these perceptions:

Instance Nine

A friend and I went out to lunch. I had just gotten my hair done and felt rather confident that it looked nice. My friend asked me if I had gotten a haircut, but that was all she said. I believe she did not compliment me because her hair did not look as nice.

Instance Ten

I was asked by another volunteer at the shelter where I work to translate her parenting skills instructions into Spanish for the women there. I offered to do so and informed her that I am not at all fluent but would do my best. I think I conveyed much of the material to the women and did a decent job. The instructor/volunteer thanked me but seemed a little frustrated with the whole affair. Perhaps she was frustrated with herself for not knowing how to translate for herself. At any rate, she didn't compliment me for my efforts.

In these two instances the informant reports that their superiority over a comparable-other threatened their companion's face and is understood to be the reason for the absence of a deserved compliment.

The relevance of comparable-others, unsafe compliments and the on-going negotiation of face and social relations within a competitive context are all displayed in Instance Eleven:

Instance Eleven

While working at my field placement, several interns were given an assignment to complete...I stayed after work in order to do some research on the task...I completed the assignment and also found additional information which would decrease the amount of work which people need to do...Next day I turned in my assignment at 8:00 AM. (Note: The other interns did not turn in their assignment until 1:00PM that day.)

Our supervisor told me, "You did a good job and thanks for finding this additional information, now we won't have to do as much work. If you keep this up, I will have to hire you after you graduate." The boss gave me this compliment in front of the paid staff as well as the other interns. After giving the compliment, the paid staff came up to me and gave me compliments also. All the interns gave me a "dirty look" and walked away. During lunch break, in the lunch room, when one [of the] paid staff thanked me for cutting their work load down, the other interns quickly tried to get the person who was giving the compliment to change the subject.

Unlike the teacher in Instance One, the supervisor and other paid staff did not refrain from producing an unsafe compliment for the peers of the intern. The presumed comparative diminishment of the other interns provides the informant with a justification for why a compliment to her/himself was withheld by these peers. The informant's field notes provides an explanation of the invidious comparison; however, the presumed withholding of a compliment may also have been a punitive response to a norm violation--the perception of rate-busting and/or brown-nosing by the informant.


Of the 351 instances collected, about one-fourth reported that a compliment was consciously withheld as a reproof of some perceived norm violation. In each of these cases, the informant assumes the deservedness of the compliment, but some unacceptable behavior or attitude of the potential complimentee disqualifies them from receiving the valued social asset that a compliment can bestow. Failure to carry out past duties or obligations; general arrogance and/or an inflated sense of self on the part of the potential complimentee; disrespectful and rude behavior; and improper complimenting behavior--shaped the informant's reported decision to withhold a compliment. The most commonly reported theme involved breaches of the informant's sense of the norms pertaining to compliment etiquette (Pomerantz 1978). As with sympathy, an implicit etiquette governs the giving and receiving of compliments in everyday life, and individuals judge one another's "compliment-worthiness," in part, on the basis of their past and present adherence to that etiquette (Clark 1987).

Compliment Production Etiquette

Compliments, like sympathy, are a kind of social capital. Those who have not invested them in others in the past can not count on a current return (Clark 1987):

Instance Twelve

I work with a fellow employee, named John. John will rarely compliment another co-worker when appropriate...Recently, I was in a joint staff meeting that included John's presence. The manager informed the group about John's latest venture. The manager complimented John on his research on a vital project. A few members of the group joined in on the "back patting" and John was all smiles. I have sat in on many of these same types of meetings, and I had the pleasure of hearing the manager praise other co-workers, as well as me. At these meetings, I noticed John rarely, if ever, extended a "pat-on-the-back" to another person.

With this memory in mind, when John was placed on center stage, I elected not to extend John a compliment...John will need to change, or at least show some improvement...I will continue to withhold any compliments directed toward John until he learns how to hold his co-workers in higher esteem.

The data show that many informants give considerable attention to monitoring and remembering the other's past complimenting behaviors. Past failures to compliment were viewed as having been disaffiliative, engendering retaliatory sentiments in the informant that lead to a withheld compliment. (It is notable that in many instances the presumably original withheld compliment occurred under conditions where: if the compliment would have been given to a comparable-other, then it could have been "unsafe-to-self." This suggests they were withheld in a self-serving manner to protect the face of the individual now being denied a compliment. Apparently, there is little insight into and/or toleration for this self-defensiveness--in the other guy's behavior.)

The norm against self-praise is part of the demeanor that should be maintained regarding complimentable achievements (Pomerantz 1978). Self-praise can bring forth a negative character evaluation, which may undermine the proffering of a compliment. Consider how Instance Thirteen, like Instance Ten, above, both report moments where the potential complimentee's self-praise motivates the informant to withhold merited praise:

Instance Thirteen

Place: Classroom
Who: Fellow student and me
Situation: Right before class begins, she walks in wearing a new outfit.

Student: Hi! How are you?
Me: Fine, thanks! How are you?
Student: I feel good, especially with my new outfit on, girl. It is fierce. I know I look good today.
Me: (I smile and kind of chuckle.) [True, she was wearing a nice outfit. But I withheld my compliment on it because I felt I didn't need her head to get any bigger.]

Instance Fourteen shows that even a general predisposition to bragging is invoked to disqualify a deserved compliment:

Instance Fourteen

I withheld a compliment from a fellow musician with whom I was performing. He was playing very well, but I said nothing to him. I have complimented him many times in the past, but I think that I held back on this occasion because he's a bit conceited and brags about himself sometimes. I guess I didn't feel like feeding his ego that night.

Hinting or suggesting that a compliment be delivered-- soliciting social capital (Clark 1987)--can also be taken as a breach. The following instance of fishing-for-a compliment illustrates this claim:

Instance Fifteen

I went out to a restaurant for lunch with a co-worker and she kept looking at herself in the mirror, talking about how she had just got a new perm in her hair and she wasn't sure if she liked her new hairstyle or not.

I did not compliment her on her new hairstyle because this particular woman strives for attention and is constantly fishing for compliments. Although I did believe her hair did look nice, I chose not to give her one.

Compliment Response Etiquette

Pomerantz (1978) and Emmison (1987) have identified the normative concerns that shape the responses to delivered compliments: Compliments are routinely accepted (fulfilling the preference for acceptance); while, at the same time, downplayed (fulfilling the preference to avoid self-praise). Our data contain several instances where informants viewed the failure to abide by either of these preferential constraints as a punishable violation. Instance Sixteen portrays a compliment withheld because the past responses to compliments elicited full, outright acceptances without any downplaying actions; on the other extreme, Instance Seventeen shows a case where the failure to accept previous compliments motivates a withholding.

Instance Sixteen

My friend came over to my house on Sunday, to help me with French. She was wearing a beautiful dress that I liked very much. I wanted to tell her she looked pretty but I didn't, because every time I give her a complement [sic] she just becomes snobbish and says I know I am beautiful or I know I am wearing a pretty dress. So I decided I will not say anything to her and continued studying.

Instance Seventeen

Situation: It was a Tuesday morning. My supervisor had just entered the work place. She wore a gorgeous pink suit that attracted my attention.

Me: Good morning!
Supervisor: Good morning, how are ya?
Me: I am fine. Thank you. Oh, by the way, I think you wore a huh...
Supervisor: Excuse me.
Me: Oh...never mind. (I remembered that if I compliment her, she either does not accept or ignores me.)

Turner and Edgley (1974) note that compliments among equals often call for an on-the-spot reciprocation. This ritualistic response can be problematic if it is obvious that the initial complimenter does not merit the same accolade. In these circumstances a return compliment can be apparently insincere and embarrassing. But if the recipient of the unsafe compliment downplays its applicability or relevance, this can cast the compliment-giver in an even more negative light. Thus, withholding an unsafe compliment can mitigate even more damaging competitive consequences.

The Biased Judge

In these reports we see the judgmental informant critically observing the behavior of another for the violation of one or another norm and then covertly sanctioning them by withholding a merited compliment. Implied by their judgmental stance is a presumption that the informant would not engage in similar behavior. Yet, in the 95 instances when they perceived a compliment being withheld from them, not one informant reports that it may have been done as a punitive reaction for some earlier normative violation on their own part.

Disapproval and punitiveness are sentiments that undermine the social bond (Brown and Levinson 1987; Goffman 1967). Whether these withheld compliments are effective as a sanction or whether the recipient even recognizes them is an issue beyond the scope of these data. They are, however, a means of, at once, manifesting while yet also controlling the visibility of the disaffiliative sentiments.


The decision to withhold a deserved compliment violates the norms of considerateness (Goffman 1967) and politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987). Simmel observes that abiding by norms is unnoticeable, while violation is noticeable (Simmel 1950, 399). Since about one fourth of our data set are reports of suspected withholdings, we can infer that people readily can and do perceive real or imagined compliment withholdings. What factors affect the visibility and the social accountability of an intended non-action of consciously choosing to withhold a compliment?

A Range in the Visibility of Withheld Compliments

Compliments fall on a continuum that ranges from ritualized complimentable situations to praise that may be unrelated to the action at hand. The withholdings in compliment-relevant situations are more visible. In general, the display of an apparent and noteworthy production or a big change in another's situation tend to call for a compliment. The more formal and ritualized the complimentable situation, the more likely it will be that a compliment is expected and that its absence is noticeable. Instance Eighteen illustrates such a situation:

Instance Eighteen

At home I was talking to my roommate who was telling me that she was finally getting married to her boyfriend. She was glowing and smiling and looked happy, but, I didn't compliment her on getting him to marry her finally becauseI felt it would not last and I personally don't like him.

The hurt expressed in this instance is based on an expectation that collapses and the disappointment that this generates.

Many factors shape expectations. People notice that certain individuals praise freely and that others do not. The following instance demonstrates both the inhibiting social context of unsafe compliments and the fact that the past complimenting behavior of an individual can influence the observability of withheld compliment:

Instance Twenty-One

My parents came to see the student art show where I won a prize. Neither of them praised my piece while we were at the show. From her silence I thought that for some reason my mother didn't like it because she always lavishes praise on me for every little thing I accomplish. I wasn't sure what Dad thought of my work because he almost never praises anything that I or anybody ever does. Later I found out that Mom was gagged because her friend, whose son is also an art student, was hanging on her and he hadn't placed.

While there are occasional, situational and relational imperatives that render a withheld compliment a noticeable act, there are also countervailing factors that mask and protect it.

Limited Accountability

Several factors serve to minimize accountability. A withholding is hidden information that can only be suspected or inferred. Participants cannot know whether a non-action is conscious and meaningful or just an unintended slip of social attention.

Actions that repair or rectify another's social behavior can be offensive and inappropriate (Schegloff, Jefferson and Sacks 1977) so the intended or unintended omission is likely to go unchallenged. Furthermore, it is possible that the compliment is still forthcoming. In most interactions, the lack of a clear sequential imperative to compliment diminishes its visibility.(5) For example, Instance Twenty-Two reports that a week had passed--during which time a compliment could have been delivered. This suggests that the period of time during which an anticipated compliment is appropriate and appreciated can, at times, have a broad latitude:

Instance Twenty-Two

I was given an assignment recently that had a ridiculous deadline. The assignment involved intense research and analysis...I dove into the assignment as if my life depended on it...After hours of work (and unpaid overtime),I finished and placed the work on my supervisor's desk before the deadline...That was one week ago. To this day, I have not heard one compliment...

This temporal looseness inhibits the victim of the withheld compliment from immediately reacting. The occasionality and the looseness in conversational placement and timing of the compliments may lessen the immediate noticeability of their non-production and the likelihood that the potential compliment giver will be called upon to explain or account for their non-action.

Accountability is greatly diminished by the fact that challenging a withheld compliment violates the norm against self-praise (Pomerantz 1978). Furthermore, challenging the withholding of a deserved compliment is a confrontational act which typically requires some form of acceptance or rejection of the accusation, thereby leading to the possibility of open conflict, which is dispreferred behavior (Maynard 1985).

Even in those reports of more socially visible instances, like Instances Thirteen, Fifteen, and Eighteen through Twenty-One; the suspected withholding is left uncontested. In fact, there are no instances in our data where withholding a compliment is openly challenged. The fact that the withholder of praise is not likely to be overtly held accountable or generate a visibly retaliatory reaction (at least not in the immediate interaction) are the factors that contribute to and define the nature of its opaque and covert character. The conditions that surround compliment behavior make it probable that if a withholding does not go unnoticed it will nevertheless go unchallenged.(6)


It is friends, spouses, siblings, cousins, roommates, fellow employees and classmates that fill the relationships reported in our data. Thus, the reports of disaffiliative acts of withholding merited social capital from another occurred between interactants who were in on-going relationships that require and regularly contrive for actions that bolster the affiliative bond. An apparent strain exists between the competitive and punitive situations and sentiments reported in our data and the interactional preference for situations and sentiments that promote and conserve social bonds.

How do individuals generally manage disaffiliative sentiments in the course of everyday life? There are a range of options on a continuum of expressiveness: At one extreme these sentiments can be muffled and concealed completely. A second option is that a polite lie can be told such that disaffiliative sentiments surface as their opposite (Rodriguez and Ryave 1990). Third, they can be expressed, but in confidence and to a safe third party (Bergmann 1993; Rodriguez and Ryave 1992, 1994). Fourth, they can be cautiously and obliquely manifested, but in a covert, muted and downplayed manner. Finally, they can be directly and openly expressed in private or, with greater aggravation, in a public setting, establishing the ingredients for the creation of open conflict (e.g., Corsaro and Rizzo 1990; Goodwin and Goodwin 1990; Goodwin 1982, 1983; Maynard 1985; Rodriguez and Ryave 1995a). All the options except the last one, to different degrees, yield to the preference for affiliation and avoidance of conflict that runs throughout most interactions (Heritage 1984, 265-80). On this continuum, the withholding of compliments fits the fourth option in that even if the non-action of a withheld compliment is noticed, it is most likely to remain unaddressed in order to avoid violating the norms against self-praise and open confrontational challenges.

A significant feature of the present study of withholding compliments is that it reveals an undercurrent of hostile and antagonistic sentiments and situations that are the covert counterparts of the affiliative preference system of everyday life interactions. The two patterns that emerge from our data differ in motive but involve the intentional withholding of a deserved compliment as a means of managing the manifestation of the disaffiliativeness of competitive and punitive sentiments. A withheld compliment may or may not be noticed by a potential complimentee. But even if the non-production of a compliment is suspected, it is not likely to be openly challenged.

Even though disaffiliative situations and sentiments underlie the withholding of many compliments, by virtue of their usually covert or unaccountable character, these non-productions respond to the preference for affiliative, face saving actions. Our data suggest that individuals frequently suspect that a compliment has been withheld from them. But unveiling the withholding never goes beyond a few reports of frustrated fishing-for-compliments that never escalate to an open confrontation. None of our informants reported overt challenges or conflict accompanying the passive-aggressive pose of the withheld compliment.

A wide range of studies, focused on the directly observable features of everyday social interaction, document the multitude of ways in which interactants contrive for affiliation. This study identifies a disaffiliative undercurrent that exists in many everyday interactions and that the withholding of compliments is one strategy for the covert management of the manifestation of this disaffiliative undercurrent.


1. We did not ask the informants to include a report of the feelings they were experiencing. In hindsight, this was a fortunate omission because the emotions expressed in their reports were neither contrived for nor suggested by the assignment.

2. By the time they were given this assignment, they understood the importance of accurate information and they knew that whether or not they participated was not observable and that the submitted observations were, indeed, anonymous. While the anonymity of the field notes may contribute to the validity of our data set, it unfortunately obstructs our ability to analyze the phenomenon in relation to relevant variables like the gender, class, ethnicity, and age of the subject-informants.

3. Although these two disaffiliative sentiments motivate the majority of the instances of withheld compliments, there are other reasons for withholding a compliment. These other motives include the fear that they might be misinterpreted, concern that they violate some sense of public decorum and instances where delivering the compliment would require an excessive amount of effort (Tracewell 1995). These other types appear infrequently in the data. They are excluded from the present analysis.

4. When individuals observe others for what is comparatively

being said about themselves, they are engaging in social comparison. When the creator of the comparison ranks self higher than the comparable-other(s) with regard to the issue at hand, this is referred to as a "downward comparison." When the social comparison results in self ranking lower than the comparable-other(s), this is called an "upward comparison."

5. The organization of sequencing in interaction provides mechanisms by which some action can be seen as noticeably absent. The strongest sequential organization used for noting a particular action as being absent is the adjacency pair sequence (Schegloff and Sacks 1973). The occurrence of the first part makes the second part conditionally relevant, such that the absence of the second can be noted. Compliment interactions utilize this structure where the compliment is the first of the pair and its response is the second (Pomerantz 1978). But the rule of conditional relevance does not apply to the first part of such adjacency pairs, thereby, rendering its non-production less visible.

6. If a withheld compliment is challenged, the strained face and relational issues that this involves are sometimes negotiated through humor (Drew 1987).


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