“The thumbs-up looks insincere”: Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Multimodal Compliments with Gestures

31 May 2024
Room D1

“The thumbs-up looks insincere”: Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Multimodal Compliments with Gestures

Speech acts are one of the most basic analytical categories in pragmatics (Jucker 2023). This study examines the cross-cultural perceptions of compliments, focusing on the non-verbal and multimodal aspects. Compliments are accompanied by various gestures, such as a thumbs-up. Gestures accompany speech across languages and cultures, making these hand movements a natural and pervasive part of all human language (Kelly et al. 2017). Hand gestures might be perceived by people with various cultural backgrounds in different ways and thus influence people’s perceptions of the sincerity of compliments. However, few existing studies investigate the cross-cultural perceptions of speech acts (Haugh and Chang 2019), without considering the accompanying gestures. Therefore, this study investigates the sincerity perceptions of the multimodal compliment with thumb-up gesture among the English, Swiss and Chinese groups.

The perception experiment is chosen because it can effectively investigate people’s perceptions of the multimodal compliment. The experimental material is extracted from the sitcom Friends, where Ross gives a speech, and his friend Joey compliments him with a thumb-up. 88 English L1 speakers, 137 Swiss German L1 speakers and 171 Chinese L1 speakers watched the scene and evaluated the sincerity of the multimodal compliment. Participants’ rationales to warrant their perceptions are also collected from retrospective interviews.

The multiple linear regression shows that the culture variable exhibits the most significant influence on the perceptions of the multimodal compliment among different variables. The quantitative analysis finds that Chinese and English people are more likely to think the multimodal compliment with gesture is sincere. In contrast, Swiss people tend to consider it insincere with statistical significance. Moreover, people of different cultures present both common and different rationales to warrant their perceptions. Overall, this research broadens the scope of speech act research by extending it to the perceptions of the multimodal speech act across cultures.


Haugh, Michael and Wei-Lin Melody Chang. (2019) “The apology seemed (in)sincere”: Variability in perceptions of (im)politeness. Journal of Pragmatics 142, 207-222.

Jucker, Andreas H (2023). “He offered an apologetic smile”: The politeness of apologetic gestures. In: Jucker, Andreas H; Hübscher, Iris; Brown, Lucien. Multimodal Im/politeness: Signed, spoken, written. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 327-351.

Kelly, S. D., Church, R. B., & Alibali, M. W. (2017). Understanding gesture. Why Gesture?: How the hands function in speaking, thinking and communicating, 7, 1.