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I have learnt a few ways to humbly accept or decline a compliment, including え、まあ...... (with the hand gesture), まだまだです and そんなことはありません. However when the compliment comes from a boss, I am afraid that these may be too casual or direct. Is there a usual method?

For example, if your boss compliments you on excellent work (よくできました、Aさん) or for being early to a meeting (早いね、Aさん), is there a general reply or are there at least some tips on responses?

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    早いね in your example could be just a greeting, though. – broccoli forest Apr 21 '17 at 13:12
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I think まだまだです and そんなことはありません aren't casual but polite, and you can also say そんなことないです. You can use them to your boss.

If my boss compliments me on excellent work, I just would say ありがとうございます(Thank you).

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A humble response would be: いえいえ、それほどでもありません。

The response consists of two phrases:

  • いえいえ that literally means "No, no"

  • それほどでもありません that means "not to that extent" or "not that much", which is the polite form of それほどでもない

In related matter, this one-bite essay on 日本語検定 explains the nuance and use of expression それほどでもありません. The relevant text have been quoted (added furigana for some words).

そして、「それほどでもありません。」という謙遜{けんそん}の言葉には、「上手だけれど、自分の立場をわきまえて控{ひか}えめに対応{たいおう}できる人格です。」、「上手と言っても、もっと上手な人もいるので、自分の能力を的確{てきかく}に判断{はんだん}できる能力を持っているのです。」という意味など、多様{たよう}で深{ふか}い意味を含{ふく}んでおり、会話を通{つう}じて互いの人となりを理解{りかい}しあいながら、コミュニケーションは成立{せいりつ}しているのです。こうした理解の仕方は、外国人にはわかりにくく、なかなか説明も難{むずか}しい部分です。

For those who urgently need to understand the expression, I have translated the above quoted text from Japanese to English.

And so, the humble expression of "それほどでもありません" includes various meanings such as "It is a character of responding with modesty, while knowing one's place even skillful", "Despite being skillful, one is able to accurately assess own skill since there are more skillful people than oneself" et cetera, which consists of diversed meanings in depth, [with that] people understand each other through the conversation, and [that is how] the communication is being made. [Given that] this way of understanding is hard to be understood by foreigners, the explanation for [this] part is indeed considerably difficult.

The humble response is appropriate for most cases. However, the employee should understand if the employer (boss) is actually giving a compliment or just a typical expression.

Using the example from question, "早いね、Aさん" (A, you are early today) may be better replied with another typical expression like "早めに目が覚めてしまったので" (I happened to wake up earlier than usual).

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There are many ways to politely and humbly respond to a compliment. For example,

「ありがとうございます。宮崎さんのおかげです。」

In this expression, the first sentence shows gratitude for the complement, and the second sentence means that (the speaker successfully accomplished the task or something) because there was Mr. Miyazaki’s help or support. This expression is polite and humble. The speaker implies that Mr. Miyazaki deserves the complement, and thanks both her boss and Mr. Miyazaki.

If your boss is the one who helped or supported you, say the second sentence first, like so.

「○○部長のおかげです。ありがとうございます。」(A)

○○ indicates your boss’s name. If your boss’s position is not 部長, replace it with an appropriate job title. Or if you usually call your boss ◯◯さん, just call your boss the same way as usual.

This expression implies that the 部長’s support brought the success and the speaker is thankful for it.

Another way of saying the same thing as (A) is

「おかげさまです。ありがとうございます。」(B)

Although this (B) expression has the same meaning as (A), おかげさまです can imply the help or support of not only the person the speaker is talking to, but also other people. So, おかげさまです can mean that (the speaker could do an excellent job or something) because there were the people (including the listener) who helped or supported the speaker.

「おかげさまです」 can be used for expressing something occurring in the present as well. The past form of です is でした. However,「おかげさまでした」 is not common.

Another expression having the same nuance as (B) is

「ありがとうございます。皆さんのおかげです。」

Please be careful in using さま. 「○○さんのおかげさまです。」 does not sound natural in many situations. ○○さんのおかげです or おかげさまです is more common and safer to use.

It’s more formal if おかげさま is said with the excellent outcome which the support brought. For example,

「おかげさまで、無事に終えることができました。ありがとうございます。」

This おかげさま also means the listener’s support, or the listener’s and other people’s supports. It depends on the situation.

Nice and polite people use these おかげ sentences above even in the situation where nobody helped or supported them actually. Because it’s polite thing to say, and a way to keep a good relationship with other people.

By the way, when saying ありがとうございます or a おかげ sentence, Japanese people generally do Eshaku(会釈) which is a kind of body language. Eshaku is a shallow bow used in daily life to express various feelings. You work with Japanese people so I suppose you already know Eshaku, but if you like to see what Eshaku is like, this video may be helpful. The 15-degree bow is Eshaku.

Eshaku or a deeper bow can express that you are truly grateful. So, saying those sentences with Eshaku is good and natural. There would be no contradiction between your verbal and non-verbal expressions if you say it and do Eshaku.

If you’re interested in other ways to respond to a compliment about what you did at work, the following expressions are also polite, humble and good to use.

「ありがとうございます。精進します。」

「ありがとうございます。恐縮です。頑張ります。」

「そう言っていただけて、安心しました。また頑張ります。」

「そう言っていただけて、少しほっとしました。また頑張ります。」

These expressions imply that the speaker thinks it was not perfectly good so s/he keeps learning and trying to do her/his best.

If the complement is really too much, I recommend using a formal word 恐縮, which is a convenient word to express that the speaker is very afraid (1) because something, which someone gave the speaker, seems too good to him in his mind, or (2) because what the speaker did or is doing is not appropriate and did or may bother someone, (3) because the speaker needs to ask someone to do something which the person is probably not interested in, (4) etc. (1)-type 恐縮 can fit your situation.

恐縮 is used to be humble, and generally said with the reason why the speaker is being very afraid. Saying the reason is a part of politeness in many cases.

For example, if your boss compliments you on your success, you can also answer like so.

「ありがとうございます。宮崎さんにかなりお世話になってしまったので恐縮ですが……。」

This expresses that the speaker is thankful for the compliment, but also afraid to accept it, because Mr. Miyazaki is the one who greatly contributed to the success. (The dot symbols …… in this sentence indicate the silence with sincere facial expression.)

If there are several 恐縮 reasons, it can be said something like this.

「ありがとうございます。まだまだの部分がいろいろあって恐縮ですが……。」

And, the following conversations are examples of answers to 「早いね」.

Example 1:

部長「Aさん、早いねえ!」
A「あ、もしかして早すぎました?」
部長「いや、全然大丈夫。」
A「良かったです。」

Example 2:

部長「ずいぶん早いね、Aさん。」
A「あ、もしかして早すぎました?」
部長「そうだね、あと15分くらい遅くてもいいかな。」
A「すみません、出直します。」/「すみません、今後はそうします。」

Example 3:

部長「あれ、早いね、Aさん。」
A「はい、ちょっと早めに来てみました。」
(and have a little talk to be polite.)

早いね can imply various things. So, the answers to it vary as well.

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