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  • 1. WHAT’S HAPPENING TO BUSINESS COMMUNICATION IN THE EMAIL ENVIRONMENT? A STUDY OF SOME LINGUISTIC FEATURES OF EMAIL MESSAGING IN NEW ZEALAND Jane Holst-Larkin School of Communication Studies Manukau Institute of Technology Abstract: Email messaging today replaces to a large extent other forms of business communication. Analysts are identifying a new use of language brought about by email and other forms of computer mediated communication, and researchers debate whether the new form is closer to speech or to writing. This study examines the linguistic features of eighty email messages from one organisation in New Zealand, and compares these with reports from overseas research. The evidence points to at least a blurring of genres (spoken and written), if not to the beginnings of a new genre of language in email messaging in the New Zealand business context. While this new use of language inherits many of the advantages of both spoken and written language, there is no doubt that each genre also contributes a legacy of disadvantages which may complicate or impede the communication process when email is used. Recommendations are made to counter some of these adverse effects. However, the study points to a mostly positive and productive use of email messaging in New Zealand. Keywords: Email, business communication, language, writing BACKGROUND THE RISE AND RISE OF EMAIL MESSAGING In the last few decades, email has become an international medium of communication, replacing to a large extent letters, long-distance telephone calls, internal and inter-office memos and face- to-face meetings. An estimated 76.8 billion corporate emails per day were being sent worldwide by the end of 2004 (Radicati Group, 2004). What are the effects of this spectacular rate of adoption of a new form of messaging? Granted, it is simply yet another form of written message, which can be turned into hard copy, where it is scarcely different from the traditional memo. Yet this new messaging medium appears to be changing the way we communicate in business. Overseas research demonstrates changes in language attributable to the email form, and researchers claim that since the advent of email, and even more particularly since text messaging, a quiet revolution has been taking place. There have, of course, been revolutions in communication before. Written culture superseded oral culture in all developing societies, bringing with it the ability to contact people at a distance, and to leave a permanent record. Later, another revolution in technology brought the print age, which allowed dissemination of written material and led to a standardisation of written language and spelling. However, the electronic capacities of computer-mediated communication (CMC), of which email is just one form, conveys advantages way beyond the scope of these traditional forms of written communication. In both speed and ease of dissemination, CMC communication generally outstrips other media (although the postal service in London at the end of the nineteenth century claimed to be able to deliver within London in less than an hour) (Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch, 2002).
  • 2. HOW THE MEDIUM AFFECTS THE MESSAGE Recipients of the email message, particularly in the context of the workplace, report frustration with the informality of email messaging, which can lead to ambiguity, incomplete information, inappropriate tone and irritating errors in language and punctuation. In short, all the most complained about features of poor written communication (Myhre, 1998) are even more likely to occur in email messaging as a consequence of its speed and informality (Holst-Larkin, 2001). According to Baron (1998) technology alone is not responsible for what is an increasingly oral approach to written communication in our time. However, it is clear that technological change today ranks with the other forces which have traditionally impacted on language change: population shifts, natural barriers, invasions and socio-economic factors (Du Bartell, 1995). In the case of computer technology, the impact on language has been so great as to warrant the terms ‘computer-mediated communication’ and ‘electronic discourse’. The speed of the medium of transmission is behind much of its impact. Email communicators may discuss topics asynchronically or take turns in instant messaging (Jonsson, 1998). If two people are logged on at the same time, the instant messaging service can allow for synchronous dialogue. More commonly, though, the communication is asynchronous, with the time delay reaching from minutes to months. This, in itself, can be a disturbing barrier to effective communication. With speed is associated a certain casualness or informality. Once logged on, communication by email is easy, not requiring the number of steps or the formality of traditional mail. Ease of communication has lead to an ‘open doors’ policy: email users can have direct access to the computer of anyone whose email address they know or can find. Distance, whether geographic or social, is no longer an impediment. The ease, frequency and rapidity with which communication can take place by email leads to its informality and spontaneity. Not only is messaging by email easy, it is also fun – an aspect much overlooked in the literature. This leads to greater confidence among email writers. A clean design and finished product can be effortlessly achieved by everyone, and instant fingertip control is a seductive aid to writing and publishing. Speed and ease of transmission have other flow-on effects. The rapidity of typing attempted by those not formally trained in keyboard skills, combined with a lack of editorial revision mean there are frequent misspellings, whatever the educational background of the sender (Crystal, 2001). Even though spellchecking is increasingly offered by messaging software, many writers, according to Baron (1998) ignore this opportunity. The real issue according to Baron, is one of motivation. Quite simply, why bother? The apparent ease of deleting old messages also lends an air of casualness to the email form. This seeming lack of permanence mimics the easy, ephemeral nature of conversation. THE END RESULT – IS IT QUALITY COMMUNICATION? The bland, impersonal form and appearance of the email would suggest that it is a medium which does not favour good interpersonal communication. However, Walther (1996) argues that these and other computer-mediated exchanges can achieve ‘hyperpersonal communication’. This perspective views users as able to exploit the characteristics of computer-mediated communication (CMC), and shape their interactions in such positive ways that communication can be effectively manipulated. Using text-based communication, users selectively self-present themselves, concentrating on purposeful message construction and eliminating the role of
  • 3. involuntary nonverbal appearance and behaviour features from interaction. When messaging within an organization or to an email list, users can magnify their sense of the similarity and desirability of others, becoming more friendly and attractive throughout. Research supports this model. Studies on perceptions of attractiveness, for example, found that in conditions in which they could not see each other, participants thought their partners were more attractive (Walther, 1997). On the other hand, research by the British Psychological Society indicates that focussing on themselves leads writers of email to have less concern about the impact of their message on others, and so to be more inclined to self-disclose. This revealing of self in words may be an attempt to compensate for the lack of body language (MeMail, 2001). Attempts are often made to compensate for the lack of nonverbal cues by using idiosyncratic punctuation and emoticons, but misunderstandings due to a lack of nonverbal cues will still arise. This may lead to perceived problems of tone, or in some cases ‘flaming’, or abusive communication (Atkinson, 2002). The email environment has been shown to encourage lowering of inhibitions, both in the form of excessive self-disclosure and abusive styles of communicating (White, 2005). In a study of an email discussion group in New Zealand, Barnett (2003) noted that confrontation was common, with the result that some participants (especially female) were deterred from contributing further to discussions. HOW DO WE DISTINGUISH SPEECH FROM WRITING, ANYWAY? This question is not easily answered. Baron (1998) describes three schools of thought on the differences between speech and writing. One sets out the distinctive features of each genre (e.g. writing is more formal than speech, which is ephemeral, while writing is durable). A second school, which includes Tannen (1982), argues that these discrete lists of features are inaccurate – that for instance some speeches may be more formal than some writing. A third school focuses on the ethnographic conditions which lead to linguistic choices in both speech and writing in different societies. However, intuitively we can agree that usually spoken language has many of the characteristics of a written ‘first draft’, with its repetitions, false starts and repairs and non-standard grammar. Spoken dialogue is synchronous, occurring in real time, and will show evidence of interruptions and overlaps, as well as various intonation and other non-verbal cues. HOW ELECTRONIC DISCOURSE DIFFERS FROM CONVERSATION Email will never replicate real conversation. For a start, it is usually asynchronous. Along with that is the ability to ‘prepare’ and adjust thoughts and ideas before uttering. In face-to-face conversation, participants may not have at their disposal all the relevant information during a specific conversation. Online, however, because the conversation does not continue until the participants are ready, there is no apparent interruption while one searches for external information. If the writer gives the appropriate attention, content can be made quite dense, with less time wasted than in an oral exchange. Information can be corrected and presentation adjusted until the required effect is achieved. The resulting content is also, by Biber’s (1988) definition, more integrated, meaning that a large amount of information tends to be packed into relatively few words. Recipients, equally, are able to digest this information at their preferred speed.
  • 4. With email, turn taking is more delineated. Interruptions and overlaps are not possible in the ways that characterise normal conversation. Even when the emails overlap, each message arrives and can be read – no one is ‘shouted down’. Participants in email discussion can take their time to prepare their contributions, which better suits some personality types who can otherwise be disadvantaged in meetings. Utterances are easily archived when email is used (Davis & Brewer, 1997), and this has many implications in the business context. In contrast, conversations, usually unrecorded, are less able to be accurately reproduced at a later date. According to Walther & Boyd (2002), email users can hide personal traits that would be more easily detected through conversation. When communicating electronically, one does not have to adjust one’s smile or pull in one’s tummy muscles! On the other hand, the absence of distracting nonverbal clues may give added focus to the message. This process begins with formality of the From-To-Date-Subject fields, which ensure that certain relevant information is available upfront. THE CONVERSATIONAL ELEMENTS OF EMAIL Despite the fact that email is unquestionably a written medium, the technology, associated as it is with the telephone, leads the writer to use many conversational features. Whether face-to-face or mediated by technology, the conversational approach generally takes account of the audience to a greater extent, and recognises the interpersonal nature of the communication. Even though the email is modelled on the memo, users tend to adapt the medium to a more conversational style. To begin with, although the email promotes the efficient memo introduction system described above, a surprising number of writers still greet their reader and identify themselves again while signing off. A direct opening address is very popular, though made redundant by the email message format. The presence or absence of a greeting is described by Crystal (2001) as a ‘+Dear or –Dear’ opening. According to Crystal’s definition, the location of the greeting may vary. In Crystal’s corpus, +Dear openings were most often spaced and on a separate line, as in letters. In the case of –Dear openings, the name was still often present on the first line, either as Thanks, David, or Thanks for your message, David. Insertion of the name later in the message was described as ‘rapport renewal’, as in Sorry to put you to this bother, David, but . . . (Crystal, 2001). A study by Mallon & Oppenheim (2002) reports that although the sample of business emails was lucid, writers often dispensed with traditions when opening their email, and their closings were informal. Other features of ‘involvement’ as described by Biber (1988) are favoured in email, such as direct questions to the reader, and other forms of acknowledging the person-to-person nature of the exchange (as opposed to purely delivering information). This more personal approach of the email message approximates the closeness of conversation. Although the process of producing an email allows for editing, the typical message can lack careful word choice. Overseas research indicates that email typically displays a more relaxed tone, and encourages humour even when communicating with relative strangers. The email message often represents a stream of thought in writing (Baron, 1997). To emulate the dialogue achievable by conversation, email allows for the building of coherence and mutually constructed meaning through the use of threads and quoting previous messages (sometimes automatically) enabling subsequent participants to add comments (Walther & Boyd, 2002). In this way, email
  • 5. can seem very close to synchronous conversation. However, too much cross-posting is discouraged as it wastes bandwidth (Jonsson, 1998). Ochs (1983), cited in Gimenez (2000), notes four characteristics of ‘unplanned spoken discourse’ which distinguish it from the more planned written message: 1) a reliance on immediate context to express semantic relations, including heavy reliance on demonstrative modifiers; 2) use of simple morphosyntactic structures such as shorter sentences, co-ordinated rather than subordinated sentences, and present tense with active verb forms; 3) repetition and replacing of lexical items; 4) and reliance on certain patterns of language features. According to Gimenez (2000), these features are commonly found in email communication. They include frequent use of elliptical forms (such as ‘if interested, notify us . . .’) and existential ‘there’ (as in ‘And then there’s this problem of . . .’) and novel abbreviations – all indicative of an informal register. Slang, non-standard grammatical constructions, false starts, hesitations and sudden topic changes are all well documented features of conversation, all of which can be found in email. As with conversation, email exchanges are relatively informal, short and rapid. A local example of informality from a relatively high-level source was an email from a private secretary in the New Zealand Government Ministry of Corrections (Mold, 2002). The office had received a request from another MP for a copy of a prison inmate’s file. The private secretary’s emailed plea for help read: <Eeek!!! How should I respond? BUT IS IT A WHOLE NEW GENRE? Much has been written about the new features of language encouraged and enabled by email technology. The informality of the medium promotes new tricks in typography: caps (for amplitude of tone, (Jonsson, 1998)), emoticons and idiosyncratic punctuation which would be unacceptable in more standard written business communication. A language of acronyms is developing (CNET, 1997): Y? C U later (or even CUL8R); BTW or btw (by the way), and is a language which is further fuelled by text messaging. The new technologies appear to encourage their users to be inventive with language. Even the Concise Oxford Dictionary has accepted some of these terms and included them for definition (McKie, 2001). These new features of writing permissible in email may point to the emergence of a new genre. A STUDY OF EMAIL IN AN EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTE To ascertain the extent to which business email messaging in New Zealand has become ‘conversationalised’, and to note current trends in emailed business writing, a sample of 80 email messages was studied. All departments at Manukau Institute of Technology were invited to contribute, including lecturers (delivering a range of courses from trades to degree courses), and
  • 6. all support staff: IT support, PR, marketing and administrative offices. Institute staff were asked if they would like to participate in the study by sending a sample of between one - three very recent emails they had written. This was an attempt to encourage a random sample, while, for ethical considerations, allowing participants to select emails which did not reveal personal, sensitive or otherwise inappropriate information. However, the ethical requirement for participants to select their own contributions to the study may have led to a certain amount of self-consciousness, which would impinge on validity. Between 17 March 2003 and 12 April 2003, 79 staff members volunteered a total of 127 messages. It was decided to select only on - the first message - received from each. The author also supplied a message to the sample. The 80 email messages contributed were then examined for the linguistic features discussed above, and particularly for direct address, informality/colloquialism, evidence of personal or hyperpersonal elements in communication, humour, non-standard typographical features, and lack of revision. DIRECT ADDRESS: GREETING AND SIGNING OFF Forty-eight percent of these business messages had no salutation, and so followed the memo style. However, just over ninety-six percent contained a sign-off message. Over half of these contained automatic signatures. The remainder were signed off by name alone, or by name prefaced by Regards or Cheers. One signed with the Maori Na plus name. Many who did not offer a greeting still felt it necessary to sign off, even though their name was in the header as ‘sender’. Hi plus name was by far the most popular greeting, followed by other combinations such as simply Hi or Hi everyone. There was only one instance of Dear plus name. This is in contrast to the findings of researchers from other English speaking countries, who have found Dear Mr X a common salutation (Crystal, 2001). First names were used in every instance here, attesting to the greater informality of business communication style in New Zealand. The format of the greeting was equally distributed between those placing the salutation on a separate line, and those on the same line. Five samples used a Maori greeting – three using Kia ora plus name, one Tena koutou, and one Kia ora koutou katoa. INFORMALITY/COLLOQUIALISMS/RELAXED TONE The messages were studied for instances of informal and colloquial speech. Forty percent of messages contained these elements to an extent which would be unlikely to be found in a business letter, where avoiding a ‘casual, unprofessional tone’ is still advocated (Bovee & Thill, 2005, p. 126). Three emails did not contain any message, but were vehicles for attachments only. Examples of colloquial speech included: . . . so we’re stuck, unfortunately Hi X we don’t have any . . . . . if that’s OK with you . . . Whatever y’all want to do is fine with me . . . SIGNS OF PERSONALISING THE MESSAGE AND INVOLVEMENT
  • 7. Included in this category were direct questions, perceiving from the other person’s point of view, emphatics and hedging. Fifty-five percent of emails supplied showed signs of personalising the body of the message, as opposed to simply delivering information. This figure does not take account of a greeting or sign-off. Examples included: . . . , what do you think? You’ll probably want to know . . . See you then! . . . but you are closer to the coalface than I am . . . Two writers used ‘quoting’ from a previous message to mimic synchronous conversation, e.g. >Z can open up the contract again for you if that’s OK with you. I’m easy. There was no evidence of excessive self-disclosure, confrontation or abusive style in the samples. This is likely to be a result of the participants’ self-selection of emails. SIGNS OF ‘UNPLANNED DISCOURSE’ (OCHS, 1983) Reliance on immediate context to express semantic relations as defined by Och (summarised above) was present in sixty-five percent of all messages in the sample. Writers mainly relied on the reader having taken in the subject line, or having remembered the previous message. Examples included: She phoned earlier, she was a witness to . . . (This was the opening line on an email, and depended on the subject line to give context.) We don’t have any agreement like this. . .(Again, an opening line, depending on information from the recipient’s earlier message.) W. might also like to be included as he . . . (Opening line, depending on subject line for context) Fyi if you have any comments or discussion points. (Referring to an attachment.) Two of these messages were aided by helpful subject lines. In the samples collected, all but four had very specific subject lines. Less specific were: Subject: Lecturers Subject: It’s that time again. Subject: Re: Ellipsis was present in three messages: I have meeting at 9am . . . Ps – room number? Great you can do this again for us, P. NON-STANDARD GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION Non-standard features particularly noted in this sample were run-on sentences and lack of punctuation. (Two samples had no punctuation even though questions were involved.) Seventy- seven percent of the messages displayed irregularities of grammar or punctuation which would
  • 8. not be considered acceptable in a formal business letter. However, in no cases was meaning compromised because of irregular grammar or punctuation. Some writers deliberately used punctuation or lowercase to achieve an informal effect, such as ps – . . . . (This email was signed off by lowercase initials) Fine – I have meeting at 9am which will have finished by then! There were no instances of innovative use of language such as is seen in text messaging. HUMOUR While humour was not a feature of the emails in this sample, many had a relaxed tone which came very close (as in some samples above). This again may have been a result of self-selection by the writers, who may have thought a study of business communication should be a serious matter! On the other hand, the fifty-five percent of messages which went beyond simply delivering information were notable for their good-humoured approach, as many of the examples already cited show. Further examples include So here is the promised report, with another doc attached here in error (!), but actually you might just find the guidelines in there useful too. It’s me again!! CONCLUSIONS Clearly, email inherits many of the advantages of written communication: the permanence and archivability of other documents, the ability to send one copy to many, the ability to truly compose the message, to marshal facts and present them so that both message and sender appear as attractive as possible. Immediate responses to messages may be desirable but are not necessary, and strategic delays can be employed. Information can be condensed in the hands of a skilled business communicator. On the other hand, email derives benefits from its similarity to conversation. Wide acceptance of the technology can ensure that email competes well with a phone call for speed of messaging (and is much quieter). Tone and word choice are more allied to conversation, and there is an emphasis on informality and relationship building. Style and correctness are less important in this environment for many types of message, and most people can become at least satisfactory writers of email. This apparent decline in standards may be regrettable to some extent, but is compensated by the fact that writers can attack their message with confidence and even flair, and will not be judged harshly in this more tolerant environment provided their message meets the requirements of delivering enough accurate information (but not too much) in an acceptable tone. The trend to casualisation of the business message is alive and well with email messaging in New Zealand. Greetings and sign-offs were notable in that they were used frequently to personalise the message, and were striking for their informality. The lack of use of Dear was a clear indication that writers in New Zealand see the email as a very different medium from the business letter. The New Zealand use of first names (in every case that a name was used) is likely to be peculiar to this part of the world, but more study could be done in this new millennium to see if the trend towards first names in business is spreading to other cultures as well. The Yours faithfully v Yours sincerely dilemma had no relevance here, as neither was found in this study.
  • 9. Email is being used in this country for a new kind of business correspondence which conforms neither entirely to writing nor to conversational conventions, but demonstrates elements of each - a blurring of genres. The samples included in this study did not provide instances of neologisms or other innovations, and the language was relatively conventional, the non-standard elements being largely a product of insufficient editing. This indicates that email messages are often constructed at speed, and writers anticipate a high degree of tolerance from their readers. Certainly, lapses and irregularities appear to be tolerated far better than similar errors on a business letter or formal report. The lack of experimental use of language may reflect the type of workplace studied. Emails from a greater variety of industries may well show other results. Writers also seem to expect considerable collaboration from recipients in deconstructing their messages. The reader often needs to remember or refer back to previous messages to make complete sense of the message. Readers must also take note of the subject line as an advance organiser for the message which is to come, as other referents can be few and far between. This study was of course conducted within one organisation, but messages were being sent across departments in many cases. The above elements could well be contributing to ambiguity in business messages. However, the speed and organisation of the technology may also ensure that any confusion is quickly cleared up. RECOMMENDATIONS Informality may have many advantages, but the tendency to send unplanned messages needs monitoring. Good structure can improve even the shortest, simplest message, and those in charge of teaching or mentoring inexperienced business writers have a role here. The importance of providing an appropriate subject line rather than a vague one or even a ‘clever’ one needs to be stressed. Writers need to remember to change the subject line when the message is on a new topic, rather than continuing with the default Re . . .. More extensive use by writers of selective ‘quoting’ from previous emails would help to provide context for messages while avoiding contributing to the bandwidth problem. The speed and lack of editing which seem to be features of email writing may also contribute to problems of tone. This has been reported anecdotally many times, but was not immediately obvious in the samples provided for this study, especially as the rank of the sender and the context of the situation were not usually clear to the researcher. But writers should be aware that conciseness and ellipsis may be interpreted as abruptness by the reader. Further studies into tone in emails would be productive and interesting. There may be implications for businesses, whose brand and image could be compromised by lack of care in the language of their business emails, and studies into the ‘fit’ of message tone with image and purpose could be helpful. More positively, the friendly nature of the email message was much exploited in the samples provided, and appears to help oil the wheels of business. Email messaging suits the increasingly immediate and oral nature of our communication. Relationships appear to be valued in our messages, and the relaxed tone has evolved a long way from the starchy ‘business language’ of much of the last century. Senders write with flow and spontaneity, unconscious of lapses in spelling or grammar, and apparently spend little or no time checking their mail before sending. This shows confidence and tolerance in business messaging, and to a certain extent there may be a trade-off here between these positive features and the possibility of ambiguity or inaccuracy in
  • 10. language. Today in much of our business writing, the information and the business relationship appear to be valued over form and presentation. The evidence from this study shows that business communication is taking place with good humour and a collaborative approach with the help of the email format. To the extent that we can control ambiguities and monitor appropriate tone, we can expect the email message in New Zealand to continue to serve our culture and our business needs well. REFERENCES Atkinson, Q. (2002). Disinhibition on the internet: Implications and intervention. Netsafe. Retrieved 22 June from Barnett, S.J. (2003). We have mail but do we have a meeting?: Email as a group discussion and decision-making channel in an organisational setting: A case study. Communication Journal of New Zealand: Te Hinga Korero.4 (1) June. Baron, N.S. (1998). Letters by phone or speech by other means: The linguistics of email Language and Communication, Vol 18, Apr 1, pp.133-70. Biber, D. (1988). Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bovee, C. & Thill, J. (2005). Business Communication Today. Eighth Edn. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall CNET, Inc. (Dec. 1997). CNET reviews - comparative reviews - chat clients – chatiquette. Cited in Jonsson, E. (1998). Electronic discourse: On speech and writing on the Internet. Retrieved 1 December 2002 from essay/ElectronicDiscourse.html Crystal, D. (2001). Language and the internet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 94-128. Davis, S. and J. Brewer. (1997). Electronic discourse: Linguistic individuals in virtual space. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Du Bartell. D. (1995). Discourse features of computer-mediated communication: ‘Spoken-like’ and ‘written-like’. Anglicana Turkuensia, Vol. 14, pp. 231-9. Gimenez, J.C (2000).Business e-mail communication: Some emerging tendencies in register. English for Specific Purposes, Vol 19, pp. 237-51. Hauser, M., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W. (2002). The faculty of language: What it is, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science. 11/22/2002, Vol. 298, Issue 5598. Holst-Larkin, J. (2003). What’s happening to the use of language for business in the age of computer-mediated communication? A study of the linguistic features of email messaging in New Zealand. Paper presented to the 5th ABC European Convention, Lugano, Switzerland, May 29-31.
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