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Politeness and University Student Online Communication

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Modern university students are expected to participate in online discussions as part of their course work as well as write emails to professors requesting meetings and explaining late paper submissions. These online written interactions require students to demonstrate advanced written pragmatic competence in English to effectively manage their relationships and studies at English medium of instruction (EMI) universities. It is therefore important for undergraduate English as second language (L2) learners to understand how politeness is expressed in online communication. However, politeness is a facet of language use which is often difficult to master because it is dependent on the relationship between the interactants and is culturally and contextually bound (Haugh, 2007). This paper discusses politeness theory and research and considers how politeness is expressed and interpreted in computer-mediated communication (CMC) in EMI university contexts.
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Politeness and University Student Online Communication
Politeness and University Student
Online Communication
Chris HARWOOD
Introduction
Modern university students are expected to participate in online discussions
as part of their course work as well as write emails to professors requesting
meetings and explaining late paper submissions. These online written
interactions require students to demonstrate advanced written pragmatic
competence in English to effectively manage their relationships and studies
at English medium of instruction (EMI) universities. It is therefore important
for undergraduate English as second language (L2) learners to understand
how politeness is expressed in online communication. However, politeness
is a facet of language use which is often difficult to master because it is
dependent on the relationship between the interactants and is culturally and
contextually bound (Haugh, 2007). This paper discusses politeness theory
and research and considers how politeness is expressed and interpreted in
computer-mediated communication (CMC) in EMI university contexts.
Politeness Theory
Politeness theory is derived from the concept of dramaturgy, a term Erving
Goffman adapted from the theatre to explain his observations about human
interaction. Goffman’s key observation was the concept of face, which he
defined as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself
by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact” (Goffman,
1967, p. 5). Brown and Levinson (1987) introduced a ‘universal’ theory of
politeness and defined face as “the public self-image that every member
wants to claim for himself”, they argue that this includes, “the desire that
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愛知県立大学外国語学部紀要第49(言語・文学編)
this self-image be appreciated and approved of” (p. 61). According to Brown
and Levinson, self-image has both a positive and a negative face. Positive
face is the need to be desirable to others (approval). Negative face is the
need to be unimpeded by others (autonomy). Brown and Levinson propose
that in human interaction some communicative acts can threaten the hearer’s
positive face, negative face, or both. These communicative acts are referred
to as face threatening acts (FTAs).
Offers and requests are often face threatening acts, for example if a teacher
says to a student, “You have not finished your homework! Please finish it
now.” The criticism of the student’s action is a threat to her positive face
(approval) and the request to please finish it now, is a threat to her negative
face (autonomy). For Brown and Levinson (1987), the evaluation of the
significance of an FTA is dependent on three interpersonal variables. The first
relates to the degree of imposition of the FTA, for example, asking someone
for the time interrupts the hearer and imposes on their time. The second
variable is the relative power balance between the listener and speaker. In
the teacher-student example mentioned earlier, the teacher has more power
than the student and is therefore able to use a weaker politeness strategy with
her request for the student to finish her homework. The third variable is the
social-psychological distance between the interactants; as people get to know
each other over time their social distance reduces as does what is perceived to
constitute an FTA. In politeness theory these interpersonal variables underpin
all face-work, and interactants use them to discern what is appropriate in a
given interaction.
Cross-cultural Politeness
A key problem with Brown and Levinson’s theory is universality.
Despite advanced language proficiency, second language speakers often
have pragmatic issues connected to the transfer of ‘rules of use’ related to
contextual appropriateness of their first language (L1). In order to establish a
cross-cultural framework for the analysis of politeness Blum-Kulka, House
and Kasper (1989), devised and developed the Cross-Cultural Speech Act
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Politeness and University Student Online Communication
Realization Project (CCSARP) coding framework. The CCSARP framework
can be used to analyze direct and indirect request strategies within particular
linguistic structures. For example, “imperatives are direct while would/
could you constructions are indirect” (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2007, p. 63). The
CCSARP project classifies the directness of request strategies on a nine-point
scale with mood derivables such as imperatives being the most direct and
mild hints being the most indirect. Internal modifiers termed downgraders,
for example, “Could you possibly open the window?” and upgraders such as,
“Open the window, for goodness sake!” were found to mitigate or enhance
request acts. In addition, external modifiers, called disarmers and grounders,
were coded to demonstrate how external supportive moves can be attached
to request acts to mitigate or aggravate requests. Blum-Kulka et al., (1987)
define grounders as when: “The speaker gives reasons, explanations, or
justifications for his or her requests, which may either precede or follow
it” (p. 287). When the CCSARP is used the coding scheme data is analyzed
by comparing the frequency of use of different request strategies among
different participants. This enables researchers to establish the “general
cultural preferences along a direct/indirect continuum” (Blum-Kulka and
Olshtain, 1984, p. 201) of different speakers and hearers.
Discursive Politeness
Locher and Watts (2005) attempt to shift the approach taken when
investigating politeness arguing that polite behavior is an element of
relational work, which they describe as “the ‘work’ individuals invest in
negotiating relationships with others” (p. 10). They challenge the concept
of face and FTAs as too narrow and argue that polite behavior is more
complex than the mitigation of FTAs. Furthermore, they suggest relational
work exists in all human social interaction and includes rudeness and
impoliteness. Locher and Watts (2005) also argue that all relational work
is relative to previously constructed appropriate behavior and that what is
considered (im)polite is related to “interactants assessments of social norms
of appropriateness that have been previously acquired” (Locher, 2006, p.
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250). In her work on rapport, Spencer-Oatey (2005) acknowledges Locher
and Watts ideas and draws on ideas from social psychology to interpret (im)
politeness as,
an umbrella term that covers all kinds of evaluative meanings
(e.g., warm, friendly, considerate, respectful, deferential, insolent,
aggressive, rude). These meanings can have positive, negative or neutral
connotations, and the judgments can impact upon people’s perceptions
of their social relations and the rapport or (dis)harmony that exists
between them (p. 97).
In short, (im)politeness involves the subjective judgments interactants make
regarding the appropriateness of verbal and non-verbal behavior. Haugh
(2007) refers to this postmodern interpretation of politeness as the discursive
approach and adds that politeness behavior is evaluative and that politeness
research needs to focus on the variability of interactants perceptions of
politeness.
University Student Online Politeness
Morand and Ocker (2002, p. 4) interpreted Brown and Levinson’s
politeness theory for computer-mediated communication (CMC) and
noted that it is a useful tool for CMC research because FTAs “occur with
considerable frequency” in CMC contexts. They argue that two central
aspects of communicative competence, making oneself clear and being
polite, are often in opposition as politeness usually entails ambiguity, whilst
clarity can sometimes be too direct. Morand and Ocker (2002) also suggest
that in face-to-face communication nonverbal cues play a crucial role in the
contextualization of politeness and that the absence of such cues in CMC
contexts could lead to more miscommunication than in face-to-face contexts.
Schallert, Chiang, Park, Jordan, H. Lee, Cheng, Chu, S. Lee, Kim & Song
(2009) use Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory to investigate the
computer-mediated discussions (CMD) of a teacher and 24 graduate students
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Politeness and University Student Online Communication
at a large American University. They found synchronous discussions were
characterized by more information seeking and sharing and more social
comments. The asynchronous discussions were more ‘serious’ and showed
more discussion generating, experience sharing and idea explanation.
More politeness strategies were used in messages with positive evaluation
functions and group conversation management and fewer with social,
discussion generation, negative evaluation functions. Negative politeness
strategies rose when writers engaged in experience sharing, idea explaining,
giving alternative views, previewing one’s message and negative evaluating.
Schallert et al, (2009) suggest that these functions may be considered as face
threatening because “they imply a request that the hearer/reader, accept what
is being stated” (p. 720). In short, the writers were attending to the hearer’s
negative face (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Across CMC modes asynchronous
messages were more likely to use hedging moves when sharing experience
but more hedging moves were more likely in synchronous messages when
disagreeing with another’s message. Schallert et al, (2009) conclude that
politeness strategy is more influenced by the messages discourse function
than whether it is asynchronous or synchronous.
Li (2012) draws on Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory to
investigate the wiki-mediated written English of Chinese undergraduates
studying English at a university China. Li argues that clarity and politeness
are often in contradiction in CMC contexts, since politeness is often
ambiguous and indirect and often needs to be subordinated to clarity. Li
also notes that her findings did not support Brown and Levinson’s (1987)
suggestion that people use negative politeness when they are distant in social
relations. She also claims that positive face strategies are regularly used more
often in CMC in order to foster, reciprocity and community.
Vinagre (2008) argues that successful computer-supported collaborative
learning (CSCL) is determined by the social interaction that takes place
amongst participants because social interaction shapes the cognitive and
socio-emotional processes that occur during learning. Vinagre suggests a
reason for this is that in CMC the ambiguity of negative politeness is often
subordinated to the need for clarity. She proposes that mutual friendship is a
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愛知県立大学外国語学部紀要第49(言語・文学編)
priority in collaborative CMC and strategies linked with claiming common
ground; showing interest and attending to others, exaggerating approval
or sympathy, using in-group markers and avoiding disagreements in CMC
contexts. Vinagre suggests that the high use of positive politeness as a
strategy in CMC fosters solidarity and promotes friendship and co-operation
and that these attributes contribute to the success in CSCL communication.
Cross-cultural Online Politeness
Economidou-Kogetsidis (2011) examined the pragmatic appropriateness
of Greek-Cypriot university students English email requests to their
professors in an EMI university. The results indicate that many more requests
were made using direct strategies and hints than customary indirect strategies
commonly found in comparative face-to-face speech act research. The study
also showed that native speakers (NS) and non native speakers (NNS) have
an awareness of situational factors such as perceived imposition and that they
used the same politeness strategies. However, qualitative analysis revealed “a
mix of lack of linguistic flexibility and idiomatic expressions, unawareness
of letter conventions transferable to email and inability to select appropriate
lexical modification among NNSs” (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2007, p. 74).
NNSs used impersonal forms with low imposition requests; please was the
preferred NNS lexical modifier whilst NSs preferred subjectivizers such as, I
was wondering and I’m hoping. The students used more politeness strategies
with direct appointment and feedback requests. Economidou-Kogetsidis
concludes that NS speakers have a developing awareness of e-politeness
whereas many NNS speakers could often be perceived as impolite in
institutional CMC contexts.
Chen’s (2006) case study of the evolution of a Taiwanese graduate student’s
(Ling) email literacy over two and a half years at a US university shows that
Ling’s appropriate use of formality matured over time as her relationship
with her professors developed. During Ling’s studies she used unmitigated
want statements such as I need your suggestion/help to emphasize the
importance of her professor’s help to her. Chen notes that this is a pragmatic
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Politeness and University Student Online Communication
problem because these statements could convey helplessness rather than the
independence expected of graduate students. The statements also “suggest a
coercive tone, thus failing to show status-appropriate politeness in student-
professor communication” (Chen, 2006, p. 44). Chen believes this was a
cultural issue because from a Chinese perspective using want statements
with higher-ups does not connote impoliteness in the way it might in English.
Chen explains that Ling initially had insufficient pragmatic knowledge,
particularly for status unequal emails, and that she struggled to communicate
appropriately as a graduate student. Chen claims that Ling’s acquisition of
email literacy was delayed due to the fact she had no explicit rules to follow
and insufficient feedback from her interlocutors.
Discursive Online Politeness
Guiller & Durndell (2006) examined gender and language in the
asynchronous CMD of undergraduates at a Scottish university over four
semesters. Explicit markers of agreement and disagreement were analyzed
by looking at the positive and negative socioemotional content of the gender
interactions. Males expressed explicit disagreement more than females
who explicitly agreed more than males. When socioemotional content was
considered, it was found that more female-to-female interactions were more
positive than negative, whilst male-to-male interaction was more negative
than positive. Female-to-male interactions were more positive than negative,
whilst male-to-female interactions were more negative than positive.
Furthermore, females were found to be more likely than males to construct
attenuated messages using phrases such as I think or it’s maybe and males
were more likely to use authoritative language such as, it is a fact or I am sure
that. The contrasting gender CMC styles have implications for politeness.
If a male disagrees with a female in an authoritative manner using negative
unattenuated language he is more likely to be perceived as impolite.
Clarke (2009) investigated how Emerati undergraduates studying in
the United Arab Emirates (UAE) interact online. He found that a typical
discursive feature at the start of messages was the strategy of using an
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愛知県立大学外国語学部紀要第49(言語・文学編)
introductory statement of agreement in reply to a previous student post.
Clarke notes this type of strategy is related to a mutual need to maintain face
between interactants and suggests this type of affirmative communication
is an essential generic aspect of community building in CMC contexts and
reports only 12 expressions of disagreement were registered. Other less direct
strategies observed were the use of personal pronouns and hedges such as
I think and the frequent use of inclusive pronouns such as us, we and our.
According to Clarke, these phrases indicate that students were attending
to and maintaining the online community, and underline the important role
politeness has in the maintenance of online communities.
Adel (2011) examined the rapport building in the CMDs of a five week
online course conducted in English in a small Swedish university. The key
observations related to the large amount of phatic communication in face-
to-face rapport discourse, which included a lot of negative communication
(gossip) about group members not present. The offline interaction also
showed a large number of comprehension checks, which contrasts with
a high frequency of compliments and encouragement in the online data.
Adel argues these differences between the off and online data suggest that
online rapport work is orientated more towards consensus building while
offline rapport work seems more concerned with comprehension and
understanding. Another interesting observation was the use of ‘on task’ phatic
communication identified in some of the online communication. Phrases
such as; “it’s really hard to learn all grammatical words” and “I almost
gave up when I first took a look inside the grammar book” (Adel, 2011, p.
2941) show commiseration, empathy and agreement in a face-to-face phatic
conversational style. Adel suggests that this is a new form of online written
communication that fuses chat and more traditional written academic styles
in order to build and maintain rapport.
Conclusion
The research suggests university students struggle with pragmatic
appropriateness in status unequal email communication with academics.
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Politeness and University Student Online Communication
There is a tendency for students, particularly NNS students, to be too direct
when making requests; as a consequence, in many cases, they appear to
leave recipients of these direct messages little choice as to how to respond
to impositions. Furthermore, status unequal emails have been shown to be
either too informal or too formal. There is evidence to suggest that NS are
developing an awareness of appropriateness in status unequal emails but that
NNS are not and that this is, in part, due to the lack of feedback NNS receive
about how they construct email messages. The authors of the email related
studies suggest that teaching intervention could help speed up the prolonged
implicit acquisition process many students currently take to acquire
appropriate pragmatic politeness. I think this would be a useful addition
to university writing/bridging courses, particularly for NNSs. Models of
appropriate email etiquette and discussions and feedback about English
medium academic CMC would, I believe, help NNSs acquire pragmatic
competency more quickly.
CMC politeness between student peers in CMDs does not seem to be
as problematic. However, there is some evidence of the development of
an academic discussion forum genre. Positive face strategies have been
shown to dominate CMDs because they foster reciprocity and community.
Moreover, mutual friendship is often seen as a priority in collaborative
CMD and discourse strategies often aim to seek common ground or at
consensus building. This is exemplified by Clarke’s (2009) observation that
posts typically begin with introductory statements of agreement in reply
to a previous student posts. Different strategies have been shown to relate
to different discourse functions in CMD; for instance, negative politeness
strategies have been shown to be used more in experience sharing.
Cultural differences have been discussed in both email and discussion
forums with mixed results. However, there do seem to be cultural behavioral
norms that translate from NNS first language to their use of English as
a second language. Chen’s (2006) study illustrates this by revealing the
expectations Asian students often have about their relationships with
lecturers. Significant differences between male and female CMC were
identified (Guiller & Durndell, 2006) and the more attenuated, positive CMC
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愛知県立大学外国語学部紀要第49(言語・文学編)
displayed by females compared to the more direct and authoritative language
displayed by males do have implications for perceptions of politeness and
interaction in CMD contexts.
Although much of the current theory and research about politeness has
focused on how status, culture, sex, context and associated moral norms
determine its variability (Haugh, 2010), I believe that EMI academic contexts
across the world share enough ground to establish guidelines of appropriate
CMD; for the increasing number of NS and NNS CMD interactants. I think
our developing understanding of appropriate discussion forum conventions
and behavior should be shared and taught to native and non-native speakers
in English in educational contexts. Written CMD skills are essential for
university students to master because CMD use is increasing rapidly in EMI
university contexts. An increased understanding of and competency in this
developing academic genre will enable students to present a more positive
self- image of themselves to others. This would lead, I think, to improved
learning experiences and possibly better learning outcomes.
References
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and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Alblex.
Blum-Kulka, S, Olshtain, E. (1984). Requests and apologies: a cross cultural study of
speech act realization patterns. Applied Linguistics 5, 196–213.
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... In speeches, the speaker selects strategies necessary for polite communication and when a face-threatening Act is about to be committed, the following strategies are developed (Harwood, 2017) strategies: saying something as it is (a bald-on record) when addressing other people, for example, 'Don't take it!' instead of saying 'could you please'; uttering no word at all but giving hints (off record) like searching oneself when one needs to borrow a pen or saying 'Ouch, I don't have a pen with me'; and appealing to a common goal and even friendship (on record positive politeness and negative politeness) in 'How about letting me come with you'. ...
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This paper takes rapport (Spencer-Oatey 2000, 2002) as its central concern, since (im)politeness is typically associated in some way with harmonious/conflictual interpersonal relations. The paper discusses the factors that influence people's dynamic perceptions of rapport, and proposes that there are three key elements: behavioral expectations, face sensitivities, and interactional wants. The paper explores the components of these three elements and uses authentic discourse data to illustrate how people's judgments about rapport can be unpackaged in relation to these elements. The approach enables us to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that influence people's dynamic judgments of rapport, which is essential if we are to understand how and why problems of rapport occur.
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The present study examines e-mail requests sent by Greek Cypriot university students (non-native speakers of English) to faculty at a major, English-medium university in Cyprus, over a period of several semesters. It examines forms of address (salutations), the degree of directness employed, and the degree and type of supportive moves and lexical/phrasal modifiers used by students in order to soften or aggravate their e-requests. Findings from the study have shown that the NNS students’ e-mails are characterized by significant directness (particularly in relation to requests for information), an absence of lexical/phrasal downgraders, an omission of greetings and closings and inappropriate or unacceptable forms of address. This paper argues that such e-mails can be perceived as impolite and discourteous and therefore capable of causing pragmatic failure. This is primarily due to the fact that they appear to give the faculty no choice in complying with the request and fail to acknowledge the imposition involved.