Communication Institute for Online Scholarship
Communication Institute for Online
Scholarship Continous online service and innovation
since 1986
Site index
 
ComAbstracts Visual Communication Concept Explorer Tables of Contents Electronic Journal of Communication ComVista

EJC logo
The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 15 Numbers 1& 2, 2005

 

EFFECTS OF CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ON E-MAIL COMMUNICATION IN MULTICULTURAL ENVIRONMENTS

Hasan Cakir
Barbara A. Bichelmeyer
Indiana University, USA

Kursat Cagiltay
Middle East Technical University, Turkey

Abstract. The values and assumptions of our culture of origin form our beliefs and behavior and thus we see the world through the lenses of our cultural values, mostly without being consciously aware of those values. Because of the availability of new information and communication technologies, recently people from different cultures have started to communicate and work together through computer networks. This type of multicultural communication is completely new for human beings and issues related to it need to be explored. In this study, the researchers explored the cultural dimensions of e-mail communication in a multi-cultural environment.

Introduction

Because of the wide availability and cost effectiveness of Internet communication technologies, people from different countries and cultures around the globe have started to work collaboratively on projects in on-line electronic environments. Various electronic communication tools, especially e-mail, are widely used for this purpose. E-mail communication between multicultural teams is affected by the cultures in which the teams are embedded. Unfortunately not much is known about the dialectic of culture as it relates to computer-mediated communication (CMC) because little systematic investigation has been completed on the subject. Therefore, in this study the researcher will explore the cultural dimensions of e-mail communication and expect to have several findings related with the various aspects of the culture and e-mail communication.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to reveal the effects of culture on e-mail communications and the expression of emotions when using e-mail tools in a multicultural environment. This research is especially important for understanding interpersonal communications in a multicultural environment because it proactively addresses the potential negative aspects of cultural differences, and it supports the development of satisfying and productive partnerships among people separated by culture who communicate through e-mail.

Conceptual Framework

Scientific research about culture began in the 19th century. Culture and its influence on computer-mediated communication (CMC) is a relatively new research area and most of the research is based on quantitative methods.

Culture is a broad term that can be defined through a particular application. According to Geertz (1973), culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (p. 89). Defined more simply, culture is the way of life for specific human communities. It is the lens through which individuals of the culture see the world. It helps social scientists to predict and understand the behavior of certain communities or societies.

As defined by Tannen (1990), cross-cultural communication consists of intercultural, multi-domestic and cross-gender communications. In cross-cultural communication, key issues for research are styles of conflict and negotiation, construction of identity and self-disclosure in group and interpersonal contexts (Ting-Toomey, 1988). In cross-cultural communication, meaning and interpretations of communication are found collectively and individually through interaction: collectively because meanings are negotiated between persons who communicate with each other; and individually, because the interaction process is mediated by individual perceptions that are subject to one’s identity, expectations and experiences which are the effects of culture (Gudykunst and Kim, 1996). Therefore, it can be claimed that the culture in which norms ! are developed will be found in all interactions regardless of the communication medium (Steward et al., 2001).

There are a notable number of studies which attempt to identify cultural characteristics. One of the most widely used sets of cultural characteristics was established by Hofstede, who collected and analyzed data from 1967 to 1973 about IBM employers all over the world. Hofstede (1997) concluded that national cultures vary on five dimensions; individualism vs. collectivism; femininity vs. masculinity; long-term vs. short-term orientation in life; power distance; and uncertainty avoidance. These five dimensions are now widely accepted as the patterns of culture, and therefore they are likely to play a role in communication in multicultural environments. Although Hofstede’s research investigated the patterns of culture that are common across cultures, Hofstede’s findings can be applied to cross-cultural communication situations.

Scholars of cross-cultural communication consider Hofstede’s dimension of individualism as a crucial dimension of variability across cultures (Steward et al., 2001). Hall (1976) categorizes cultures as either high or low context cultures, where context provides the information that encompasses and gives meaning to an event. In high-context cultures, the meaning of communication is found in the situations and relationships that make up the context, whereas in low-context cultures, the meaning of the communication is found in words that are expressed. High-context cultures emphasize patience and empathy, whereas low-context cultures value boldness, straight talk and openness. Hall also explains that in high-context cultures, collective needs and goals are primary concerns over individual values, whereas in low-context cultures, individual needs and goals are ! valued and the unique existence of individual is emphasized.

Because of developments in technology and the economic globalization of the world, interactions between individuals from different cultural groups have been occurring more frequently than in the past. Computer-mediated communication (CMC), through international networks, has been extensively used in many parts of the world. CMC refers to interactive computer messages (e-messages) electronic mail (e-mail), cyber forums (e-mail lists), or online conferencing. CMC through international networks is less expensive and more convenient than conventional telephone and fax mediated communication. Since the introduction of the Internet, e-mail use has notably increased and the purpose of using e-mail has grown from primarily organizational purposes to educational purposes.

Two views of CMC have developed since it first attracted public attention in the beginning of the 1990s. An optimistic view is that CMC allows people to communicate independent from the physical constraints of time and space and the social constraints of race, gender and class. A more critical view assumes that CMC is the final stage in the dehumanization of society and supporters of this view claim that the anonymity of CMC encourages insulting communication behavior to a greater degree than face-to-face communication (Fouser, 2001).

According to social presence theory (Short et al., 1976), communication is affected by the quality of the medium. Because of its text-based structure, CMC is assumed to be extremely low in social presence as compared to face-to-face (FTF) communication. CMC also filters out the contextual cues in communication that are conveyed through physical environment, nonverbal behavior and each participant’s social status. Lack of these cues makes CMC “appropriate for tasks requiring less social interaction and social intimacy” (Rice, 1983). Generally, CMC is considered more impersonal than FTF communication (Ma, 1996).

Yet some scholars in the field, like Walther et al. (1992), claim that, despite its limitations in conveying contextual cues, CMC enables relational development between communicators. Moreover, in the absence of visual cues, CMC tends to promote uninhibited behaviors in multicultural environments (Ma 1996). In CMC, group members participate more equally than they do when they talk face to face. Some barriers of face-to-face interaction such as race, gender, physical appearance and language accent are non-existent in CMC (Van Gelder 1990). Thus, in a CMC environment, we judge one’s mind rather than other features.

Although it is impossible to see nonverbal cues in CMC, alternative relational cues are available to its participants. In CMC, relational cues can be transmitted in two ways. First, verbal messages in the text can convey relational messages (Rice, 1987). In other words, relational tones can be incorporated in text messages; for example, the organization of the text, syntax, punctuation marks and emphasis can all serve as relational cues. Second, relational messages can be transmitted through electronic symbols (Gumpert, 1990) known as “emoticons”, which derive from “emotive icons” (Metz, 1992). Metz posits that emoticons take four different forms: to verbalize physical cues; to describe physical actions; to emphasize claims; and to describe physical conditions (smiling face).

In face-to-face (FTF)communication, the concept of nearness determines the position of the persons in communication. The concept of nearness implies a host/guest distinction, which means that one participant or group is, to some degree, dominant over others. However, in a computer-mediated environment there is no nearness concept since the participants contribute in the conversation from their own cultural context; thus, none of the participants/groups in the communication are bounded by the same cultural context as other participants/groups (Ma, 1996). Cultural difference does have an impact on e-mail communication, but not the same impact as it has in FTF communication. It is important that we develop a better understanding of these differences. Hence, this study is designed to explore the effect of culture on e-mail organization and emoticon use in a multicultural environment.

Research Questions

This study attempts to address the gap in our knowledge base about the cultural aspects of CMC in e-mail by addressing the following questions:

  1. What are the cultural patterns of e-mail use in multicultural communities in terms of expression of emotions, length of message, individual vs. group-based mail, organizing e-mail and style of languag
  2. How do different cultures use emoticons differently in a multicultural community?
  3. What types of emotions are associated with what type of emoticons in e-mail communication within and among the cultures?

Importance of the Study

The CMC environment lacks paralinguistic communication cues, which makes CMC a poor medium for the use of sense making strategies in comparison with FTF communication. In any communication environment, culture plays a major role in the creation of a message. In FTF communication, people can adjust their messages according to immediate feedback from their peers through paralinguistic communication cues. In the absence of these cues in a CMC environment, the role of culture, emotions and the way emotions are shown through culture lens become even more important, and these elements are to be investigated in this research.

As technology advances, communication tools become more available to all citizens of the world. Cyberspace reaches beyond national borders to create a borderless world in which communication and knowledge sharing become easier than in the real world. Unlike the real world where we have face-to-face communication, in cyberspace, we have a popular communication tool which is e-mail. Although cyberspace has no borders, the citizens of this world have different cultures and different values, which they reflect in their communication. When people communicate face-to-face, they use not only language but also gestures in order to make their communication more understandable and powerful. In face-to-face communication, people also get instant feedback from their peers and adapt their communication according to that feedback, whereas people can use only words in e-mail communication. The world is becoming a ! global village, where people from business and education sectors trade knowledge, mostly through the use of e-mail. When these people use e-mail as a communication tool, they do not escape from their cultural background; they reflect their culture and language in their e-mail messages. Because of the nature of e-mail communication, this reflection of culture and language create a series of problems in cyber communities.

Method

Context

The context of this study is a large Midwestern American University with domestic and international students. The university has a solid Internet infrastructure and e-mail is used widely throughout all departments. All classes have at least one e-mail list in order for students to communicate with their peers independent from time and location.

Participants

Twelve participants were included in the study; 4 American, 4 Korean, and 4 Turkish graduate students in this university. Participants for the study were selected from American, Korean and Turkish culture. The reasons for selecting these cultures are first, availability - the participants were available for interviews; second, diversity - each of the three cultures represents a different region of the world and has its own distinct culture ; and third, all participants were frequent users of e-mail, having used e-mail for many years and on a daily basis.

The four participants from American culture are between 23 and 34 years old and two of them had been in foreign countries for a short period of time (3 to 6 months). Use of e-mail varies among the participants from 7 to 11 years. They access their e-mail accounts very frequently, from more than six times in a day to continuous access. They approximately spend 3 hours on e-mail communication daily. Finally they send 15 to 40 e-mails to the people from their own culture and 4 to 15 e-mails to the people from other cultures on a daily basis.

The four participants from Korean culture are between 25 and 36 years old and they have been in a foreign country for their graduate education, which varies from 2 years to 10 years. Use of e-mail varies among the participants from 5 to 10 years. They reach their e-mail accounts frequently from 4 to 10 times a day. They spend approximately 2 hours on e-mail communication. They send 1 to 5 e-mails to people from their own culture and 5 to 20 e-mails to the people from other cultures on daily basis.

The four participants from Turkish culture are between 25 and 34 years old and they also have been in a foreign country for their graduate education, which varies from 2 to 6 years. Use of e-mail varies among the participants from 3 to 10 years. They reach their e-mail accounts frequently from 10 times a day to continuous access. They spend approximately 3 hours on e-mail communication. Two Turkish participants send 1 to 2 e-mails and the other two send 10-25 e-mails to people from their own culture and 5 to 10 e-mails to people from other cultures on a daily basis.

Sampling

The population for this study is one graduate School of Education at a large Midwestern University. Participants were selected for this study using referral-sampling technique. The researcher asked people within each of the three target cultures to identify “who you think best represents your culture?” In order to eliminate gender differences and to filter any rival explanations caused by gender communication issues, all participants were female.

Instrumentation

Semi-structured interviews were carried out in the data collection process. The interview protocol consisted of 11 interview questions and 13 demographic questions, however the interviews were not limited to these questions; as interviews advanced, emergent themes were taken into account and addressed. The interview protocol is provided in appendixes.

Data collection

A pilot interview was held with one international graduate student in order to test the clarity of the instrument. After pilot study, the questions and the result of the interview were discussed with a subject matter expert in field of CMC.

During the data collection, each participant’s interview was conducted in a confidential interview room. An informed consent statement which was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board was read aloud to each participant at the beginning of the interview. Each participant completed a demographics information sheet and upon completion of that section, the interviews were started. Interviews were recorded with an audio recorder and transcribed. After transcription of each interview, the participant read and confirmed that the interview was appropriately recorded.

Analysis

In the analysis of raw data, the researcher generally looked for similarities within the same culture and for differences across the cultures. Questions 1 and 2 confirmed that there were differences between participants’ cultures. Questions 3, 4, 5 and 6 addressed cultural differences as identified in Hofstede’s dimensions. Questions 7 and 8 addressed the expression of emotions in e-mail communication. Question 9 provided insight into participants’ opinions about the effects of culture on their e-mails, and questions 10 and 11 addressed the role of culture in flamed e-mail discussions. Emergent themes from the interviews were grouped and presented in a narrative way.

In order to analyze the data collected from the interviews, the researcher looked for similarities within the same cultures and differences between cultures.

Findings: Emergent Themes from Data Analysis

Theme 1: Observing cultural differences

All participants agreed that there are cultural differences between their own culture and the other two cultures in the context in which they live. The cultural differences reported by the participants in this study seemed to focus on Hofstede’s dimension of individualism vs. collectivism, and its impact on relationships and communication.

All participants perceived differences among the three cultures represented in this study. Participants reported that ways of thinking, perceiving phenomena, and living styles are all different between the cultures; however several participants stated that the degrees of difference are not so great as to negatively affect their lives in the contexts that they are currently living. These cultural differences are not greatly noticed in the day to day interactions with international people (the term “international” refers to anyone who is outside of a participant’s culture).

One American participant stated that “there are not big differences that affect our relations here, but I guess the sense of humor is different in other cultures.” Another American participant told about a time when she organized a party that one of her Korean friends attended. After the party was over, her Korean friend gave her a present as thanks for her invitation to the party. The American stated, “I was surprised because I did not expect a present from someone because of my invitation to the party, this is not the way Americans act.”

Participants from Korean and Turkish cultures expressed that American culture is more individualistic and more direct than their own respective cultures. A Korean participant stated, “Americans have a more direct communication style, if they want to say something, they state it, whereas Koreans consider the recipient’s age, status and consequences of their statements to the recipient and then, using indirect language, they state what they want to state.” Another Korean participant explained that they were educated to show respect to the person with whom she is communicating. She said that, in Korean culture, there are many ways to show the respect and Koreans use different language styles according to person’s age, status and gender.

Similar opinions were stated by Turkish participants. One Turkish participant whose major is language education said that she did not perceive big differences in culture because she was exposed to American language and culture since her high school years, but she reported that there were differences in living style. In her experience, Americans are more individualistic and they live more segmented lives, dividing work, friendship and school and not mixing these different aspects of life with the others. She talked about how she had tried to become a close friend with Americans but did not find these friendships to be like her friendships with members of Turkish culture - this was an interesting point for her, which she did not expect until she came to the USA. In her opinion, Turks live more integrated lives and friendship is not superficial between Turkish students. She said “we are like living for each other, our friendship is very different from friendship with other cultures.”

Another Turkish participant expressed similar opinions, and discussed hospitality as an example of cultural differences in regard to collectivism and individualism between Turks and Americans, She explained that, when she shows Turkish hospitality and friendship to her American friends, “all of them are surprised, because they do not expect such behavior, whereas in Turkish culture, these are normal things.” She went on to say that one way Turkish people demonstrate hospitality is in how they deal with saying no, explaining that in Turkish culture people do not say no immediately to a person who is making a request. Even though they know that their answer will cause a negative consequence for them, they try to not refuse the person who makes a request, whereas in her opinion, other cultures very easily decline if their interests are going to be undermined.

In general, all participants felt that differences exist between the three cultures represented in this study. However, according to these same participants, these cultural differences are not so big or remarkable that they hinder the relations between members of these different cultures.

Theme 2: Social Status of E-mail Recipient

All participants stated that the language style they use in e-mail is determined by the recipient of the e-mail. The mail recipients can be categorized as close friends, colleagues, superiors and family members, and the language style of an e-mail exchange depending on the category of the recipient.

A similar pattern emerged across cultures. All participants said that they pay attention to their language in the e-mails when they are sending to colleagues or a superior. Participants stated that they never use abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons in such e-mails. Regardless of culture, all participants stated that they were very careful about grammar and punctuation of the text in these e-mails, and that they attempt to be as concise as possible and on the task in e-mails to superiors or colleagues. Conversely, participants reported that, when sending e-mail to close friends and family members, they do not pay much attention to grammar and punctuation of the e-mail; some participants even stated that they use accents and colloquialisms that belong to a particular cultural group within a culture. All participants also expressed that the greeting and closing expressions they use in e-mails are dif! ferent when they send e-mail to friends and family, versus when they send e-mails to superiors and colleagues. The starting and ending expressions of e-mails to colleagues and superiors are more neutral and common expressions than expressions of e-mails to friends and family, which are much more friendly and sincere. Most participants, regardless of culture, also stated that they do not use greeting and closing expressions for very close friends since they exchange e-mail very frequently.

Although there is a similar pattern in this theme across cultures, there was a range of responses between the cultures within this similar pattern. Participants from American and Turkish cultures stated that they use plain language to their superiors and colleagues, whereas Korean participants stated that they need to show their respect in e-mails to elder colleagues and superiors and their love to younger colleagues, and that they need to pay more attention when they send e-mail to male colleagues. Additionally, participants from Korean and Turkish culture stated that they become more sincere in their e-mail to friends and family members than they are in their e-mail to anyone else. American participants stated that when they send e-mails to close friends or family members, they are more likely to use abbreviations and acronyms and pay less attention to grammar and punctuation.

Several Korean and Turkish participants explained that they use slightly different language styles depending on whether they are communicating with their national and international friends. These students felt that the differences were the result of language barriers, and said that they feel much more comfortable when they write in their native language.

Theme 3: Length of e-mail

Length of e-mail is another issue that emerged from the study. All participants stated that they try to be clear and concise in their e-mails; the variables that determine length of e-mails are: time available to write e-mail, the issue addressed in the e-mail, and prior knowledge of the recipient regarding the issue.

All participants regardless of cultural background try to write their e-mails so that they are easy to read and easy to reply. The purpose of e-mail is to get their message across in as short as and as clear a manner as possible. An American and a Turkish participant both reported that they use a similar e-mail organization pattern. If they need to explain an issue in a long e-mail, they break down their e-mails into sub points to ensure that recipients do not miss important details. Also for formal e-mails sent to colleagues and professors, all participants tend to write only the business of the e-mail.

Another variable is time to determine the length of the e-mail. Since the graduate study life pace is very high and, according to participants, they get more than thirty e-mails daily in average, and they need to reply most of them. Some participants stated that if they can reply e-mail as yes or no they do so without any hesitation. If they have time to write long e-mails like in weekends, they certainly write long e-mails to the friends or family members.

All participants stated that the length of e-mail also depends on the topic and prior knowledge of the audience about that topic. If the intended recipient does not know the background information about the topic, participants said they would provide the necessary background before explaining the business of the e-mail. Additionally, all participants regardless of culture stated that if they request something from someone, they provide the reasoning for their request in order to reduce the uncertainty level of the e-mail and as a way of demonstrating courtesy to the recipient.

A closer look at the data from this theme reveals some different perspectives between cultures. Turkish participants stated that, regardless of the culture of the recipient, they start their e-mails with caring questions like “how are you doing,” and “I wish your classes are going well.” Korean participants stated that they use these kinds of expressions only with close friends and rarely when sending e-mail to people from other cultures. American participants stated that they tend to directly address the business of the e-mail without writing caring statements; they very rarely use starting expressions or ask caring questions, and when they do, they generally use them only for family members.

Additionally, one Turkish participant stated that because of language barriers, when she writes e-mail in English to colleagues or professors, she explains the issues by giving examples and this situation makes her e-mails longer than they would otherwise be. An American participant also noted that international students tend to give more details in their e-mails. Both participants felt that this situation makes non-native speakers’ e-mails in English longer than the e-mails that native English speakers would send regarding the same topics.

Theme 4: Expressing emotions through words

Korean and Turkish participants stated that they could express their emotions to their close friends and family members. One Turkish participant explained this by saying, “maybe because of our culture, we are expressing our emotions in extreme ends, we either like somebody or hate somebody, we hardly find the middle way to express our emotions, it is similar in the e-mail communication.” The American participants disagreed regarding their styles of expressing emotions in e-mails. One participant stated that she does not prefer to express her emotions through e-mail, however in cases where there is a need to express emotions, she will do so but only very superficially. Another American participant explained that, since e-mail is a written document and can be misunderstood, she does not prefer to use this tool for expressing emotions. Conversely, a third American participant stated that she exaggerate! s her emotions when writing e-mails, for example, instead of simply writing “thanks,” she writes “thanks a million.” From the Turkish participants’ responses, it appears that expressing emotions may be a cultural pattern that transfers from face-to-face communication to e-mail communication; however, the response of the American participant indicates that the expression of emotion may be effected by the medium in which those emotions are expressed.

Another cultural issue that was identified in this study which may impact the expression of emotions in e-mails had to do with a tendency reported by some Korean and Turkish participants that they try to express themselves in a more American style while writing e-mails in English. One Korean participant provided an example of this phenomenon; she explained, “When I communicate with Americans or other international people, I kind of exaggerate my emotions from my impression that Americans usually do so. For example, when something looks nice, I would say, "WOW, isn't it GREAT?" But when I talk with Koreans through email, I don't feel any obligation that I use a lot of words with exclamations or stress.”

Theme 5: Purposes of use of emoticons

Emoticons are symbols that add meaning to e-mails. Participants from all three cultures stated that emoticons are powerful tools and the quickest way to express emotions in e-mail. Although the purpose of the emoticon, which is to express emotions in the easiest way, is similar across cultures, results from this study indicate that the meaning and format of emoticons changes between cultures.

Another strategy commonly used across cultures is to create text-based emoticons by change the format of a word in order to communicate emotional meanings. For example, in order to demonstrate friendliness, words are sometimes purposely misspelled (such as writing “vunderful” instead of “wonderful”). Another example is the use of all capital letters in a word or sentence to emphasize a point or to show anger. Those text-based emoticons are used by all three cultures represented in this study, the formats and meanings of text strategies used are different between the cultures, and are explained below.

Most participants provided similar opinions about the use of emoticons; they use emoticons in informal e-mails sent to close friends. The most commonly used emoticons are the smiley face :) or :-), the winky face ;) or ;-) and the frowny face :( or :-(.

American participants reported that they use emoticons in informal e-mails, and they do not use them with everybody. American participants stated that they use emoticons for two purposes, to express their emotions and to prevent misunderstanding. The emoticon that they reported using most frequently is the smiley face, and they generally said that they do not use this emoticon to express strong emotions, but for general convenience and to clarify sentences which might have double meanings or include sarcasm. American participants have different opinions about emoticon use. One participant stated that she thinks emoticons are silly, another participant stated that she loves to use them. A third participant explained that she is careful in using them because of potentially different cultural meanings; as an example she explained that she uses the smiley face because it is universally same meaning, whe! reas she has been told that the winky face has a sexual connotation in Spanish culture.

Korean participants also said that they use emoticons to show the emotions, although they use different formats for emoticons than do Americans. Koreans reported that they use emoticons constituted of asterisk, dash and exponential symbols to produce different formats of smiley face ^_^, shy face * ^ ^ *, sweaty face --;, and confused face ^ ^.  When emphasizing an idea, they place words between asterisks or periods, or write words in capital letters, (which is not a sign of anger in Korean e-mails, unlike in American culture). Koreans rarely use emoticons to indicate that they are joking; the use of a smiley face often indicates gratitude and thankfulness.

Turkish participants reported that they use the same emoticons as American participants - the smiley face, frowny face and winky face. Turkish participants reported that they frequently use emoticons for two main purposes: first, to express emotions in a strong way and second, to prevent misunderstandings in e-mails which include sarcasm. One Turkish participant stated that she uses the frowny face negative emotions about herself, such as if she were unhappy because she was unable to do something, but that she never uses frowny faces to refer to other people. Another Turkish participant said that she does not use words as emoticons, instead she prefers to provide more text explanation to communicate her expressions to others.

Interestingly, another pattern emerged between cultures from the study regarding the use of emoticons. Regardless of culture, the younger participants in the study reported using emoticons more frequently than older participants. Especially, among Korean participants, the youngest participant uses more frequently and more diverse emoticons than older participants. Also, all participants reported that they use more diverse emoticons in real time chats (for example, Microsoft messenger and Yahoo messenger) than in e-mails.

Theme 6: Flamed discussions

Since e-mail is a text-based communication tool, it can be expected that periodically, heated (or flamed) discussions will occur in the e-mail environment. Group flamed discussions can occur in a class e-mail listserv or in a general discussion list, and individual flamed discussions occur between two persons.

Reports from the participants of this study indicate that flamed discussions in listservs seem to have a distinctive feature in that these discussions occur primarily within cultures and rarely across cultures. American and Turkish participants reported that they have experienced flamed discussion in at least one listserv, however those lists are not international lists. Korean participants reported that they have not encountered any flamed discussion on either the national and international lists of which they are members.

The academic department to which the study participants belong has several e-mail discussion lists with students from many different cultures subscribed to each list.  In any given academic year, a few flamed discussions occur on these lists. One American participant noted that international students very rarely participate in such discussions, and that even those who are involved in such discussions are generally careful not to target specific persons in the discussions.

On the other hand, Turkish participants noted that there are numerous flamed discussions in their national e-mail lists. One Turkish participant said that it is common when someone sends a controversial e-mail to a Turkish e-mail list for a flamed discussion to start, and that flamed discussions often target individuals and sometimes even become offensive. Another Turkish participant agreed, saying, “I guess, people from Mediterranean culture easily get flamed.” She went on to say, “I am member of a lot of national and international e-mail lists… in international lists, e-mail communication is working well, they are right on purpose, that is because either their moderators are very good or they delete non-purposive e-mails, I have rarely seen non-purposive e-mails in those lists. However in national (Turkish) mail lists, generally I have seen rarely purposive mails, in general e-mail discussions in ! national lists are about political or unrelated with list’s purpose e-mails.” None of the other participants from other cultures identified such issues during the data collection process.

Regarding individual flamed discussions, some participants from all three cultures stated that they have experienced conflicts with their classmates over e-mail. The participants of this study take courses in which they work in teams which consist of students from different cultures around the world. One Korean participant discussed a situation in which she experienced a conflict with an American student while working in team for a project, The Korean participant sent a reminder e-mail to her American teammate. The American teammate was offended by the reminder and replied with another e-mail on which she copied the professor of the class, which put the Korean participant in an uncomfortable position. The Korean participant explained, “This (sending reminder e-mail) was a normal thing for me but she was offended by the e-mail.”

Participants who encountered individual flamed discussions took different precautions to avoid these kinds of conflicts. One Korean participant stated that she tries to approach such conflicts logically and to solve them through talking. Another Korean participant and an American participant stated that they generally just ignore conflicts, since there is little time for discussions and for following up everything in the hectic life of graduate study, and also because there is the possibility that there will be a need to work together with these same individuals in the future.

Theme 7: Does e-mail eliminate cultural cues?

When participants were asked about the impact of e-mail on the use of cultural cues, all of them without hesitation said that yes, e-mail definitely eliminates cultural cues. The rationale for this answer was generally that, because e-mails is text based, people do not have time to reflect or recognize cultural cues in the e-mails.

Some participants expressed the opinion that because international students use American style writing while they are writing e-mails in English, the only cultural identifiers in e-mails are the fluency of the text and error-free grammar. American participants stated that e-mails from international students sound a little bit strange to them because, even when the grammar of the text is correct, the word order and the fluency of the text may not fit the way Americans use the language. Yet, all of the participants said that they can recognize whether an e-mail is coming from a native speaker or not because of the text structure in the e-mail.

Four participants (one Turkish, two Korean and one American) expressed the belief that e-mail eliminates cultural cues because international people use American style writing in their e-mails. A Korean participant further explained this by saying that in her experience, Korean students in the university use American language style while they are writing in English and that in their use of the English language they do not reflect Korean culture. A Turkish participant stated similar opinions, saying that she feels Turkish students’ communication style with Turkish friends and international friends are different.

Although participants expressed the opinion that e-mail eliminates cultural cues, other data from the study indicate that there are distinctive features of e-mails from members of different cultures. The first feature is that emoticon use and emoticon shapes are different in three different cultures. Second, greeting and ending expressions of e-mails are different. Turkish participants stated that they tended to use more sincere statements and expressions in their e-mails regardless to the recipient of the e-mail, whereas Koreans and Americans tend to use more neutral statements. While not using these expressions in e-mails does not bother most of the American participants, participants from Turkish and Korean cultures find these e-mails strange and a little bit intimidating, especially if it is the first mail exchange with the person. Third, the expression of emotions is different in each of the th! ree cultures represented in this study. American participants stated that they generally do not express their emotions over e-mail and they do not express their emotions to international people either, since, as one American participant stated, international students do not always notice the difference between verbs and e-mail can cause a lot of misunderstandings regarding expression of emotions. Korean participants stated that they express their positive emotions only to their very close national friends and in very controlled ways, yet Turkish participants stated that they could express their emotions to anyone regardless of culture, however in different degrees depending on closeness. Turkish participants also express both negative emotions as well as positive emotions, however, they stated that they tend to not express their negative emotions unless they need to.

Conclusions

Hofstede (1980) stated that the survival of mankind will depend to a large extent on the ability of people who think differently to act together. Because interaction between societies has increased incredibly in the past twenty years, there needs to be some understanding of how people from other cultures think and communicate differently than people from our own culture, whatever “our” culture may be. This qualitative study shows that culture does contribute to some differences in e-mail communication styles in a multicultural environment, but it appears that people do not bring their cultural norms to the e-mail environment as much as they do in face-to-face environments.

The findings of the study showed that all participants from different cultures use e-mail for similar purposes. The identification of three cross-cultural purposes for the use of e-mail emerged from this study; chatting with friends and family, communicating with colleagues for academic and business purposes, and communicating with authority figures such as professors.

All participants in the study reported that they use e-mail for chatting with their friends in their country or other countries. This chatting via e-mail is generally asynchronous and the purpose of the chats is generally to communicate with friends in order to refresh their ties with their own culture, whatever that culture may be.

Another purpose of e-mail, according to participants, is to communicate with their colleagues for business and academic purposes. Among the various types of e-mail exchanges, participants reported that they exchange e-mail to determine meeting times, share documents and exchange ideas regarding projects. Participants report that e-mails sent to colleagues are generally purposeful and task focused.

The third and final purpose for using e-mail that was reported by participants is to communicate with authority figures such as professors. Since e-mail is the most convenient way to communicate with busy faculty members, participants stated that asking questions to professors and requesting appointments are the most frequent purposes for sending e-mails to faculty. A participant explained that she can easily and conveniently communicate with her advisor over e-mail and, by doing so, they can share and discuss more ideas than face to face communication because of time constraints.

The data collected in this study shows that there are cultural tendencies that lead to the use of certain communication styles in e-mails. Language style and expressions of emotions can vary depending on context, content and the recipient of an e-mail. For this reason, it is impossible to say that persons from a particular culture communicate via e-mail only in particular ways. Participants of this study expressed their experiences using e-mail as tendencies, acknowledging that they can adapt their statements and expressions according to the circumstances of the context and requirements of the situation.

As Hofstede (1997) showed, power distance is an important dimension of cultural identification, and that was demonstrated in this study as well. Power distance is an important variable that affects expressions in e-mails. Participants categorize e-mail recipients including family members, close friends, colleagues and superiors on a continuum from closest to the least close, and the expressions, language style, formality of writing and expressions of caring used in e-mails are all dependent on the perceived power distance of these relationships. Participants regardless to the culture are aware of power distance and this eliminates possible problems in communication.

Since all participants are from different cultures in the study and the cultural context of the study is American culture, an important point, which is not indicated in the conceptual framework of this study, emerged; the ability of human beings to adapt to different environments. For eight participants of this study, there are cultural differences between native cultures and the context in which they are now living; however these differences do not severely hinder the life of these participants. These participants have stated that they can change their communication style and expressions depending on the culture of the recipient. An American participant stated that people filter their behaviors according to the context. She gave a good example, even the American students do not hesitate to send e-mails to class listserv, if there is a hierarchical culture in the class, they ask for permission from ! the professor of the class before they send the e-mail. Here the authority of the professor is a filter for their behavior. According to the context, participants filter their cultural and individual preferences and by doing so they adapt the environment and stay in the “safe region” of their e-mail communications. Participants’ different communicating style with national and international people, and their observations in the e-mail lists and personal communications with several people indicate this point.

Although the non-native English speakers who participated in this study are well-educated graduate students and fluent in English, they reported that do not feel as comfortable as they use their native language because many elements of culture are directly related to language. Literally, when some formal expressions in one language translated to another one, they automatically become informal or they do not make any sense in the language to which they are translated. Even in different cultures which use same language, some expressions may cause problems. Therefore, for the non-native speakers, in addition to the different cultural filters, the language filter affects the way they communicate with international people.

Emoticon use in e-mails is common across cultures. Because of their convenience and powerful message carrying features, they are preferred elements of e-mail text. The writing style used in e-mail is influences by classic mail writing style and participants from different cultures have differences in writing style because of differences in letter writing. Since emoticon use was developed after the e-mail use was invented, emoticons have universal meanings with small variations.

The purposes of this study are to point out the existing problems, the possible problems and their sources in e-mail communication in a multicultural environment. Possible problem spots can be categorized as starting of e-mail, style of the language, different meanings of emoticon. First, since the participants from each culture gave different opinions and they view the greeting of e-mail differently, despite of participants’ ignorance, this can create some problems in an environment where the anonymity is assured. Second the language style in the e-mail, although all participants stated that they do not see the difference between the e-mails that they sent to national and international peers, they observe difference in the e-mails that they received from international peers. While using direct and plain language in e-mail is normal for a culture, the person who receives e-mail and is from another c! ulture may view it impolite e-mail. Moreover, using all lower case letters in e-mail is viewed normally in one culture, other cultures can understand it as disgraceful, especially for names. Third possible problem spot can be different meaning of emoticons. Although in general, emoticons point same meaning, there are some variations. For example in one culture using cap size shows the emphasis of the point and is viewed as normal, in other culture it shows the anger. If the facilitators and the communicators in multicultural communication groups are aware of these issues, the problems and their following consequence, anxiety, can be reduced.

Regarding to the findings and implications of this study, the researcher acknowledges that cultural differences do not eliminate individual preferences, nor do they negate an individual's ability to change and adapt to new situations. This study does, however, appear to support the general notion that different cultural influences have some impact on communication strategies. Further research needs to be completed in order to more fully and thoroughly understand the nature and range of these influences.

Limitations

Although this study is a fruit of long, thorough and fast-paced research activity, there are some limitations and their side effects on the results. As far as the noticeable limitations are concerned, three kinds of limitations appear in the study; living in the same context, anonymity and self-report.

In order to find the participants who represent their cultures and are heavily involved in e-mail communication, the researcher first searched for his participants who met the sampling criteria and could provide more information than anybody. However the researcher ended up with selecting the participants who are from the same school and possible know each other and the persons with whom they are working in person. Therefore, they can easily solve their problems or conflicts without using e-mail communication. This point reduced the amount of data that possible could have been received from the participants.

Anonymity is important feature of computer-mediated communication and a freedom for the people to express them however they want. Since the living context is same for the participants, for this study, anonymity is not an issue. This is the trade off of sampling procedure, because the researcher needed to reach specific people as participants. Not having the anonymity of e-mails in the research could reduce the amount of information that could have been caused because of culture.

Because of ethical issues and privacy of private life, the researcher did not have access to participants’ e-mail accounts. Therefore, the researcher had to rely on participants’ self reports. Although the researcher sent the interview questions one day ahead of the interview, it was very difficult for participants to provide answers for all questions within the 1-2 hour interview. Again this situation might reduce the amount and the depth of the data that participants provided.

A further research with similar methodology and where anonymity is an issue can be implemented, because anonymity gives people opportunity that is free from context filters. Along with the interviews with the participants, their e-mails can be analyzed with discourse analysis methods. This research investigated the dimension of cultural effects on e-mail communication. Further research would investigate the magnitude and direction of these cultural effects on e-mail communication found in this research.

References

Fouser, R. J. (2001). "Culture", computer literacy and the media in creating public attitudes toward CMC in Japan and Korea. In C. Ess (Ed.), Culture, Communication Technology (pp.261-280). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic books.

Gudykunst, W. & Kim, Y. (1996). Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communications, 3rd Edn. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gumpert, G. (1990). Remote sex in the information age. In S. L. Fish & G. Gumpert (Eds.), Talking to Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication (pp.143-153). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Hall, E. (1976). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.

Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences. London: Sage.

Ma, R. (1996). Computer mediated conversations as a new dimension of intercultural communication between East Asian and North American college students. In S. C. Herring (Ed.), Computer Mediated Communication (pp. 173-185). Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Metz, J. M. (1992). Computer-mediated communication: Perception of a new context. Paper presented at the Speech communication association, Chicago, IL.

Rice, R. E. & Case, D. (1983). Electronic message systems in the university: A description of use and utility. Journal of Communication, 33(1), 131-152.

Rice, R. E. & Love, G. (1987). Electronic love: Socioemotional content in a computer mediated communication network. Communication Research, 14, 85-108.

Short, J., Williams, E. & Christie, B. (1976). The Social Psychology of Telecommunication. London: Wiley.

Steward, C. M, Shields, S. F. & Sen, N. (2001). Diversity in on-line discussions: A study of cultural and gender differences in listservs. In C. Ess (Ed.), Culture, Technology, Communication (pp.161-186). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Tannen, D. (1990). You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Intercultural conflict styles: A face negotiation theory. In Y Kim & W Gudykunst (Eds.), Theories in Intercultural Communication (pp. 213-235). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Van Gelder, L. (1990). The strange case of the electronic lover. In G. Gumpert and S.L Fish (Eds), Talking to the Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication (pp. 128-142). Norwood, NJ:Ablex.

Walther, J. B. & Burgoon, J. K. (1992). Relational communication in computer mediated interaction. Human Communication Research, 19, 50-88

Appendices

Appendix 1: Demographic data collection sheet

Please answer the questions to the provided space next to the questions.

1.                  Nationality: ______________________________

2.                  Age: ____________

3.                  University status: __________________________

4.                  To which cultural group do you feel you belong?

5.                  How many years have you been exposed to the culture, which you belong to?

6.                  Which foreign language(s) do you speak?

7.                  Have you lived in a foreign country, which ones?

8.                  (If answer to question 7 is Yes), How many years?

9.                  How many years have you been using e-mail?

10.              Generally, what are your purposes for using e-mail?

11.              How frequently do you usually access e-mail in a day?

12.              In general, how much time do you spend e-mailing each day?

13.              Roughly, how many e-mails do you send to the people from your culture and how many e-mails do you send to the people from other cultures in an average day?

Own culture: ___________

Other cultures: _________

Appendix 2: Interview Questions

1.            Are cultures different from your culture in the context in which you are living; is your culture different from others?

2.            Do you think people from different cultures use e-mail differentially, if yes, what kind of important differences did you observe in e-mail communication between your culture and other cultures?

3.            What determines the language style you use in the e-mail? Do you think that your culture determines your language style in your mail? If so, how?

4.            What are the variables that affect the length of your e-mail? Can you give specific examples?

5.            What kind of starting and ending expressions do you and other people use in e-mail? What causes you to use your expressions in your e-mail and do you think this is because of your culture? If so, why?

6.            When you or other people from your culture find out information about your class, do you share it among your peers or among all class members through e-mail? If so, why?

7.            Do you somehow express your emotions when using e-mail? If so, how do you express your emotions to your national and international peers?

8.            Do you use emoticons to express your emotions in your e-mail? If so, when, how and with whom do you use them? Do you use them differently if sending to national or international peers?

9.            Do you think that the use of e-mail eliminates cultural cues in communication? For example, when you read an e-mail message do you observe cultural cues in this message? Can you give examples?

10.        Have you ever encountered any class e-mail list “flamed” discussion? Do you think that any cultural effects played role to flame the discussions? If so, why?

11.        Have you ever encountered any problems or conflicts in your e-mail communication with your international peers because of cultural differences? What were these problems, and what precautions did you take to avoid having these conflicts again?


Copyright 2005 Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.

This file may not be publicly distributed or reproduced without written permission of the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship,

P.O. Box 57, Rotterdam Jct., NY 12150 USA (phone: 518-887-2443).