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‘Dear Dr John Smith. I refuse to obey this mark. That’s mean. So, can you give me a higher mark?’

‘Dear Dr John Smith. I refuse to obey this mark. That’s mean. So, can you give me a higher mark?’ 1IntroductionEmail communication is considered the most used and preferred medium among faculty members (Zimmerman and Bar-Ilan, 2009; Betti, 2013). It has revolutionised the procedure in which students interact with their lecturers and has increased the lecturer’s work capacity, previously limited to face-to-face meetings. How we use language and its different styles have fascinated authors throughout the history (Crystal 2006; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Betti, 2013). Despite its asynchronous nature, email communication could also exhibit oral discourse characteristics, as it has been regarded as a hybrid genre (Crystal, 2006). These linguistic features, combined with the influence of social media and its quick and concise communication style, have impacted the dynamic and linguistic characteristics of communicative exchanges between students and faculty members (Robles-Garrote, 2020; Rodríguez Velasco, 2020). All these components test students’ pragmatic competence, which can be described as “the ability to identify relevant linguistic indexes (linguistic awareness), retrieve relevant pragmatic effects (pragmatic awareness) and explicate the link between lexical indexes and pragmatic effects retrieved (metapragmatic awareness)” (Ifantidou, 2014: 130). Therefore, the inability to understand “what is meant by what is said” (Thomas, 1983) leads to what is known as “pragmatic failure”. In this context, pragmatic failure is understood by the lack of awareness of how to appropriately address their lecturers and the scenario and the lack of consideration of contextual factors, such as power or social distance.Culture also has a decisive role since social norms may change from one culture to another. The relationship between individuals and their social behaviour highly depends on the community to which they belong, and therefore the way politeness norms are seen may change. As a number of studies have proven, Western and Eastern concepts of politeness and public face are different (Gu, 1990; Aziz, 2005; Zhu and Bao, 2010; Zhou and Zang, 2018). Western politeness theory (Brown and Levinson, 1978) states that the concept of face embodies two social needs that go beyond cultural boundaries. On the one hand, public face is the essential element of courtesy, and, on the other hand, the relationship between public face and politeness is characterised as being a means to an end (Gu, 1990). However, as Aziz (2005) pointed out, for Western societies, face is focused upon individual aspects, such as the individual’s wants or desires, while for Eastern cultures, in this case the Chinese one, face is focused upon its communal aspect. For the Chinese culture, face concerns the harmony of individual conduct with the views and judgment of the community. Actions are ruled by lian and mien-tzu, which cannot be properly understood in terms of positive and negative face. Mien-tzu represents the desire for social recognition achieved after personal effort, while lian brings an inherent moral nuance that is not recorded in the Western concept of positive image. These cultural differences could potentially cause a pragmatic failure, particularly when addressing face threating acts (FTA s), such as the speech act of disagreement. The use of politeness strategies (Brown and Levinson, 1978; Scollon and Scollon, 1995) or cooperative principles (Grice, 1978) could help to soften students’ approaches. However, a number of studies in the field of interlanguage pragmatics have confirmed that “even fairly advanced L2 learners often lack adequate pragmatic awareness and competence in the L2 (Bardovi-Harlig and Dörnyei, 1998) and they sometimes perform […] speech acts inappropriately or simply differently to native speakers” (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015: 415).The speech act of disagreement has been one of the speech acts that have received the least attention in the field of interlanguage pragmatics, as it has usually been considered as part of a more general position of lack of agreement (disagreement, dissatisfaction, opposition) (Rodríguez Velasco, 2020). However, in academic communication this speech act precedes any argumentation and is considered central to scholastic positioning. It should be noted that the illocutionary force of this act is determined by the relationship between the parties (student/student, student/teacher, etc.); therefore, the less equitable the power relationship between them is, the stronger its illocutionary force. Since disagreeing is a face-threatening act, politeness strategies are often required to protect interlocutors’ face. Studies such as those of Xuehua (2006), Zhu and Boxer (2013), Yan (2016), López-Ozieblo (2018) and Rodríguez Velasco (2020) offer insights into what Chinese students are struggling with during their development of interlanguage pragmatic competence. Results from Yan (2016) and López-Ozieblo (2018) suggest that disagreements are dispreferred options in this particular context. Nonetheless, studies such as those of Xuehua (2006), Zhu and Boxer (2013) and Rodríguez Velasco (2020) refute that claim. Zhu (2014) has argued that depending on the context and what is at stake, the Chinese community does not hesitate to adopt direct strategies to openly express disagreement. This dichotomy shows that more research is needed, especially in an academic context where there is an insufficient bibliography. As this study is based on an intercultural conversation (Eastern students–Western lecturer), Brown and Levison’s (1978) theory on face and politeness was adopted as the main explanatory framework for interpreting the strategies used in students’ email conversations.2Theoretical frameworkIn the following pages, the practice of politeness strategies will be addressed by analysing different components of email communication, such as subject lines and opening and closing moves and by observing how these strategies are being used when a speech act of disagreement takes place.2.1Subject line, opening moves and closing moves in faculty communicationSubject lines are the first information that the recipient receives along with the name of the sender. It fulfils a similar function to the postage stamp or envelope appearance in a paper survey (Porter and Whitcomb, 2005) or the introductory statement in telephone interviews and the opening paragraph in a cover letter (Sappleton and Lourenço, 2015). Its content, style and relevance constitute “a critical element in the decision-making over what priority to assign to it or whether to open it at all” (Crystal, 2006, 102). Research on the influence of subject lines has grown in the last few decades, but its results are mixed. According to Smith and Kiniorski (2003), subject lines that emphasised prizes and self-expression had a higher response rate than those which asked for help. However, Kent and Brandal’s (2003) data showed that a prize subject line generated a lower response rate compared to those that simply stated the purpose of the email. Trouteaud (2004) pointed out that the introduction of a request for help in the subject line increased response rates by 5 % over a self-expression subject line. Other studies have found no difference between customised or generic subject lines (Callegaro et al., 2009) or have failed to find a link between subject line categories and the number of times the message was read by forum users (Skogs, 2013). It has also been said that using a blank subject line produces higher response rates than those with content in it (Porter and Whitcomb, 2005). These observations were also seen in Wainer et al.’s (2011: 8) results, where “people attended to messages that had the largest information gap in terms of the least amount of information about the content in the subject line, regardless of marked task importance”. A possible explanation could be the sense of intrigue provoked in the recipient (Sappleton and Lourenço, 2016). This is particularly interesting because common intuition would make us believe that a detailed subject line would be preferred as it helps us to intuit what the message is about. Other studies (Trouteaud, 2004; Druckman and Green, 2013) had verified how different strategies, such as the reference to emotions in the body of the subject line, also trigger the curiosity of the reader. However, in an academic context, as Phelps et al. (2004) or Burgess et al. (2005) have pointed out, the need to send emails with sufficiently detailed subject lines is vital. The main reason is that “receiving email on an exponential rate [as lecturers do] becomes harder to manage and prioritise, so the effect of inadequate subject lines compounds the situation through additional time spent dealing with emails with defects.” (Burgess et al., 2005: 82). As can be noticed, clearly further research is needed to understand the effects of subject lines.Another important aspect in computer mediated communication (CMC) is the correct use of opening and closing moves. They are employed as politeness markers since they are oriented to the addressee’s face needs (Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014). Although they are optional elements in email communication (Crystal, 2006), and therefore they may be omitted in this type of exchanges (Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019), their absence could cause a pragmatic failure. On the one hand, they reflect the power distance and familiarity between interlocutors, and, on the other hand, they are expressions which are crucial to maintaining and constructing relationships. Nonetheless, despite their importance as strategies to seek “common ground”, the scarcity of their use and the lack of knowledge concerning how to use them according to the context (Betti, 2013; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015) seems to be the norm in many student–lecturer interactions. A number of studies have examined how students use email to communicate with their lecturers in an academic context (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014; Rodríguez Velasco, 2019). Their results confirm that learners’ perception plays a key role in deciding which greeting and closing formula should be used. However, faculty members and students’ perception of their relationship could be different, which might lead to a potential pragmatic failure due to inappropriate and insufficient mitigation or lack of status-congruent language on the part of the students (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015). Studies on opening and closing moves have reflected a great variation regarding forms of address employed by students (Bou-Franch, 2011; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011; Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014). Failure to show the expected level of deference to the professor (Salazar-Campillo, 2018; Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014) and limitations in students’ pragmatic competence (Bou-Franch, 2013; Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019) also seem to be common characteristics in university students’ emails. The great variation in opening and closing styles in all these studies reveals the lack of standardisation in relation to the style of writing among students, which should raise awareness about the need for instruction on how to write culturally acceptable and context-adequate emails (Betti, 2013; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Rodríguez Velasco, 2019).2.2The expression of disagreement in Chinese speakersThe speech act of disagreement is “a confrontational macro-speech act which ranges from dissent to attack and disqualification” (Brenes-Peña, 2011: 9). This type of speech act can be understood as a form of social interaction which can be characterised by the use of verbal opposition and can be triggered by challenging, correcting, degrading, threatening, accusing or insulting another person (Brenes-Peña, 2011). These characteristics make it a face threating act (Brown and Levinson, 1978) that requires a significant level of pragmatic competence. As Yan (2016: 232) states, “people vary greatly in choosing confrontational or non-confrontational expressions of disagreement in different situations”. A number of studies have observed how people from different cultural backgrounds perform this speech act in consonance with their cultural norms and values (Brenes-Peña, 2011; Betti, 2013; Yan, 2016; Lü, 2018).Since Chinese culture has been characterised as “collectivist” in most empirical studies (Hofstede, 1980; Triandis, 1995), it seems necessary to analyse whether transferability of pragmatic strategies exists when disagreeing in a foreign language with different cultural characteristics. Compared to the British or American cultures, the Chinese one seems to be characterised by the use of an evasive and indeterminate language (Cheng and Tsui, 2009; López-Ozieblo, 2018), in which obedience to the social order and respect to the hierarchy is the norm (Cheng, 1986). All these attributes have shaped its language style, which is said to be prone to avoiding making direct statements in order to prevent friction (Lü, 2018).Previous studies on how the Chinese community disagrees have been conducted by many researchers; however, their results are mixed (Xuehua, 2006; Shen, 2006; Cheng and Tsui, 2009; Zhu, 2012; Yan, 2016, Rodríguez Velasco, 2020). Xuehua (2006) studied Chinese EFL learners’ abilities to express disagreement to their lecturer and the influence of external factors, such as personal involvement and social status, on their strategy choice. His results proved that in order to express disagreement, students preferred showing it directly with limited use of positive or negative politeness strategies or hinting strategies. Xuehua’s (2006) results coincide with those of Rodríguez Velasco (2020), who also investigated the use of (im)politeness and disagreement in 149 Chinese university students’ emails to their lecturer. In their study, the preference among Chinese speakers to choose a direct and unmitigated language style was also revealed. These two studies confront those of Shen (2006), Cheng and Tsui (2009) and Zhu (2012). Shen (2006), who analysed how disagreement strategies are used in business negotiation settings, found that collective disagreement moves among Chinese participants tend to be omitted so they could avoid confrontation. These conclusions correlate with Cheng and Tsui’s (2009) data, which showed how Hong Kong Chinese speakers showed great effort in avoiding confrontation and in accommodating the interlocutor’s face want, rather than competing for face want. Zhu’s (2012) results also confirm the tendency of the Chinese community toward an inductive rhetorical language style in their emails. Nonetheless, Yan (2016), who studied the politeness strategies in disagreement between native speakers of English and Chinese EFL learners, could serve as an example of the existence of both language styles among Chinese speakers. Her results show how Chinese EFL learners tended to use direct strategies when disagreeing with interlocutors of the same status, while a more inductive rhetorical language style was used when disagreeing with interlocutors of higher status.All these studies have evidenced the need for further understanding on how different contextual factors and strategies interact when the speech act of disagreement is used, as it is believed that relatively little attention has been paid to this speech act. Many authors have noted the insufficient knowledge of non-native speakers’ politeness strategies, which can cause cross-cultural miscommunications and lead to pragmatic failures (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Betti, 2013; Yan, 2016; Rodríguez Velasco, 2019, 2020). Therefore, in pursuit of a better understanding of how Chinese university students address this situation and what features play a key role in their pragmatic consciousness and in their cross-cultural pragmatic competence, this study applied the taxonomy of Skogs (2013), Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011), Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo (2019) and Xuehua (2006). The combination of these studies provides the basis on which this research is based.3Research methodThe current study analyses the macro- and microstructure of email communication to a faculty member among Chinese sophomore and senior university students of English. To analyse the macrostructure of their emails, the uses and preferences concerning subject lines and opening and closing moves were examined, whereas to analyse the microstructure, the uses and functions of their strategies related to disagreement in messages were investigated. This research aims to answer the following questions:What general pattern of subject line, opening and closing moves choice do sophomore and senior Chinese students choose when writing in English an email to their lecturer?Which strategies do they use when they disagree with their lecturer?In order to examine potential differences in email communication to a faculty member, a corpus of 200 emails was collected during the academic year 2017/2018. This corpus includes 100 emails written by second-year students (sophomores) and 100 emails written by forth-year students (seniors). These 200 students were learning English as a foreign language at Heilongjiang International University, and their language proficiency varied from B1 (sophomores) to B2 (seniors). The subjects analysed were two groups of 91 females and 9 males aging from 18 to 22 (sophomores) and 20 to 24 (seniors). Both groups were native-Chinese speakers coming from different regions of China.To identify the pattern choice, a linguistic analysis of the subject line and opening and closing moves was done. As this is a data-driven study, the categories were determined inductively based on the typical linguistic function of a particular word or stretch of words. The analysis of the subject line (SL) was carried out by means of Skogs’ (2013) typology, which identifies the following five categories: SL1 includes references to the message content itself; SL2 describes the function of the message by using a label such as answer, reply, response, comment; SL3 contains both greetings and addressee names; SL4 expresses stance, opinion or evaluative feedback on the part of the author; and SL5 includes blank subject lines. However, due to the lack of greetings and addressee names in the subject lines, SL3 was changed, and all categories were reorganised to group those which did not fit in any of the previous categories.The analysis of the opening and closing moves was carried out by means of Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011) and Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo’s (2019) classification. Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011) typology was adapted to identify different forms of address, while Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo’s (2019) classification was used to identify pleasantry and identification of self. Pleasantry comprise expressions of gratitude or apology, while identification of self includes the introduction of the student to the lecturer. In order to recognise the closing moves, Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo’s (2019) typology was also used and adapted. They identify three moves: preclosing statement, which relates to expressions of gratitude or apology for the request made; complimentary close, which describes conventional and formulaic closing expression (e.g. Kind regards) and the signature, which can be expressed by either the student’s first name (FN) (e.g. Chen), their last name (LN) (e.g. Liu) or both (FN+LN) (e.g. Chen Liu).In pursuance of eliciting disagreement strategies and evaluating their pragmalinguistic competence, a pedagogical framework-based task was designed. The instructions were as follows:Imagine your lecturer has sent you the following email. You obtained a mark of 4 out of 10 (FAIL) in the final examination for the module Oral English, and you do not agree with the mark given. Write an email to your lecturer, Dr John Smith, showing your opinion along with any request you feel is necessary.In this scenario, students were asked to imagine Dr John Smith as one of their middle-aged British lecturers. They had to respond to his email, giving their opinion about the failing grade received in the final exam of their Oral English module. As the focus of this study is the analysis of their pragmatic strategies and is in pursuit of more realistic outcomes, students were allowed to use their dictionaries and online resources to search for vocabulary, grammar and uses of politeness formulas. Therefore, to analyse the disagreement strategies, Xuehua’s (2006) classification was used, which identifies the following five categories: Strategy 1 (direct strategy: expressing disagreement directly and boldly without redressive actions), Strategy 2 (negative politeness strategy: orientated to the hearer’s negative face, such as accounting, mitigating and rhetorical questions), Strategy 3 (positive politeness strategy: orientated to the hearer’s positive face, such as partial agreement, pseudo-agreement and conditioned agreement), Strategy 4 (hinting strategy: implicitly expressing disagreement, such as hints, and positive comment) and Strategy 5 (Avoidance Strategy: non-commitment on the other opinions). Nonetheless, as the task asked students to directly disagree to their lecturer, Xuehua’s fifth strategy was removed. Instead, Strategy 5 was selected to identify the expression of feelings, emotional blackmail and flattery used by students in their emails. Some of the emails used in this paper are transcribed in the Nebrija-WOCAE (Written and Oral Chinese Academic Emails) corpus in SLABank/TalkBank (Rodríguez Velasco, 2019).4ResultsResults from the analysis of subject lines, opening and closing moves and strategies related to disagreement used by sophomore and senior students will be further discussed.4.1Macrostructural analysis4.1.1Analysis of subject-line contentAs can be seen in Table 1, results revealed that out of the 200 emails collected, 64.5 % did not use any kind of subject line (SL4 129/200). A chi-square independence test was performed in order to examine whether there were significant differences between its presence and omission. The results indicated that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .657). The qualitative analyses showed that when the subject line was used, it seems that 19.5 % of students preferred to use it to refer to its content (SL1 39/200), while 9 % applied it to express their opinions or to give feedback (SL3 18/200), 5.5 % described the function of the message (SL2 11/200) and 1.5 % preferred to use any other kind of subject line (SL5 3/200). The significance of each category was also studied. In this case, only SL1, SL2 and SL3 were calculated since the values of SL5 did not allow it. The results indicated, one more time, that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .545).Table 1Groups and overall preferences for subject line typesTypeUseSophomoreSeniorOverallof SLstudentsstudentspreference(n: 100)(n: 100)(n: 200)1References to the message content itself211839 (19.5 %)2Describes the function of the message by using a label (answer, reply, response)6511 (5.5 %)3Expresses stance, opinion or feedback on the part of the author71118 (9 %)4Subject lines blank6366129 (64.5 %)5Other303 (1.5 %)Data revealed that although there is not a quantitative difference in the number of subject line types provided by both groups, from a qualitatively point of view, it appeared that in spite of the different academic year, the preference for subject line type among students was similar. It was also found that when deciding to use SL1, students tended to choose the same stretch of words (e.g. Oral English [CH-EN_2_1]1). Its influence was reflected in the number of subject lines where it appears (13/21 in sophomore; 8/18 in senior students). Results also showed that when using SL2, sophomore students used it to ask (3/6) whereas senior students used it to request (4/5). With regard to SL3, the tendency for the majority of the participants was to give feedback (6/7 in sophomore and 10/11 in senior students). Finally, when students used the “Other” type of subject line (SL5), they were too generic (e.g. Faculty of Humanities, Language and Communication Studies [CH-EN_2_13]).4.1.2Analysis of the opening and closing movesResults of the analysis of opening and closing moves for sophomore and senior students will be further commented.4.1.2.1Opening movesThe qualitative analyses of the opening moves of both groups showed that almost every student used one to initiate the email to their lecturer. As Table 2 illustrates, 99 % of sophomore and 98 % of senior students used greeting formulas to open their emails. Among those formulas, the Use of “dear” was the form of address preferred by students, used in 92.5 % of the overall corpus (89 % in the sophomore and 96 % in the senior student’s emails). Data indicates that within this category, the two most used formulas were Dear + FN + LN (e.g. Dear John Smith [CH-EN_4_3]), chosen in 38 % of the emails (76/200), closely followed by Dear + Academic Title + FN + LN (e.g. Dear Dr John Smith [CH-EN_4_5]2) in 33 % (66/200). Other types of salutation were also found in the corpus, such as omission of “dear”, used in 2.5 % (5/200) (e.g. Dr. John Smith [CH-EN_4_27]) and greetings (e.g. Hi [CH-EN_2_43]) used in 1.5 % (3/200), where, in some cases, both groups (4 % of sophomores and 10 % of seniors) reduplicated them (e.g. Dear John Smith, Hello teacher [CH-EN_4_41] or Dear Dr. John Smith, Hello! [CH-EN_2_72]). It is also worth mentioning that in this case the significance of each category was not calculated since their values did not allow it. However, once again, from a qualitative point of view, the analysis of opening moves showed a great variety of forms of address when writing an email.Table 2Typology for the analysis of opening movesForms of ExampleSophomoreSeniorOveralladdressstudents studentspreference(n = 100)(n = 100)(n = 200)Use of “dear”Dear + FN + LNDear John Smith265076 (38 %)Dear + FNDear John213 (1.5 %)Dear + LNDear Smith112 (1 %)Dear + Academic Title + FN + LNDear Dr. John Smith432366 (33 %)Dear + Academic Title + LNDear Dr. Smith314 (2 %)Dear + Incorrect Academic Title + FNDear Mr. John033 (1.5 %)Dear + Incorrect Academic Title + LNDear Mr. Smith257 (3.5 %)Other121224 (12 %)Omission of “dear”Academic Title + FN + LNDr John Smith505 (2.5 %)Use of greetingsHi/Hello + Incorrect Academic TitleHi/Hello teacher202 (1 %)Hi/Hello + Academic Title + FN + LNHello Dr. John Smith101 (0.5 %)Zero forms of address213 (1.5 %)Other134 (2 %)PleasantryGratitudeThanks for helping and teaching in this term.141226 (13 %)ApologyI’m sorry to bother you, but I have a question to ask you.102030 (15 %)Identification of selfI’m your student Mary.82331 (15.5 %)adapted from Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019: 66Other opening moves found in the corpus were the use of pleasantry and the identification of the student. Pleasantry was seen in 28 % of the overall corpus (13 % gratitude and 15 % apology). As Table 2 shows, the use of gratitude looked similar in both groups despite the difference in their academic year. However, it seems that in terms of apology, senior students tended to express remorse twice as much as sophomore did. In the case of self-identification, found in 15.5 % of the emails (31/200), their differences were accentuated even more. As the results show, senior students introduced themselves almost as three times more than sophomores did (8 sophomore vs. 23 senior students).4.1.2.2Closing movesIn terms of the preclosing statements category, as Table 3 illustrates, data revealed that from a qualitatively point of view, hope/wish was the most chosen move, with 51 % of the overall preference (102/200 emails), used by 60 % of the sophomores and 42 % of the seniors (e.g. So I hope you can show mercy, give me a new grade [CH-EN_4_100]). Gratitude was the second most chosen move, selected by with 40 % of the students in both groups (e.g. Thank you for reading the letter [CH-EN_2_9]), followed by appeal, found in 22 % of the emails (e.g. I’m looking forward to hearing from you! [CH-EN_4_3]) and apology with 8 % (e.g. Sorry to have troubled you [CH-EN_2_89]). A quantitative analysis between groups indicated that their contrast was statistically significant (p = .023).With regard to the complimentary close category, the majority of the students opted for Yours (29 %), followed by Yours sincerely (13.5 %) and Your student (13 %). A total number of 26/200 emails chose other kinds of formulas, such as Best regards (2.5 %) or Yours faithfully (0.5 %). It is interesting to mention that as before in the opening moves, reduplication was also found in 11 % of the sophomores’ and 14 % of the seniors’ closing moves (e.g. Best wishes to you, Yours [CH-EN_2_23] or Kind regards, Yours sincerely [CH-EN_4_98]). The quantitative analyses in these cases showed that their contrast was not statistically significant (p = .937). Zero form of farewell was also seen in the corpus. This option was widely used, seen in 21 % (42/200) of the corpus.Finally, the study of their signatures showed similarities in their patterns. It seems that students tended to choose their Chinese name (e.g. Yan [CH-EN_4_86]) or Western first name (e.g. Isabella [CH-EN_2_97]) (FN= 65.5 %), followed by a lack of signature (Ø= 21 %), another kind of signature (9.5 % e.g. Student [CH-EN_2_83]) and their first name and last name (e.g. Lu Chengzhi [CH-EN_2_95]) (FN+LN= 4 %). However, the quantitative analyses indicated that when the signature was used, the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .204).Table 3Typology for the analysis of closing movesPreclosing statementExamplesSophomoreSeniorOverallstudentsstudentspreference(n = 100)(n = 100)(n = 200)GratitudeThank you for your patience.404080 (40 %)AppealI’m looking forward to receiving your email.172744 (22 %)Hope/wishI hope you can give me more advice.6042102 (51 %)ApologyI am so sorry that I can’t meet your expectations.41216 (8 %)Complimentary closeYours332558 (29 %)Best wishes448 (4 %)Yours sincerely131427 (13.5 %)Your student131326 (13 %)Sincerely6713 (6.5 %)Other121426 (13 %)Zero forms of farewell192342 (21 %)SignatureFNHelen7061131 (65.5 %)FN + LNChen Liu448 (4 %)OtherXXX, Student61319 (9.5 %)Ø202242 (21 %)adapted from Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo 2019: 67Overall, our analysis seems to indicate that despite using opening and closing moves in most of the cases, EFL Chinese students’ emails exhibit limitations in pragmatic competence. This statement will be further argued in the discussion section.4.2Microstructural analysis4.2.1Analysis of the disagreement strategies in email communicationOnce the data was analysed, it was found that as Xuehua’s (2006) results pointed out, when expressing disagreement, students preferred addressing it directly with little redressive action or use of indirect language or positive/negative politeness strategies, as Figure 1 and Table 4 show.Although the qualitative analyses indicated that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .323), from a qualitative point of view, results showed that Chinese students preferred to disagree directly with a faculty member. Despite being the most face-threatening strategy, direct strategy (Strategy 1) was used in 177 emails (88.5 % of the corpus). To mitigate the impact of their speech acts, students also used strategies such as the expression of feelings (Strategy 5), used in 132 emails (66 % of the corpus), followed by negative politeness (Strategy 2), found in 110 emails (55 %), the use of indirect language or hints (Strategy 4), seen in 81 emails (40.5 %) and positive politeness (Strategy 3), employed in 49 emails (24.5 %).Figure 1General number of emails in which disagreement strategies were usedTable 4Overall preference for and percentage of disagreement strategiesStrategy 1Strategy 2Strategy 3Strategy 4Strategy 5Overall preference(N = 200)1771104981132Overall percentage (N = 100 %)(88.5 %)(55 %)(24.5 %)(40.5 %)(66 %)4.3.1Strategy 1: Use of direct disagreementAs stated before, the use of direct disagreement was the strategy most used among both groups (229 times used by sophomore and 195 times by senior students). A chi-square independence test indicated that the contrast between groups was statistically significant (p = .004). As Table 5 shows, within this strategy, the most common way to disagree with their lecturer was by using a mixture of disagreement formulas, as examples Table 6. This strategy was used 116 times, 62 by sophomores and 54 by seniors. Surprisingly, the second most common way to disagree was by attacking their lecturer’s professionalism, either by criticising his practices, his methodology or his competence in correcting the exam (e.g. Have you read it carefully? Why do all of our marks look the same? Please give us a reasonable explanation [CH-EN_4_45]). This practice was used 112 times and was seen in 39 % of the sophomores’ and 47 % of the seniors’ emails.Table 5Number of times Strategy 1 was usedDirectContradictionAttackAsk forOtherTotaldisagreementlecturer’sa betterprofessionalismmarkSophomores3340514362229Seniors1546611954195Contradicting their lecturer’s grades was also a common strategy chosen by both groups (used 40 times by sophomores and 46 times by seniors). Overall, students based their contradiction on the basis that they have done all their homework [e.g. I finished all my homework on time this semester [CH-EN_2_4]], have not missed any lessons (e.g. I have attended class on time, and I haven’t missed any classes [CH-EN_4_86]) or have behaved correctly (e.g. I have behaved well [CH-EN_4_96]), and therefore they should have a higher mark. This claim brings us to their next strategy: the repeated demand for a better/higher mark, used 62 times and predominantly found in sophomores’ emails (e.g. I think my score should be higher than this [CH-EN_2_12]). Finally, the direct disagreement category was the least used within the direct strategy by both groups, seen 48 times and used by 30 % of sophomore and 15 % of senior students (e.g. First, I disagree with the mark [CH-EN_2_87]). As commented upon before, more examples of these strategies can be found in Table 6.Table 6Examples of Strategy 1 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’examplesSenior students’examplesDirect disagreementI don’t agree with your mark. I think I did a good job in my speaking and listening.[CH-EN_2_20]I do not agree with the mark that you have given me.[CH-EN_4_6]ContradictionI don’t think I deserve only 4 points on my final oral examination.[CH-EN_2_29]I think my performance is much higher than you scored.[CH-EN_4_36]Attack lecturer’s professionalismMaybe you are careless for my mark when you correct the paper.[CH-EN_2_24]I think you may have made a mistake about my mark. So, I wish you correct it.[CH-EN_4_69]Ask for a better markI am eager to improve my spoken English, so I study very hard, to be honest, I think I can get 8 points.[CH-EN_2_67]I want to ask you why you give me a mark of 4 out of 10. I think my mark is at lees 6.[CH-EN_4_47]OtherI refuse to obey this mark. I think my behaviour doesn’t match my final mark.[CH-EN_2_20]I hope you can give me a reasonable grade.[CH-EN_4_94]4.3.2Strategy 2: Use of negative politenessAccording to the results, it seems that senior students were more likely to used negative politeness to minimise their disagreement than their counterparts. As shown in Figure 1 and Table 4, negative politeness was used 94 times and found in 61 % of senior students’ emails in contrast to the 76 times and 49 % of the sophomores’ emails. In pursuit of deference, supportive moves, such preparators (e.g. I am taking the liberty of sending this email) or apology (e.g. I am sorry to write this email to you) were used in their emails. Syntactic mitigation downgraders, such as interrogative clauses (e.g. Could you …), progressive aspect (e.g. I was wondering …), past tense (e.g. I would like to …) and if clauses (I would be very grateful if …), as well as lexical modifiers, such as please, some, any, maybe or possible, were other types of downtoners seen in the corpus. Some of these formulas are shown in Table 7.Table 7Examples of Strategy 2 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesNegative politenessI am taking the liberty of sending this email. I hope I am not disturbing you.[CH-EN_2_]I would appreciate you so much if you would like to check my mark again.[CH-EN_4_]If you are not busy, would you please tell me the reason?[CH-EN_2_]I am sorry to write this email to you, but I have some questions about my examination mark.[CH-EN_4_]I know my request may be offensive, but I really care about my final mark.[CH-EN_2_]Could you please recheck my paper when you are free?[CH-EN_4_]4.3.3Strategy 3: Use of positive politenessAs Table 8 illustrates, positive politeness was the least chosen strategy. It was seen in 29 % of the sophomores’ and 20 % of the seniors’ emails. When used, both groups tended to partially agree with their teacher, although the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .104). These results support Xuehua’s (2006: 59) observations, which claimed that the students were hardly aware of the possibility of using this strategy. These results can lead to thinking that students do not understand or are not aware of the benefits of using this kind of strategy to minimise the threat to their hearer’s positive face.Table 8Number of times Strategy 3 was usedPartial agreementTotal agreementTotalSophomore students211435Senior students17421By looking at the results, it seems that the students did not take into consideration factors that may influence their pragmalinguistic moves, such as power or the social distance between them and their teacher when writing their emails. However, when used, students tended to mitigate their disagreement by agreeing totally or partially or by explaining themselves. Some examples of this strategy are illustrated in Table 9.Table 9Examples of Strategy 3 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesPartial agreementAlthough my oral English is poor, I think I still get five marks or more.[CH-EN_2_55]Maybe my oral English and written English is not good enough, but I’m hard working.[CH-EN_4_50]Total agreementI know I still have a lot of space for improvement.[CH-EN_2_91]I know I still have many aspect that need to be corrected.[CH-EN_4_43]4.3.4Strategy 4: Use of indirect language and hintsAs the results showed, the use of indirect language and hints was the second-least used strategy when addressing the teacher. Indirect language or hints were chosen by 40.5 % of the students (37 % of sophomores and 44 % of seniors). As Table 10 shows, both groups tended to express their disagreement by doubting (e.g. I have some doubts with the oral English [CH-EN_4_52]) or expressing different opinions or views (e.g. I have some different views of my grades [CH-EN_4_85]). This usage correlates with Yeung’s (2000) results, which showed how participants tended to adopt these practices as a way to disagree. The students were very careful with the vocabulary they used in their emails, attempting to express what they felt without jeopardising the interpersonal relationship.Table 10Examples of Strategy 4 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesIndirect language and hintsI have some doubts and suggestions to discuss with you.[CH-EN_2_9]I have some doubts about my mark.[CH-EN_4_44]I want you to know that I only express my personal opinion.[CH-EN_2_60]I have some opinions for my final examination mark for Oral English.[CH-EN_4_16]I have questions about my final exam results.[CH-EN_2_1]I have some questions about my oral exam results.[CH-EN_4_74]4.3.5Strategy 5: Use of emotional expressionThe expression of emotion was the second-most practised strategy seen in 132 emails (66 % of the corpus) and used 124 times by sophomores and 96 times by senior students. Although from a quantitative point of view, the results did not show a statistical difference between the two groups (p = .257), the qualitative analysis showed that when Strategy 5 was used, most students tended to express their feelings; see Table 11. Sadness and surprise were the emotions most displayed (e.g. I feel so sad I had only four points [CH-EN_2_6]; I was surprised to get such a bad score [CH-EN_2_19]); however, other feelings such as envy, regret, or confusion were also found in the corpus (e.g. I am very regret to fail this exam [CH-EN_4_40]). This practice was specially adopted by sophomores who used it 92 times and was found in 72 % of their emails, compared to seniors, who used it 63 times and was seen in 60 % of their corpus.Table 11Number of times Strategy 5 was usedExpressionEmotionalFlatteryTotalof feelingsblackmailSophomore students921417124Senior students63122196Another common manner of expressing emotions was the use of flattery. This approach was found 17 times in the sophomores’ and 21 times in the seniors’ corpus. Students tended to praise their teacher by complimenting their hard work (e.g. I deeply appreciate your hard working! [CH-EN_4_14]), their style (e.g. I like your class very much, I think you class style is very perfect [CH-EN_2_77]) or by declaring how much his classes had impacted on them (e.g. Since I attended your class, I found another me [CH-EN_2_65]). More examples can be found in Table 12.Table 12Examples of Strategy 5 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesExpression of feelingsI feel sad and bewilderment because I think my exam mark should be good.[CH-EN_2_27]I feel so surprised and sad when I knew the news that I have failed the exam.[CH-EN_4_29]Emotional blackmailI feel sad and start denying myself. We students are worry about our marks every day; we live under pressure every day, and we feel tired, even more tired than high school life.[CH-EN_2_60]For us students, it’s unexpected and unreasonable to obtain a mark of just 4 out of 10, which will definitely discourage us from further learning. […] As I mentioned above, students should be more encouraged rather than frustrated so as to boost their confidence and learn it well in the long run.[CH-EN_4_61]FlatteryIt’s my great honour to be your student. You are the best teacher I’ve ever met because you are very earnest and responsible, and you are very patient with us. You always help us. I really admire you.[CH-EN_2_52]I fall in love with “Oral English” because of you. You raise me up.[CH-EN_4_37]However, when trying to achieve their objectives, students do not hesitate to use emotional blackmail to obtain what they want. As Table 11 shows, it appeared that despite the different academic years, this practice was similar among both groups (found 14 times in sophomores’ and 12 times in seniors’ emails). The two most adopted emotional coercions were the expression of a dreadful impact on their future (e.g. Failing to pass is a stain on a college student and will affect my future development [CH-EN_2_38]) and a reduction in their interest in the subject (e.g. As we all know, good grades can improve my interest in learning oral English; bad grades can reduce learning interest in subject. I like oral English very much [CH-EN_2_75]).5DiscussionThe analysis of subject-line content has shown its diversity in terms of use. Although results indicated that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant, from a qualitative point of view, out of the five types registered in this study, it seems that the majority of students tended to leave the subject line blank, which could lead one to think that they either lack knowledge about its uses or they are unaware of its importance in academic communication. Subject-line functionality is linked to Sperber and Wilson’s theory (1986), as its pertinence falls directly on its content. Due to the large number of emails lecturers receive daily, its use seems vital to prioritise and anticipate the relevance of an email’s content; therefore, “the effect of poorly worded emails and inadequate subject lines compounds the situation through additional time spent dealing with emails with defects” (Burgess et al., 2005: 82). Other studies, such as those of Phelps et al. (2004) or Sappleton and Lourenço (2016), discourage the use of blank subject lines, as it seems to prompt recipients to actively refuse to respond.Elements such as opening and closing moves, the right tone and the use of deference can also have a direct impact on the relationship between students and lecturers. Results of the analysis of the opening moves related to the form of address show the students’ great diversity in choosing a formula for their emails. As indicated in Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011) and Dombi’s (2020) study, some constructions used in the corpus were grammatically incorrect but pragmatically appropriate (e.g. Dear Dr. Johe Smith [CH-EN_2_86], Dear Dr. Simith [CH-EN_2_52]); some others were grammatically correct but pragmatically questionable for being too informal (e.g. Hi teacher [CH-EN_2_43]) or too direct (e.g. To John Smith [CH-EN_4_76]). However, in some cases, students’ choices caused offence due to the misuse of an academic title (e.g. Dear Mr. John [CH-EN_4_78], Dear Mr. Smith [CH-EN_4_66]) or the lack of any kind of salutation (zero form of address), which might be seen as “abrupt and to a good degree impolite” (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015: 422).Pleasantry and identification of self were the two opening moves least used by both groups. In terms of pleasantry, gratitude and apology was only seen in 13 % and 15 % of the corpus. The scarcity of these two elements in comparison to the extensive use of direct disagreement leads to a pragmatic failure, as the lack of deference made the emails too direct and disrespectful in this asymmetrical online communication context. In terms of self-identification, results were not much better. Only 8 % of sophomores and 23 % of seniors identified themselves in their email (e.g. I’m Tina in class two [CH-EN_2_31]). However, when done, in most cases their formulas were too generic (e.g. I’m your student who get the four marks during this speaking test [CH-EN_2_20]). By using this kind of description, the lecturer had to guess who this person was, as in most cases students could only be identified by their signature. Therefore, the lack of reference to their module or class along with the large number of students in attendance in a Chinese classroom made their identification an impossible task. A reason for this behaviour could be that since students tend to simply reply to an existing message exchange with their professor, they rely on their usernames being identified by the faculty member (Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019).In terms of preclosing statements, results related to the closing moves exhibited a deficiency in their pragmatic competence due to the insufficiency in expressing gratitude (80/200 emails) and apology (44/200 emails) and the elevated use of expectation statements (102/200). The predominance of the latter could be explained as “the use of I hope to a higher status person indicates solidarity politeness (Zhang, 1995; Yu, 1999). However, such expressions indicating the speaker’s wants or wishes would be considered as impolite or rude by native speakers of English” (Chen, 2015: 142), as it could create the assumption that the lecturer will comply with their demands and hence “easily become responsible for pragmatic infelicities as they appear to give the faculty member no choice in complying with the request” (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015: 421). Although the majority of the corpus included a form of greeting/farewell and complimentary closes, it seems that students did not consider the social distance in their emails with their lecturer.In terms of the analysis of the disagreement strategies in email communication, our data contradicts previous studies that claim the tendency of the Chinese community to use evasive and indeterminate language (Shen, 2006; Zhu, 2012). It also contradicts those studies that state their propensity to prevent friction (Cheng and Tsui, 2009; Lü, 2018). Data has shown that when expressing disagreement, sophomore and senior students definitely prefer to use a “straight-to-the-point” way of disagreeing (Strategy 1: direct strategy). As Table 6 has illustrated, students did not simply express their discrepancies to their lecturer but directly opposed and even criticised the lecturer’s professional judgment and professionalism. The decision to choose this strategy, along with the use of imperative clauses and intensifiers (e.g. I hope I can receive your reply as soon as possible [CH-EN_4_96]) to stress the urgency involved, made their communications extremely rude and inadequate for the context.According to the data, these findings contradict those of Lü (2018: 201) who claimed that Chinese students would “put a lot of thought in composing their critical messages and their Chinese facework played a positive role, making their direct criticism sound polite and friendly”. As we explained in the methodology section, students were allowed to use their dictionaries and online resources to overcome their vocabulary or grammar deficiencies and to search for politeness formulas. Therefore, having the opportunity and time to make their speech adequate by using all possible resources, it would be expected that a high rate of strategies which pursue seeking “common ground”, by using either positive or negative politeness strategies or a deductive conversational style to maintain a harmonious lecturer–student relationship, would be found. Nonetheless, as the data demonstrates, Strategy 2 (negative politeness strategy), Strategy 3 (positive politeness strategy), Strategy 4 (hinting strategy) were the least chosen.Chinese culture has been classified as a collective and high-context culture (Hall, 1977; Kang and Shaver, 2004) which desists from creating friction in favour of a communal harmony. This cultural feature has characterised their language style, which leans towards the use of covert messages, which are usually transmitted indirectly (Kim, 1994; Tuan, 2009). As Ulijn and St. Amant (2000) pointed out, its indirect style is usually perceived as a way of building relationship with the interlocutors. Therefore, it may be thought that those emails written by both Chinese groups would be indirect and rapport-building oriented. However, our results oppose this claim. Even when students’ supportive moves, syntactic mitigation downgraders or lexical modifiers were used, their general tone could be seen as too abrupt and “bossy” due to the constant use of the imperative form, the appearance of giving the faculty member no choice in turning down their request and the failure to consider the lecturer’s time and pressures (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015). In order to save face, it seems that sophomore and senior Chinese students preferred to soften their emails by showing their feelings (Strategy 5, emotional strategy). Examples in Table 12 show how both groups tried to win their teacher’s support by expressing sadness or surprise. Attempts to win their teacher’s attention were also seen by using flattery or even emotional blackmail. All these uses differ from the common belief which holds that high-context, collectivistic cultures prefer to restrain their negative and strong emotions in favour of a peaceful relationship (Gao, 2008; Cheng and Tsui, 2009; Liu, 2014). This behaviour might be explained as emotions in the Chinese culture lacking the power to injure or destroy social relationships (Potter, 1988). Nonetheless, when placed in an intercultural context, the students’ level of directness and abruptness made their communication unsuitable for an academic context.All these issues bring us to a petition for explicit instruction in virtual communication among university students and the necessity to bring awareness to the importance of the development of pragmatics competences in a foreign language, as culture norms plays a vital role in everyday situations, and their uses can change from one culture to another (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Betti, 2013; Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019; Rodríguez Velasco, 2020; Rodríguez Velasco and Liu, 2021).6ConclusionsThe present study concludes by answering the following questions:When using a subject line, sophomore and senior Chinese students preferred to leave it black, which leads one to believe that they are unaware of its uses or its importance in electronic communication. Opening moves were widely used. The most typical form of address formula was “Dear + FN + LN”. Pleasantry and self-identification were also seen, but their use was limited. In terms of closing moves, students tended to use expectation and gratitude statements in their preclosing statements. When complimentary closes were used, Yours and Yours Sincerely were the most chosen formulas. Zero forms of farewell were also seen in 21 % of the corpus, and in signing their emails, both groups tended to use their first name (65.5 %).The results illustrate that when sophomore and senior Chinese students had to disagree with their lecturer, they used direct strategies with scant use of mitigation. Data showed that 88.5 % of the students preferred Strategy 1 (direct disagreement), followed by Strategy 5 (emotional strategy, 66 %), Strategy 2 (negative politeness, 55 %), Strategy 4 (hinting strategy 40.5 %), and Strategy 3 (positive strategy, 24.5 %). The analysis of the emails proved that both groups did not take into consideration factors that might influence their pragmalinguistic moves, such as degree of imposition, relative power and social distance when they wrote to their lecturer. Their wide use of allegations against their lecturer’s integrity, the constant use of imperative closes, along with the use of emotional blackmail and the paucity of deference made their emails disrespectful and insolent. These results should raise awareness about the need for instruction about the different politeness norms in a foreign language and culture.This research has contributed to English-language teaching research and has evidenced the lack of student competence in their pragmatic aspects. However, it does not intend to cite evidence related to the representation of Chinese interactional behaviour, as the corpus is too small to represent the typical methods of handling disagreement within the country. This study was limited in several other ways as well. First, it was limited regarding the medium (electronic mails) and the scope of communication, as it did not compare emails written by English-native speakers and non-native speakers. Second, it could also be argued that some of the sentences overlapped into different categories. Due to the pragmatic aspects of language use, some of the examples were interrelated and overlapped in the sense that there was no clear cut-off point to distinguish them as a single unit. Third, the reliability of students’ pragmatic competence can be questioned, as they had access to external materials. However, in a real situation, when students send emails to their lecturer, they count on the resources that the Internet offers to adapt their speech to their interlocutor. Finally, the criteria mentioned for “pragmatically unsuccessful” (e.g. lack of acknowledgement, mitigation and status congruence) could also be criticised for containing a substantially subjective element, which is linked to the presumed reactions of the recipient of the email and which can leave the impression that one is expected to share a set of unspecified norms. Nonetheless, email etiquette guidelines exist in a number of universities (e.g. Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard University) and manuals (e.g. Shea, 1994; Kayany, 2004), which define and exemplify the basic rules of any virtual communication; therefore, when students fail to apply them, we can argue that their emails are pragmatically unsuccessful.Despite these limitations, the characteristics observed in this research offer sufficient data to evidence the lack of these students’ pragmatic awareness and the need for instruction on how to write culturally acceptable and context-adequate emails. It is hoped that in the future larger-scale studies will be conducted in which both native and non-natives students’ emails will be analysed to support our claims and highlight the strategy patterns used by the groups. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Review of Pragmatics Brill

‘Dear Dr John Smith. I refuse to obey this mark. That’s mean. So, can you give me a higher mark?’

International Review of Pragmatics , Volume 15 (1): 29 – Jun 30, 2022

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Brill
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Copyright © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands
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1877-3095
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1877-3109
DOI
10.1163/18773109-01401001
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Abstract

1IntroductionEmail communication is considered the most used and preferred medium among faculty members (Zimmerman and Bar-Ilan, 2009; Betti, 2013). It has revolutionised the procedure in which students interact with their lecturers and has increased the lecturer’s work capacity, previously limited to face-to-face meetings. How we use language and its different styles have fascinated authors throughout the history (Crystal 2006; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Betti, 2013). Despite its asynchronous nature, email communication could also exhibit oral discourse characteristics, as it has been regarded as a hybrid genre (Crystal, 2006). These linguistic features, combined with the influence of social media and its quick and concise communication style, have impacted the dynamic and linguistic characteristics of communicative exchanges between students and faculty members (Robles-Garrote, 2020; Rodríguez Velasco, 2020). All these components test students’ pragmatic competence, which can be described as “the ability to identify relevant linguistic indexes (linguistic awareness), retrieve relevant pragmatic effects (pragmatic awareness) and explicate the link between lexical indexes and pragmatic effects retrieved (metapragmatic awareness)” (Ifantidou, 2014: 130). Therefore, the inability to understand “what is meant by what is said” (Thomas, 1983) leads to what is known as “pragmatic failure”. In this context, pragmatic failure is understood by the lack of awareness of how to appropriately address their lecturers and the scenario and the lack of consideration of contextual factors, such as power or social distance.Culture also has a decisive role since social norms may change from one culture to another. The relationship between individuals and their social behaviour highly depends on the community to which they belong, and therefore the way politeness norms are seen may change. As a number of studies have proven, Western and Eastern concepts of politeness and public face are different (Gu, 1990; Aziz, 2005; Zhu and Bao, 2010; Zhou and Zang, 2018). Western politeness theory (Brown and Levinson, 1978) states that the concept of face embodies two social needs that go beyond cultural boundaries. On the one hand, public face is the essential element of courtesy, and, on the other hand, the relationship between public face and politeness is characterised as being a means to an end (Gu, 1990). However, as Aziz (2005) pointed out, for Western societies, face is focused upon individual aspects, such as the individual’s wants or desires, while for Eastern cultures, in this case the Chinese one, face is focused upon its communal aspect. For the Chinese culture, face concerns the harmony of individual conduct with the views and judgment of the community. Actions are ruled by lian and mien-tzu, which cannot be properly understood in terms of positive and negative face. Mien-tzu represents the desire for social recognition achieved after personal effort, while lian brings an inherent moral nuance that is not recorded in the Western concept of positive image. These cultural differences could potentially cause a pragmatic failure, particularly when addressing face threating acts (FTA s), such as the speech act of disagreement. The use of politeness strategies (Brown and Levinson, 1978; Scollon and Scollon, 1995) or cooperative principles (Grice, 1978) could help to soften students’ approaches. However, a number of studies in the field of interlanguage pragmatics have confirmed that “even fairly advanced L2 learners often lack adequate pragmatic awareness and competence in the L2 (Bardovi-Harlig and Dörnyei, 1998) and they sometimes perform […] speech acts inappropriately or simply differently to native speakers” (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015: 415).The speech act of disagreement has been one of the speech acts that have received the least attention in the field of interlanguage pragmatics, as it has usually been considered as part of a more general position of lack of agreement (disagreement, dissatisfaction, opposition) (Rodríguez Velasco, 2020). However, in academic communication this speech act precedes any argumentation and is considered central to scholastic positioning. It should be noted that the illocutionary force of this act is determined by the relationship between the parties (student/student, student/teacher, etc.); therefore, the less equitable the power relationship between them is, the stronger its illocutionary force. Since disagreeing is a face-threatening act, politeness strategies are often required to protect interlocutors’ face. Studies such as those of Xuehua (2006), Zhu and Boxer (2013), Yan (2016), López-Ozieblo (2018) and Rodríguez Velasco (2020) offer insights into what Chinese students are struggling with during their development of interlanguage pragmatic competence. Results from Yan (2016) and López-Ozieblo (2018) suggest that disagreements are dispreferred options in this particular context. Nonetheless, studies such as those of Xuehua (2006), Zhu and Boxer (2013) and Rodríguez Velasco (2020) refute that claim. Zhu (2014) has argued that depending on the context and what is at stake, the Chinese community does not hesitate to adopt direct strategies to openly express disagreement. This dichotomy shows that more research is needed, especially in an academic context where there is an insufficient bibliography. As this study is based on an intercultural conversation (Eastern students–Western lecturer), Brown and Levison’s (1978) theory on face and politeness was adopted as the main explanatory framework for interpreting the strategies used in students’ email conversations.2Theoretical frameworkIn the following pages, the practice of politeness strategies will be addressed by analysing different components of email communication, such as subject lines and opening and closing moves and by observing how these strategies are being used when a speech act of disagreement takes place.2.1Subject line, opening moves and closing moves in faculty communicationSubject lines are the first information that the recipient receives along with the name of the sender. It fulfils a similar function to the postage stamp or envelope appearance in a paper survey (Porter and Whitcomb, 2005) or the introductory statement in telephone interviews and the opening paragraph in a cover letter (Sappleton and Lourenço, 2015). Its content, style and relevance constitute “a critical element in the decision-making over what priority to assign to it or whether to open it at all” (Crystal, 2006, 102). Research on the influence of subject lines has grown in the last few decades, but its results are mixed. According to Smith and Kiniorski (2003), subject lines that emphasised prizes and self-expression had a higher response rate than those which asked for help. However, Kent and Brandal’s (2003) data showed that a prize subject line generated a lower response rate compared to those that simply stated the purpose of the email. Trouteaud (2004) pointed out that the introduction of a request for help in the subject line increased response rates by 5 % over a self-expression subject line. Other studies have found no difference between customised or generic subject lines (Callegaro et al., 2009) or have failed to find a link between subject line categories and the number of times the message was read by forum users (Skogs, 2013). It has also been said that using a blank subject line produces higher response rates than those with content in it (Porter and Whitcomb, 2005). These observations were also seen in Wainer et al.’s (2011: 8) results, where “people attended to messages that had the largest information gap in terms of the least amount of information about the content in the subject line, regardless of marked task importance”. A possible explanation could be the sense of intrigue provoked in the recipient (Sappleton and Lourenço, 2016). This is particularly interesting because common intuition would make us believe that a detailed subject line would be preferred as it helps us to intuit what the message is about. Other studies (Trouteaud, 2004; Druckman and Green, 2013) had verified how different strategies, such as the reference to emotions in the body of the subject line, also trigger the curiosity of the reader. However, in an academic context, as Phelps et al. (2004) or Burgess et al. (2005) have pointed out, the need to send emails with sufficiently detailed subject lines is vital. The main reason is that “receiving email on an exponential rate [as lecturers do] becomes harder to manage and prioritise, so the effect of inadequate subject lines compounds the situation through additional time spent dealing with emails with defects.” (Burgess et al., 2005: 82). As can be noticed, clearly further research is needed to understand the effects of subject lines.Another important aspect in computer mediated communication (CMC) is the correct use of opening and closing moves. They are employed as politeness markers since they are oriented to the addressee’s face needs (Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014). Although they are optional elements in email communication (Crystal, 2006), and therefore they may be omitted in this type of exchanges (Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019), their absence could cause a pragmatic failure. On the one hand, they reflect the power distance and familiarity between interlocutors, and, on the other hand, they are expressions which are crucial to maintaining and constructing relationships. Nonetheless, despite their importance as strategies to seek “common ground”, the scarcity of their use and the lack of knowledge concerning how to use them according to the context (Betti, 2013; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015) seems to be the norm in many student–lecturer interactions. A number of studies have examined how students use email to communicate with their lecturers in an academic context (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014; Rodríguez Velasco, 2019). Their results confirm that learners’ perception plays a key role in deciding which greeting and closing formula should be used. However, faculty members and students’ perception of their relationship could be different, which might lead to a potential pragmatic failure due to inappropriate and insufficient mitigation or lack of status-congruent language on the part of the students (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015). Studies on opening and closing moves have reflected a great variation regarding forms of address employed by students (Bou-Franch, 2011; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011; Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014). Failure to show the expected level of deference to the professor (Salazar-Campillo, 2018; Hallajian and Khemlani, 2014) and limitations in students’ pragmatic competence (Bou-Franch, 2013; Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019) also seem to be common characteristics in university students’ emails. The great variation in opening and closing styles in all these studies reveals the lack of standardisation in relation to the style of writing among students, which should raise awareness about the need for instruction on how to write culturally acceptable and context-adequate emails (Betti, 2013; Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Rodríguez Velasco, 2019).2.2The expression of disagreement in Chinese speakersThe speech act of disagreement is “a confrontational macro-speech act which ranges from dissent to attack and disqualification” (Brenes-Peña, 2011: 9). This type of speech act can be understood as a form of social interaction which can be characterised by the use of verbal opposition and can be triggered by challenging, correcting, degrading, threatening, accusing or insulting another person (Brenes-Peña, 2011). These characteristics make it a face threating act (Brown and Levinson, 1978) that requires a significant level of pragmatic competence. As Yan (2016: 232) states, “people vary greatly in choosing confrontational or non-confrontational expressions of disagreement in different situations”. A number of studies have observed how people from different cultural backgrounds perform this speech act in consonance with their cultural norms and values (Brenes-Peña, 2011; Betti, 2013; Yan, 2016; Lü, 2018).Since Chinese culture has been characterised as “collectivist” in most empirical studies (Hofstede, 1980; Triandis, 1995), it seems necessary to analyse whether transferability of pragmatic strategies exists when disagreeing in a foreign language with different cultural characteristics. Compared to the British or American cultures, the Chinese one seems to be characterised by the use of an evasive and indeterminate language (Cheng and Tsui, 2009; López-Ozieblo, 2018), in which obedience to the social order and respect to the hierarchy is the norm (Cheng, 1986). All these attributes have shaped its language style, which is said to be prone to avoiding making direct statements in order to prevent friction (Lü, 2018).Previous studies on how the Chinese community disagrees have been conducted by many researchers; however, their results are mixed (Xuehua, 2006; Shen, 2006; Cheng and Tsui, 2009; Zhu, 2012; Yan, 2016, Rodríguez Velasco, 2020). Xuehua (2006) studied Chinese EFL learners’ abilities to express disagreement to their lecturer and the influence of external factors, such as personal involvement and social status, on their strategy choice. His results proved that in order to express disagreement, students preferred showing it directly with limited use of positive or negative politeness strategies or hinting strategies. Xuehua’s (2006) results coincide with those of Rodríguez Velasco (2020), who also investigated the use of (im)politeness and disagreement in 149 Chinese university students’ emails to their lecturer. In their study, the preference among Chinese speakers to choose a direct and unmitigated language style was also revealed. These two studies confront those of Shen (2006), Cheng and Tsui (2009) and Zhu (2012). Shen (2006), who analysed how disagreement strategies are used in business negotiation settings, found that collective disagreement moves among Chinese participants tend to be omitted so they could avoid confrontation. These conclusions correlate with Cheng and Tsui’s (2009) data, which showed how Hong Kong Chinese speakers showed great effort in avoiding confrontation and in accommodating the interlocutor’s face want, rather than competing for face want. Zhu’s (2012) results also confirm the tendency of the Chinese community toward an inductive rhetorical language style in their emails. Nonetheless, Yan (2016), who studied the politeness strategies in disagreement between native speakers of English and Chinese EFL learners, could serve as an example of the existence of both language styles among Chinese speakers. Her results show how Chinese EFL learners tended to use direct strategies when disagreeing with interlocutors of the same status, while a more inductive rhetorical language style was used when disagreeing with interlocutors of higher status.All these studies have evidenced the need for further understanding on how different contextual factors and strategies interact when the speech act of disagreement is used, as it is believed that relatively little attention has been paid to this speech act. Many authors have noted the insufficient knowledge of non-native speakers’ politeness strategies, which can cause cross-cultural miscommunications and lead to pragmatic failures (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Betti, 2013; Yan, 2016; Rodríguez Velasco, 2019, 2020). Therefore, in pursuit of a better understanding of how Chinese university students address this situation and what features play a key role in their pragmatic consciousness and in their cross-cultural pragmatic competence, this study applied the taxonomy of Skogs (2013), Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011), Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo (2019) and Xuehua (2006). The combination of these studies provides the basis on which this research is based.3Research methodThe current study analyses the macro- and microstructure of email communication to a faculty member among Chinese sophomore and senior university students of English. To analyse the macrostructure of their emails, the uses and preferences concerning subject lines and opening and closing moves were examined, whereas to analyse the microstructure, the uses and functions of their strategies related to disagreement in messages were investigated. This research aims to answer the following questions:What general pattern of subject line, opening and closing moves choice do sophomore and senior Chinese students choose when writing in English an email to their lecturer?Which strategies do they use when they disagree with their lecturer?In order to examine potential differences in email communication to a faculty member, a corpus of 200 emails was collected during the academic year 2017/2018. This corpus includes 100 emails written by second-year students (sophomores) and 100 emails written by forth-year students (seniors). These 200 students were learning English as a foreign language at Heilongjiang International University, and their language proficiency varied from B1 (sophomores) to B2 (seniors). The subjects analysed were two groups of 91 females and 9 males aging from 18 to 22 (sophomores) and 20 to 24 (seniors). Both groups were native-Chinese speakers coming from different regions of China.To identify the pattern choice, a linguistic analysis of the subject line and opening and closing moves was done. As this is a data-driven study, the categories were determined inductively based on the typical linguistic function of a particular word or stretch of words. The analysis of the subject line (SL) was carried out by means of Skogs’ (2013) typology, which identifies the following five categories: SL1 includes references to the message content itself; SL2 describes the function of the message by using a label such as answer, reply, response, comment; SL3 contains both greetings and addressee names; SL4 expresses stance, opinion or evaluative feedback on the part of the author; and SL5 includes blank subject lines. However, due to the lack of greetings and addressee names in the subject lines, SL3 was changed, and all categories were reorganised to group those which did not fit in any of the previous categories.The analysis of the opening and closing moves was carried out by means of Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011) and Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo’s (2019) classification. Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011) typology was adapted to identify different forms of address, while Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo’s (2019) classification was used to identify pleasantry and identification of self. Pleasantry comprise expressions of gratitude or apology, while identification of self includes the introduction of the student to the lecturer. In order to recognise the closing moves, Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo’s (2019) typology was also used and adapted. They identify three moves: preclosing statement, which relates to expressions of gratitude or apology for the request made; complimentary close, which describes conventional and formulaic closing expression (e.g. Kind regards) and the signature, which can be expressed by either the student’s first name (FN) (e.g. Chen), their last name (LN) (e.g. Liu) or both (FN+LN) (e.g. Chen Liu).In pursuance of eliciting disagreement strategies and evaluating their pragmalinguistic competence, a pedagogical framework-based task was designed. The instructions were as follows:Imagine your lecturer has sent you the following email. You obtained a mark of 4 out of 10 (FAIL) in the final examination for the module Oral English, and you do not agree with the mark given. Write an email to your lecturer, Dr John Smith, showing your opinion along with any request you feel is necessary.In this scenario, students were asked to imagine Dr John Smith as one of their middle-aged British lecturers. They had to respond to his email, giving their opinion about the failing grade received in the final exam of their Oral English module. As the focus of this study is the analysis of their pragmatic strategies and is in pursuit of more realistic outcomes, students were allowed to use their dictionaries and online resources to search for vocabulary, grammar and uses of politeness formulas. Therefore, to analyse the disagreement strategies, Xuehua’s (2006) classification was used, which identifies the following five categories: Strategy 1 (direct strategy: expressing disagreement directly and boldly without redressive actions), Strategy 2 (negative politeness strategy: orientated to the hearer’s negative face, such as accounting, mitigating and rhetorical questions), Strategy 3 (positive politeness strategy: orientated to the hearer’s positive face, such as partial agreement, pseudo-agreement and conditioned agreement), Strategy 4 (hinting strategy: implicitly expressing disagreement, such as hints, and positive comment) and Strategy 5 (Avoidance Strategy: non-commitment on the other opinions). Nonetheless, as the task asked students to directly disagree to their lecturer, Xuehua’s fifth strategy was removed. Instead, Strategy 5 was selected to identify the expression of feelings, emotional blackmail and flattery used by students in their emails. Some of the emails used in this paper are transcribed in the Nebrija-WOCAE (Written and Oral Chinese Academic Emails) corpus in SLABank/TalkBank (Rodríguez Velasco, 2019).4ResultsResults from the analysis of subject lines, opening and closing moves and strategies related to disagreement used by sophomore and senior students will be further discussed.4.1Macrostructural analysis4.1.1Analysis of subject-line contentAs can be seen in Table 1, results revealed that out of the 200 emails collected, 64.5 % did not use any kind of subject line (SL4 129/200). A chi-square independence test was performed in order to examine whether there were significant differences between its presence and omission. The results indicated that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .657). The qualitative analyses showed that when the subject line was used, it seems that 19.5 % of students preferred to use it to refer to its content (SL1 39/200), while 9 % applied it to express their opinions or to give feedback (SL3 18/200), 5.5 % described the function of the message (SL2 11/200) and 1.5 % preferred to use any other kind of subject line (SL5 3/200). The significance of each category was also studied. In this case, only SL1, SL2 and SL3 were calculated since the values of SL5 did not allow it. The results indicated, one more time, that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .545).Table 1Groups and overall preferences for subject line typesTypeUseSophomoreSeniorOverallof SLstudentsstudentspreference(n: 100)(n: 100)(n: 200)1References to the message content itself211839 (19.5 %)2Describes the function of the message by using a label (answer, reply, response)6511 (5.5 %)3Expresses stance, opinion or feedback on the part of the author71118 (9 %)4Subject lines blank6366129 (64.5 %)5Other303 (1.5 %)Data revealed that although there is not a quantitative difference in the number of subject line types provided by both groups, from a qualitatively point of view, it appeared that in spite of the different academic year, the preference for subject line type among students was similar. It was also found that when deciding to use SL1, students tended to choose the same stretch of words (e.g. Oral English [CH-EN_2_1]1). Its influence was reflected in the number of subject lines where it appears (13/21 in sophomore; 8/18 in senior students). Results also showed that when using SL2, sophomore students used it to ask (3/6) whereas senior students used it to request (4/5). With regard to SL3, the tendency for the majority of the participants was to give feedback (6/7 in sophomore and 10/11 in senior students). Finally, when students used the “Other” type of subject line (SL5), they were too generic (e.g. Faculty of Humanities, Language and Communication Studies [CH-EN_2_13]).4.1.2Analysis of the opening and closing movesResults of the analysis of opening and closing moves for sophomore and senior students will be further commented.4.1.2.1Opening movesThe qualitative analyses of the opening moves of both groups showed that almost every student used one to initiate the email to their lecturer. As Table 2 illustrates, 99 % of sophomore and 98 % of senior students used greeting formulas to open their emails. Among those formulas, the Use of “dear” was the form of address preferred by students, used in 92.5 % of the overall corpus (89 % in the sophomore and 96 % in the senior student’s emails). Data indicates that within this category, the two most used formulas were Dear + FN + LN (e.g. Dear John Smith [CH-EN_4_3]), chosen in 38 % of the emails (76/200), closely followed by Dear + Academic Title + FN + LN (e.g. Dear Dr John Smith [CH-EN_4_5]2) in 33 % (66/200). Other types of salutation were also found in the corpus, such as omission of “dear”, used in 2.5 % (5/200) (e.g. Dr. John Smith [CH-EN_4_27]) and greetings (e.g. Hi [CH-EN_2_43]) used in 1.5 % (3/200), where, in some cases, both groups (4 % of sophomores and 10 % of seniors) reduplicated them (e.g. Dear John Smith, Hello teacher [CH-EN_4_41] or Dear Dr. John Smith, Hello! [CH-EN_2_72]). It is also worth mentioning that in this case the significance of each category was not calculated since their values did not allow it. However, once again, from a qualitative point of view, the analysis of opening moves showed a great variety of forms of address when writing an email.Table 2Typology for the analysis of opening movesForms of ExampleSophomoreSeniorOveralladdressstudents studentspreference(n = 100)(n = 100)(n = 200)Use of “dear”Dear + FN + LNDear John Smith265076 (38 %)Dear + FNDear John213 (1.5 %)Dear + LNDear Smith112 (1 %)Dear + Academic Title + FN + LNDear Dr. John Smith432366 (33 %)Dear + Academic Title + LNDear Dr. Smith314 (2 %)Dear + Incorrect Academic Title + FNDear Mr. John033 (1.5 %)Dear + Incorrect Academic Title + LNDear Mr. Smith257 (3.5 %)Other121224 (12 %)Omission of “dear”Academic Title + FN + LNDr John Smith505 (2.5 %)Use of greetingsHi/Hello + Incorrect Academic TitleHi/Hello teacher202 (1 %)Hi/Hello + Academic Title + FN + LNHello Dr. John Smith101 (0.5 %)Zero forms of address213 (1.5 %)Other134 (2 %)PleasantryGratitudeThanks for helping and teaching in this term.141226 (13 %)ApologyI’m sorry to bother you, but I have a question to ask you.102030 (15 %)Identification of selfI’m your student Mary.82331 (15.5 %)adapted from Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019: 66Other opening moves found in the corpus were the use of pleasantry and the identification of the student. Pleasantry was seen in 28 % of the overall corpus (13 % gratitude and 15 % apology). As Table 2 shows, the use of gratitude looked similar in both groups despite the difference in their academic year. However, it seems that in terms of apology, senior students tended to express remorse twice as much as sophomore did. In the case of self-identification, found in 15.5 % of the emails (31/200), their differences were accentuated even more. As the results show, senior students introduced themselves almost as three times more than sophomores did (8 sophomore vs. 23 senior students).4.1.2.2Closing movesIn terms of the preclosing statements category, as Table 3 illustrates, data revealed that from a qualitatively point of view, hope/wish was the most chosen move, with 51 % of the overall preference (102/200 emails), used by 60 % of the sophomores and 42 % of the seniors (e.g. So I hope you can show mercy, give me a new grade [CH-EN_4_100]). Gratitude was the second most chosen move, selected by with 40 % of the students in both groups (e.g. Thank you for reading the letter [CH-EN_2_9]), followed by appeal, found in 22 % of the emails (e.g. I’m looking forward to hearing from you! [CH-EN_4_3]) and apology with 8 % (e.g. Sorry to have troubled you [CH-EN_2_89]). A quantitative analysis between groups indicated that their contrast was statistically significant (p = .023).With regard to the complimentary close category, the majority of the students opted for Yours (29 %), followed by Yours sincerely (13.5 %) and Your student (13 %). A total number of 26/200 emails chose other kinds of formulas, such as Best regards (2.5 %) or Yours faithfully (0.5 %). It is interesting to mention that as before in the opening moves, reduplication was also found in 11 % of the sophomores’ and 14 % of the seniors’ closing moves (e.g. Best wishes to you, Yours [CH-EN_2_23] or Kind regards, Yours sincerely [CH-EN_4_98]). The quantitative analyses in these cases showed that their contrast was not statistically significant (p = .937). Zero form of farewell was also seen in the corpus. This option was widely used, seen in 21 % (42/200) of the corpus.Finally, the study of their signatures showed similarities in their patterns. It seems that students tended to choose their Chinese name (e.g. Yan [CH-EN_4_86]) or Western first name (e.g. Isabella [CH-EN_2_97]) (FN= 65.5 %), followed by a lack of signature (Ø= 21 %), another kind of signature (9.5 % e.g. Student [CH-EN_2_83]) and their first name and last name (e.g. Lu Chengzhi [CH-EN_2_95]) (FN+LN= 4 %). However, the quantitative analyses indicated that when the signature was used, the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .204).Table 3Typology for the analysis of closing movesPreclosing statementExamplesSophomoreSeniorOverallstudentsstudentspreference(n = 100)(n = 100)(n = 200)GratitudeThank you for your patience.404080 (40 %)AppealI’m looking forward to receiving your email.172744 (22 %)Hope/wishI hope you can give me more advice.6042102 (51 %)ApologyI am so sorry that I can’t meet your expectations.41216 (8 %)Complimentary closeYours332558 (29 %)Best wishes448 (4 %)Yours sincerely131427 (13.5 %)Your student131326 (13 %)Sincerely6713 (6.5 %)Other121426 (13 %)Zero forms of farewell192342 (21 %)SignatureFNHelen7061131 (65.5 %)FN + LNChen Liu448 (4 %)OtherXXX, Student61319 (9.5 %)Ø202242 (21 %)adapted from Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo 2019: 67Overall, our analysis seems to indicate that despite using opening and closing moves in most of the cases, EFL Chinese students’ emails exhibit limitations in pragmatic competence. This statement will be further argued in the discussion section.4.2Microstructural analysis4.2.1Analysis of the disagreement strategies in email communicationOnce the data was analysed, it was found that as Xuehua’s (2006) results pointed out, when expressing disagreement, students preferred addressing it directly with little redressive action or use of indirect language or positive/negative politeness strategies, as Figure 1 and Table 4 show.Although the qualitative analyses indicated that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .323), from a qualitative point of view, results showed that Chinese students preferred to disagree directly with a faculty member. Despite being the most face-threatening strategy, direct strategy (Strategy 1) was used in 177 emails (88.5 % of the corpus). To mitigate the impact of their speech acts, students also used strategies such as the expression of feelings (Strategy 5), used in 132 emails (66 % of the corpus), followed by negative politeness (Strategy 2), found in 110 emails (55 %), the use of indirect language or hints (Strategy 4), seen in 81 emails (40.5 %) and positive politeness (Strategy 3), employed in 49 emails (24.5 %).Figure 1General number of emails in which disagreement strategies were usedTable 4Overall preference for and percentage of disagreement strategiesStrategy 1Strategy 2Strategy 3Strategy 4Strategy 5Overall preference(N = 200)1771104981132Overall percentage (N = 100 %)(88.5 %)(55 %)(24.5 %)(40.5 %)(66 %)4.3.1Strategy 1: Use of direct disagreementAs stated before, the use of direct disagreement was the strategy most used among both groups (229 times used by sophomore and 195 times by senior students). A chi-square independence test indicated that the contrast between groups was statistically significant (p = .004). As Table 5 shows, within this strategy, the most common way to disagree with their lecturer was by using a mixture of disagreement formulas, as examples Table 6. This strategy was used 116 times, 62 by sophomores and 54 by seniors. Surprisingly, the second most common way to disagree was by attacking their lecturer’s professionalism, either by criticising his practices, his methodology or his competence in correcting the exam (e.g. Have you read it carefully? Why do all of our marks look the same? Please give us a reasonable explanation [CH-EN_4_45]). This practice was used 112 times and was seen in 39 % of the sophomores’ and 47 % of the seniors’ emails.Table 5Number of times Strategy 1 was usedDirectContradictionAttackAsk forOtherTotaldisagreementlecturer’sa betterprofessionalismmarkSophomores3340514362229Seniors1546611954195Contradicting their lecturer’s grades was also a common strategy chosen by both groups (used 40 times by sophomores and 46 times by seniors). Overall, students based their contradiction on the basis that they have done all their homework [e.g. I finished all my homework on time this semester [CH-EN_2_4]], have not missed any lessons (e.g. I have attended class on time, and I haven’t missed any classes [CH-EN_4_86]) or have behaved correctly (e.g. I have behaved well [CH-EN_4_96]), and therefore they should have a higher mark. This claim brings us to their next strategy: the repeated demand for a better/higher mark, used 62 times and predominantly found in sophomores’ emails (e.g. I think my score should be higher than this [CH-EN_2_12]). Finally, the direct disagreement category was the least used within the direct strategy by both groups, seen 48 times and used by 30 % of sophomore and 15 % of senior students (e.g. First, I disagree with the mark [CH-EN_2_87]). As commented upon before, more examples of these strategies can be found in Table 6.Table 6Examples of Strategy 1 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’examplesSenior students’examplesDirect disagreementI don’t agree with your mark. I think I did a good job in my speaking and listening.[CH-EN_2_20]I do not agree with the mark that you have given me.[CH-EN_4_6]ContradictionI don’t think I deserve only 4 points on my final oral examination.[CH-EN_2_29]I think my performance is much higher than you scored.[CH-EN_4_36]Attack lecturer’s professionalismMaybe you are careless for my mark when you correct the paper.[CH-EN_2_24]I think you may have made a mistake about my mark. So, I wish you correct it.[CH-EN_4_69]Ask for a better markI am eager to improve my spoken English, so I study very hard, to be honest, I think I can get 8 points.[CH-EN_2_67]I want to ask you why you give me a mark of 4 out of 10. I think my mark is at lees 6.[CH-EN_4_47]OtherI refuse to obey this mark. I think my behaviour doesn’t match my final mark.[CH-EN_2_20]I hope you can give me a reasonable grade.[CH-EN_4_94]4.3.2Strategy 2: Use of negative politenessAccording to the results, it seems that senior students were more likely to used negative politeness to minimise their disagreement than their counterparts. As shown in Figure 1 and Table 4, negative politeness was used 94 times and found in 61 % of senior students’ emails in contrast to the 76 times and 49 % of the sophomores’ emails. In pursuit of deference, supportive moves, such preparators (e.g. I am taking the liberty of sending this email) or apology (e.g. I am sorry to write this email to you) were used in their emails. Syntactic mitigation downgraders, such as interrogative clauses (e.g. Could you …), progressive aspect (e.g. I was wondering …), past tense (e.g. I would like to …) and if clauses (I would be very grateful if …), as well as lexical modifiers, such as please, some, any, maybe or possible, were other types of downtoners seen in the corpus. Some of these formulas are shown in Table 7.Table 7Examples of Strategy 2 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesNegative politenessI am taking the liberty of sending this email. I hope I am not disturbing you.[CH-EN_2_]I would appreciate you so much if you would like to check my mark again.[CH-EN_4_]If you are not busy, would you please tell me the reason?[CH-EN_2_]I am sorry to write this email to you, but I have some questions about my examination mark.[CH-EN_4_]I know my request may be offensive, but I really care about my final mark.[CH-EN_2_]Could you please recheck my paper when you are free?[CH-EN_4_]4.3.3Strategy 3: Use of positive politenessAs Table 8 illustrates, positive politeness was the least chosen strategy. It was seen in 29 % of the sophomores’ and 20 % of the seniors’ emails. When used, both groups tended to partially agree with their teacher, although the contrast between groups was not statistically significant (p = .104). These results support Xuehua’s (2006: 59) observations, which claimed that the students were hardly aware of the possibility of using this strategy. These results can lead to thinking that students do not understand or are not aware of the benefits of using this kind of strategy to minimise the threat to their hearer’s positive face.Table 8Number of times Strategy 3 was usedPartial agreementTotal agreementTotalSophomore students211435Senior students17421By looking at the results, it seems that the students did not take into consideration factors that may influence their pragmalinguistic moves, such as power or the social distance between them and their teacher when writing their emails. However, when used, students tended to mitigate their disagreement by agreeing totally or partially or by explaining themselves. Some examples of this strategy are illustrated in Table 9.Table 9Examples of Strategy 3 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesPartial agreementAlthough my oral English is poor, I think I still get five marks or more.[CH-EN_2_55]Maybe my oral English and written English is not good enough, but I’m hard working.[CH-EN_4_50]Total agreementI know I still have a lot of space for improvement.[CH-EN_2_91]I know I still have many aspect that need to be corrected.[CH-EN_4_43]4.3.4Strategy 4: Use of indirect language and hintsAs the results showed, the use of indirect language and hints was the second-least used strategy when addressing the teacher. Indirect language or hints were chosen by 40.5 % of the students (37 % of sophomores and 44 % of seniors). As Table 10 shows, both groups tended to express their disagreement by doubting (e.g. I have some doubts with the oral English [CH-EN_4_52]) or expressing different opinions or views (e.g. I have some different views of my grades [CH-EN_4_85]). This usage correlates with Yeung’s (2000) results, which showed how participants tended to adopt these practices as a way to disagree. The students were very careful with the vocabulary they used in their emails, attempting to express what they felt without jeopardising the interpersonal relationship.Table 10Examples of Strategy 4 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesIndirect language and hintsI have some doubts and suggestions to discuss with you.[CH-EN_2_9]I have some doubts about my mark.[CH-EN_4_44]I want you to know that I only express my personal opinion.[CH-EN_2_60]I have some opinions for my final examination mark for Oral English.[CH-EN_4_16]I have questions about my final exam results.[CH-EN_2_1]I have some questions about my oral exam results.[CH-EN_4_74]4.3.5Strategy 5: Use of emotional expressionThe expression of emotion was the second-most practised strategy seen in 132 emails (66 % of the corpus) and used 124 times by sophomores and 96 times by senior students. Although from a quantitative point of view, the results did not show a statistical difference between the two groups (p = .257), the qualitative analysis showed that when Strategy 5 was used, most students tended to express their feelings; see Table 11. Sadness and surprise were the emotions most displayed (e.g. I feel so sad I had only four points [CH-EN_2_6]; I was surprised to get such a bad score [CH-EN_2_19]); however, other feelings such as envy, regret, or confusion were also found in the corpus (e.g. I am very regret to fail this exam [CH-EN_4_40]). This practice was specially adopted by sophomores who used it 92 times and was found in 72 % of their emails, compared to seniors, who used it 63 times and was seen in 60 % of their corpus.Table 11Number of times Strategy 5 was usedExpressionEmotionalFlatteryTotalof feelingsblackmailSophomore students921417124Senior students63122196Another common manner of expressing emotions was the use of flattery. This approach was found 17 times in the sophomores’ and 21 times in the seniors’ corpus. Students tended to praise their teacher by complimenting their hard work (e.g. I deeply appreciate your hard working! [CH-EN_4_14]), their style (e.g. I like your class very much, I think you class style is very perfect [CH-EN_2_77]) or by declaring how much his classes had impacted on them (e.g. Since I attended your class, I found another me [CH-EN_2_65]). More examples can be found in Table 12.Table 12Examples of Strategy 5 used by sophomore and senior studentsSophomore students’ examplesSenior students’ examplesExpression of feelingsI feel sad and bewilderment because I think my exam mark should be good.[CH-EN_2_27]I feel so surprised and sad when I knew the news that I have failed the exam.[CH-EN_4_29]Emotional blackmailI feel sad and start denying myself. We students are worry about our marks every day; we live under pressure every day, and we feel tired, even more tired than high school life.[CH-EN_2_60]For us students, it’s unexpected and unreasonable to obtain a mark of just 4 out of 10, which will definitely discourage us from further learning. […] As I mentioned above, students should be more encouraged rather than frustrated so as to boost their confidence and learn it well in the long run.[CH-EN_4_61]FlatteryIt’s my great honour to be your student. You are the best teacher I’ve ever met because you are very earnest and responsible, and you are very patient with us. You always help us. I really admire you.[CH-EN_2_52]I fall in love with “Oral English” because of you. You raise me up.[CH-EN_4_37]However, when trying to achieve their objectives, students do not hesitate to use emotional blackmail to obtain what they want. As Table 11 shows, it appeared that despite the different academic years, this practice was similar among both groups (found 14 times in sophomores’ and 12 times in seniors’ emails). The two most adopted emotional coercions were the expression of a dreadful impact on their future (e.g. Failing to pass is a stain on a college student and will affect my future development [CH-EN_2_38]) and a reduction in their interest in the subject (e.g. As we all know, good grades can improve my interest in learning oral English; bad grades can reduce learning interest in subject. I like oral English very much [CH-EN_2_75]).5DiscussionThe analysis of subject-line content has shown its diversity in terms of use. Although results indicated that the contrast between groups was not statistically significant, from a qualitative point of view, out of the five types registered in this study, it seems that the majority of students tended to leave the subject line blank, which could lead one to think that they either lack knowledge about its uses or they are unaware of its importance in academic communication. Subject-line functionality is linked to Sperber and Wilson’s theory (1986), as its pertinence falls directly on its content. Due to the large number of emails lecturers receive daily, its use seems vital to prioritise and anticipate the relevance of an email’s content; therefore, “the effect of poorly worded emails and inadequate subject lines compounds the situation through additional time spent dealing with emails with defects” (Burgess et al., 2005: 82). Other studies, such as those of Phelps et al. (2004) or Sappleton and Lourenço (2016), discourage the use of blank subject lines, as it seems to prompt recipients to actively refuse to respond.Elements such as opening and closing moves, the right tone and the use of deference can also have a direct impact on the relationship between students and lecturers. Results of the analysis of the opening moves related to the form of address show the students’ great diversity in choosing a formula for their emails. As indicated in Economidou-Kogetsidis’ (2011) and Dombi’s (2020) study, some constructions used in the corpus were grammatically incorrect but pragmatically appropriate (e.g. Dear Dr. Johe Smith [CH-EN_2_86], Dear Dr. Simith [CH-EN_2_52]); some others were grammatically correct but pragmatically questionable for being too informal (e.g. Hi teacher [CH-EN_2_43]) or too direct (e.g. To John Smith [CH-EN_4_76]). However, in some cases, students’ choices caused offence due to the misuse of an academic title (e.g. Dear Mr. John [CH-EN_4_78], Dear Mr. Smith [CH-EN_4_66]) or the lack of any kind of salutation (zero form of address), which might be seen as “abrupt and to a good degree impolite” (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015: 422).Pleasantry and identification of self were the two opening moves least used by both groups. In terms of pleasantry, gratitude and apology was only seen in 13 % and 15 % of the corpus. The scarcity of these two elements in comparison to the extensive use of direct disagreement leads to a pragmatic failure, as the lack of deference made the emails too direct and disrespectful in this asymmetrical online communication context. In terms of self-identification, results were not much better. Only 8 % of sophomores and 23 % of seniors identified themselves in their email (e.g. I’m Tina in class two [CH-EN_2_31]). However, when done, in most cases their formulas were too generic (e.g. I’m your student who get the four marks during this speaking test [CH-EN_2_20]). By using this kind of description, the lecturer had to guess who this person was, as in most cases students could only be identified by their signature. Therefore, the lack of reference to their module or class along with the large number of students in attendance in a Chinese classroom made their identification an impossible task. A reason for this behaviour could be that since students tend to simply reply to an existing message exchange with their professor, they rely on their usernames being identified by the faculty member (Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019).In terms of preclosing statements, results related to the closing moves exhibited a deficiency in their pragmatic competence due to the insufficiency in expressing gratitude (80/200 emails) and apology (44/200 emails) and the elevated use of expectation statements (102/200). The predominance of the latter could be explained as “the use of I hope to a higher status person indicates solidarity politeness (Zhang, 1995; Yu, 1999). However, such expressions indicating the speaker’s wants or wishes would be considered as impolite or rude by native speakers of English” (Chen, 2015: 142), as it could create the assumption that the lecturer will comply with their demands and hence “easily become responsible for pragmatic infelicities as they appear to give the faculty member no choice in complying with the request” (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015: 421). Although the majority of the corpus included a form of greeting/farewell and complimentary closes, it seems that students did not consider the social distance in their emails with their lecturer.In terms of the analysis of the disagreement strategies in email communication, our data contradicts previous studies that claim the tendency of the Chinese community to use evasive and indeterminate language (Shen, 2006; Zhu, 2012). It also contradicts those studies that state their propensity to prevent friction (Cheng and Tsui, 2009; Lü, 2018). Data has shown that when expressing disagreement, sophomore and senior students definitely prefer to use a “straight-to-the-point” way of disagreeing (Strategy 1: direct strategy). As Table 6 has illustrated, students did not simply express their discrepancies to their lecturer but directly opposed and even criticised the lecturer’s professional judgment and professionalism. The decision to choose this strategy, along with the use of imperative clauses and intensifiers (e.g. I hope I can receive your reply as soon as possible [CH-EN_4_96]) to stress the urgency involved, made their communications extremely rude and inadequate for the context.According to the data, these findings contradict those of Lü (2018: 201) who claimed that Chinese students would “put a lot of thought in composing their critical messages and their Chinese facework played a positive role, making their direct criticism sound polite and friendly”. As we explained in the methodology section, students were allowed to use their dictionaries and online resources to overcome their vocabulary or grammar deficiencies and to search for politeness formulas. Therefore, having the opportunity and time to make their speech adequate by using all possible resources, it would be expected that a high rate of strategies which pursue seeking “common ground”, by using either positive or negative politeness strategies or a deductive conversational style to maintain a harmonious lecturer–student relationship, would be found. Nonetheless, as the data demonstrates, Strategy 2 (negative politeness strategy), Strategy 3 (positive politeness strategy), Strategy 4 (hinting strategy) were the least chosen.Chinese culture has been classified as a collective and high-context culture (Hall, 1977; Kang and Shaver, 2004) which desists from creating friction in favour of a communal harmony. This cultural feature has characterised their language style, which leans towards the use of covert messages, which are usually transmitted indirectly (Kim, 1994; Tuan, 2009). As Ulijn and St. Amant (2000) pointed out, its indirect style is usually perceived as a way of building relationship with the interlocutors. Therefore, it may be thought that those emails written by both Chinese groups would be indirect and rapport-building oriented. However, our results oppose this claim. Even when students’ supportive moves, syntactic mitigation downgraders or lexical modifiers were used, their general tone could be seen as too abrupt and “bossy” due to the constant use of the imperative form, the appearance of giving the faculty member no choice in turning down their request and the failure to consider the lecturer’s time and pressures (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2015). In order to save face, it seems that sophomore and senior Chinese students preferred to soften their emails by showing their feelings (Strategy 5, emotional strategy). Examples in Table 12 show how both groups tried to win their teacher’s support by expressing sadness or surprise. Attempts to win their teacher’s attention were also seen by using flattery or even emotional blackmail. All these uses differ from the common belief which holds that high-context, collectivistic cultures prefer to restrain their negative and strong emotions in favour of a peaceful relationship (Gao, 2008; Cheng and Tsui, 2009; Liu, 2014). This behaviour might be explained as emotions in the Chinese culture lacking the power to injure or destroy social relationships (Potter, 1988). Nonetheless, when placed in an intercultural context, the students’ level of directness and abruptness made their communication unsuitable for an academic context.All these issues bring us to a petition for explicit instruction in virtual communication among university students and the necessity to bring awareness to the importance of the development of pragmatics competences in a foreign language, as culture norms plays a vital role in everyday situations, and their uses can change from one culture to another (Economidou-Kogetsidis, 2011, 2015; Betti, 2013; Codina-Espurz and Salazar-Campillo, 2019; Rodríguez Velasco, 2020; Rodríguez Velasco and Liu, 2021).6ConclusionsThe present study concludes by answering the following questions:When using a subject line, sophomore and senior Chinese students preferred to leave it black, which leads one to believe that they are unaware of its uses or its importance in electronic communication. Opening moves were widely used. The most typical form of address formula was “Dear + FN + LN”. Pleasantry and self-identification were also seen, but their use was limited. In terms of closing moves, students tended to use expectation and gratitude statements in their preclosing statements. When complimentary closes were used, Yours and Yours Sincerely were the most chosen formulas. Zero forms of farewell were also seen in 21 % of the corpus, and in signing their emails, both groups tended to use their first name (65.5 %).The results illustrate that when sophomore and senior Chinese students had to disagree with their lecturer, they used direct strategies with scant use of mitigation. Data showed that 88.5 % of the students preferred Strategy 1 (direct disagreement), followed by Strategy 5 (emotional strategy, 66 %), Strategy 2 (negative politeness, 55 %), Strategy 4 (hinting strategy 40.5 %), and Strategy 3 (positive strategy, 24.5 %). The analysis of the emails proved that both groups did not take into consideration factors that might influence their pragmalinguistic moves, such as degree of imposition, relative power and social distance when they wrote to their lecturer. Their wide use of allegations against their lecturer’s integrity, the constant use of imperative closes, along with the use of emotional blackmail and the paucity of deference made their emails disrespectful and insolent. These results should raise awareness about the need for instruction about the different politeness norms in a foreign language and culture.This research has contributed to English-language teaching research and has evidenced the lack of student competence in their pragmatic aspects. However, it does not intend to cite evidence related to the representation of Chinese interactional behaviour, as the corpus is too small to represent the typical methods of handling disagreement within the country. This study was limited in several other ways as well. First, it was limited regarding the medium (electronic mails) and the scope of communication, as it did not compare emails written by English-native speakers and non-native speakers. Second, it could also be argued that some of the sentences overlapped into different categories. Due to the pragmatic aspects of language use, some of the examples were interrelated and overlapped in the sense that there was no clear cut-off point to distinguish them as a single unit. Third, the reliability of students’ pragmatic competence can be questioned, as they had access to external materials. However, in a real situation, when students send emails to their lecturer, they count on the resources that the Internet offers to adapt their speech to their interlocutor. Finally, the criteria mentioned for “pragmatically unsuccessful” (e.g. lack of acknowledgement, mitigation and status congruence) could also be criticised for containing a substantially subjective element, which is linked to the presumed reactions of the recipient of the email and which can leave the impression that one is expected to share a set of unspecified norms. Nonetheless, email etiquette guidelines exist in a number of universities (e.g. Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard University) and manuals (e.g. Shea, 1994; Kayany, 2004), which define and exemplify the basic rules of any virtual communication; therefore, when students fail to apply them, we can argue that their emails are pragmatically unsuccessful.Despite these limitations, the characteristics observed in this research offer sufficient data to evidence the lack of these students’ pragmatic awareness and the need for instruction on how to write culturally acceptable and context-adequate emails. It is hoped that in the future larger-scale studies will be conducted in which both native and non-natives students’ emails will be analysed to support our claims and highlight the strategy patterns used by the groups.

Journal

International Review of PragmaticsBrill

Published: Jun 30, 2022

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