I have recently read a study by Paula Maier “Politeness Strategies in Business Letters by Native and Non-Native English Speakers” (1992). In the study, both native and nonnative writers were given a fictional situation in which they missed a job interview in another city. The task was to write a letter to a personnel manager to explain what had happened and persuade the manager to give him or her another chance for an interview. The findings of Maier’s study demonstrated that nonnative writers lacked the use of appropriate politeness strategies and their letters were written in an informal and direct language that could be perceived as rude and even disrespectful.
Given that the nonnative participants of the study were enrolled in an advanced course of English for international business, I would assume that their limited linguistic capacities (which are oftentimes an issue for less proficient language learners) were not a hindrance to their ability to adequately express the message appropriate for the context described in the writing task. What I think was the issue is the lack of the knowledge of cultural appropriateness that made the participants produce less formal and quite direct letters.
That made me reflect on the experiences with my students in a first-year composition course that I taught this past academic year. In those classes, I had both language users and language learners (predominantly from China). In the first class (also my first time teaching a freshman writing class), I did not emphasize the conventions of formal e-mails and, quite expectedly, for the entire semester, the students were sending e-mails that were missing either a subject line, an appropriate greeting, or a signature. The language of the e-mails was oftentimes informal as well. Once again, I did not see any particular distinction between L1 and L2 speakers. The problem seemed to be rooted in the students’ unawareness of the e-mail conventions in an academic discourse.
Needless to say, I fixed this mistake in my second semester. I spent a few class periods elaborating on the structure and the language of formal e-mails. I was delighted to see a difference between the e-mails of this second group of students and the one from the previous semester.
We all know that it is not sufficient to teach our ESL learners, or writers for that matter, just the language. I am convinced that exposing students to what we call a culturally appropriate use of language needs to be part and parcel of ESL programs. Sadly, however, culture frequently seems to be placed nearly on the bottom of the ESL curricula, especially in writing courses. But even on a chance there is enough time in a syllabus allotted to the integration of a cultural component, I believe that a mere introduction of certain conventions or norms of communication (oral or written) in a particular social environment, including the rules of politeness, is clearly not enough. A teacher would need to patiently walk students through the examples of writing samples and explain what makes them appropriate or inappropriate. As a case in point, during my second semester of teaching the composition class, I had my students analyze a number of e-mails and identify certain features that made those pieces of writing effective or ineffective. By doing this, the students were able to develop proper strategies of composing professional e-mails of their own.
Going off of this example, I am curious what you are doing in your classes to implement cultural norms of written communication. It would be great to see examples from various teaching contexts, and I encourage you to share your experiences with our community.