Academic journal article Business Communication Quarterly

You-Attitude: A Linguistic Perspective

Academic journal article Business Communication Quarterly

You-Attitude: A Linguistic Perspective

Article excerpt

You-attitude is a pedagogically convenient cover term that subsumes considerable complexity, both with respect to the text effects it may include and die text characteristics that create these effects. Some of the insights on politeness, tact, and deference found in the work of Brown and Levinson, Leech, and Fraser and Nolen can help provide guidelines for assessing how important a you-attitude may be in writing about a particular real-world situation, and case grammar and information structure can inform strategies to enhance the expression of a you-attitude. Rather than being a binary variable, you-attitude appears to be gradable, and an informal student assessment of the you-attitude expressed in ten versions of the same passage suggests that the various strategies for enhancing the you-attitude conveyed by a text appear to have a cumulative effect, so that a greater sense of you-attitude is created when more strategies are used.

Key Words: You-attitude, linguistics, politeness, case grammar, information structure

IN A SEMINAL ARTICLE for the argument that pragmatics--the branch of linguistics concerned with language use--can enhance our understanding of business communication, Limaye and Cherry (1987) present their aim as follows:

Business communicators speak of persuasion, good-news and bad-news letters, the you-attitude, and goodwill. Pragmatics research supplies more rigorous tools to examine these concepts than the often fuzzy, pop-psychology approach found in business communication literature. This study is a first step toward ... a 'pragmatic grammar of business communication.' (p. 87)

They propose an effectiveness measure for business letters that is based on the conversation maxims described in Once (1975) and the politeness principles developed by Lakoff (1973; 1977) and Brown and Levinson (1978). Similarly, Hagge and Kostelnick (1989) complain that "students aren't told how one uses language to be diplomatic or to imply. To make matters worse, many textbooks appear to ignore completely, proscribe, or cover in insufficient detail the very politeness locutions with which linguistic diplomacy is conveyed in the real world" (p. 334). After more than a decade, it is still true that linguistic research has had relatively little impact on business communication research and teaching and we have little explicit advice to offer students on how to achieve qualities such as you-attitude.

My main purpose is to suggest how the teaching of you-attitude can be enhanced by using politeness theories, case grammar, and information structure. This article begins with a review of how you-attitude (or you-perspective) has been defined and discussed in textbooks and articles in business and technical communication. It then explains very briefly the most relevant aspects of the three linguistic theories and indicates where readers could find more discussions of each. Then, using a brief announcement as an example, the article shows how these linguistic theories can be used to first assess the need for a you-attitude and then to inform specific strategies to enhance the expression of a you-attitude. Finally, on the basis of a very informal student assessment, the article suggests that the effect of these strategies appears to be cumulative and accounts in part for what I will argue is the gradability of you-attitude.

Definitions and Studies of You-attitude

The concept of you-attitude appears to have originated in work on advertising during the first decade of the 20th century and was presented as a business writing principle by G. B. Hotchkiss in his 1916 textbook (Hagge, 1989, p. 36). Since then it has become one of the business communication principles that Hagge says are "essentially folkloristic, having passed through the rhetorical tradition without much thought to their real validity" (p. 49).

Textbook treatments of you-attitude are characterized by considerable inconsistency about what the term includes, by vagueness about the means of achieving it, and by an implied claim of binariness. …

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