Workplace Requests in Spanish and English: A Case Study of Email Communication between Two Supervisors and a Subordinate

By Callahan, Laura | Southwest Journal of Linguistics, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Workplace Requests in Spanish and English: A Case Study of Email Communication between Two Supervisors and a Subordinate


Callahan, Laura, Southwest Journal of Linguistics


ABSTRACT. This paper examines the mitigation in email communication between two supervisors and a subordinate, to investigate how this feature differs in requests written in English and Spanish by native speakers of each language. Forty-seven emails were harvested from a span of three and a half years. The Spanish-speaking supervisor's requests contained fewer mitigation devices of every type. Although the requests written in Spanish contained less mitigation, this does not mean that this supervisor's email communication was devoid of facework. On the contrary, his use of imperatives and other direct strategies may have been intended as a form of positive politeness. Its reception (i.e. its interpretation by the receiver), however, was often otherwise, given the fact that both the receiver and the other supervisor were LI English speakers, and the fact that, especially in comparison, the latter's requests did contain the indirect strategies that characterize linguistic politeness in English.

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1. INTRODUCTION. In almost any workplace it is possible that not all members share the same communication style. This possibility increases when individuals from different cultures and countries work together, whether as peers, subordinates, or superiors. Each must adapt to different discourse practices, with lower status workers expected to adapt more to their superiors than vice versa. The specific situation studied here--a university department in the United States--is one in which it is particularly common to encounter colleagues and supervisors from cultures outside one's own. U.S. universities often hire faculty members who were born and educated elsewhere, particularly in those cases in which expertise in the subject matter is apt to have been gained in a non-English-speaking country.

Linguistic politeness plays an important role in the opinions people form of one another, especially in the absence of non-verbal forms of communication. It can therefore influence the atmosphere of a workplace in general and workplace relations between superiors and subordinates in particular. This paper examines the facework in email communication between two supervisors and a subordinate, to investigate whether and how the type and amount of facework differs in requests written in English and Spanish by native speakers of each language, as well as how it differs in requests made by the superiors to their subordinate versus those made by the subordinate to her superiors.

Face is a fundamental concept in politeness theory. Positive face refers to the desire to be liked and appreciated, while negative face refers to the desire to be unimpeded (Brown and Levinson 1987). Positive and negative face are often characterized as corresponding to the dichotomies of involvement vs. independence, intimacy vs. distance, and solidarity vs. deference (Scollon and Scollon 2001). An action or utterance that goes against one's need for appreciation, in the case of positive face, or autonomy, in the case of negative face, is said to constitute a face-threatening act, or FTA (Brown and Levinson 1987).

Speech acts as well as non-linguistic actions that attend to the addressee's as well as the speaker's own face, both positive and negative, are described as facework. Paralinguistic features such as tone and volume of voice, as well as smiles, gestures, and laughter, can also serve as facework, complementing or at times substituting for speech. See also Pan (2000), for an interesting exposition of what happens when a language lacks the types of structures referred to as face markers.

Facework attenuates, or mitigates, the force of face-threatening acts. This does not imply that face is limited to threats to an individual's image (for a broader perspective, see, for example, Arundale 1999, 2006; Domenici and Littlejohn 2006; Garces-Conejos 2009; Haugh 2009; Locher and Watts 2005; Spencer-Oatey 2000, 2005; Ting-Toomey 1988, 2005; Watts 2003). …

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Workplace Requests in Spanish and English: A Case Study of Email Communication between Two Supervisors and a Subordinate
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