Workplace cultures and email practices: An interplay between macro- and micro level influences

Stephanie Schnurr, Charley Rowe

University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong S.A.R. - China


Electronic communication in the workplace is increasingly gaining significance. This seems to be particularly true for email, which has already replaced other media of communication in this environment (Waldvogel 2007). In many workplaces, email is the preferred medium not only for communicating transactional or work-related topics, but also for performing a range of relational functions. However, the extent to which organisational members draw on email and the specific ways in which they achieve these goals depend on a number of social factors.

Drawing on a corpus of about 250 emails collected in three different Hong Kong organisations (a corporate business, a non-profit agency, and a higher educational institution), we explore the impact of a range of social factors on the distinctive discourse features that characterise the email practices in these workplaces. Particular focus is placed on the ways in which the domains of transactional (predominantly work-related) and more relationally oriented discourses are integrated with each other. Ultimately, we explore the interplay between the various factors, in particular interpersonal and contextual aspects, which impact on the ways in which organisational emails are written.

Our findings indicate that the ways in which members of diverse organisations combine the (sometimes competing) domains of transactional and relational workplace discourse in their email communication are crucially influenced by a number of social variables that interact with each other on different levels. On the macro-level, the participants’ email discourse is influenced by the linguistic conventions that characterise what we call the “professional email culture”, as well as by norms specifically developed in the participating organisations, which constitute individual communities of practice (as in e.g. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 2007, Holmes and Stubbe 2003). On the micro-level, however, substantial differences in the emails written by members of the same organisation must be explained by a range of personal and interpersonal factors. We will show that in their email discourse, organisational members constantly negotiate and re-negotiate the differential demands of both the macro- and the micro-levels in tandem.


Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 2007. Putting communities of practice in

their place. Gender and Language 1:1.

Holmes, Janet, and Maria Stubbe. 2003. Power and Politeness in the Workplace. A sociolinguistic analysis of talk at work. London: Longman.

Waldvogel, Joan. 2007. Greetings and closings in workplace email. Journal of Computer-

Mediated Communication, 12(2). .

Session: Paper session
Digital Language 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 02