Chi-Fen Emily Chen
The development of e-mail literacy
Language Learning & Technology
information but seldom to convey personal feelings or thoughts. Second, she found that sending brief e-
mails to professors was to show consideration for their time, as she remarked, "Professors are very busy,
so it’s better to let them quickly grasp my points and save their time in reading my e-mails." She
gradually recognized "time" as a precious commodity in the institutional context and learned to show
respect for her professors’ time. Third, being a doctoral student, she felt a need to have more offline
interaction with her professors to develop an apprenticeship relationship, which she noticed that many
doctoral students had established. She then chose face-to-face interaction with professors more frequently
and used e-mail mostly as an appointment-making tool and a medium to exchange simple information.
Fourth, this change was also due to her improved oral English language skills. She became more
comfortable and competent in speaking English to professors compared to when she had been a master’s
student; thus, she did not need to rely on e-mail so heavily as before to convey all the details.
It is of note that Ling’s change in e-mail message length was not just a change in the form of e-mail
discourse, but more significantly, a change in the function of using this medium. Her change did not
happen quickly but required time and gradual socialization into institutional e-mail culture, resulting from
a complex interplay of her evolving understanding of institutional e-mail practice, different notions of
politeness, the change in student identity and relations with professors, and her development of oral
language skills in English.
Ling tended to use an inductive, or story-telling, approach to structure her messages in all her e-mails.
This inductive structure was particularly evident in her request e-mails. She usually started a message
with a self-identification (e.g., "This is Ling. I’m in your xxx class.") followed by an abstract or pre-
request without giving a specific purpose (e.g., "I need help from you" or "I have some questions I need
to ask you"). Then she provided lengthy personal details or contextual information explaining why she
needed to make the request, and finally she placed her request act or purpose statement (e.g., "I want to
ask you to write a recommendation for me") at the end of the message (see the Appendix). This inductive
structure was an important discourse feature that remained unchanged in her long-term e-mail
communication with both peers and professors.
From Ling’s perspective, she chose this inductive structure intentionally for the sake of indirectness. She
explained, "I’m an indirect person, and I don’t feel comfortable saying my purpose right at the beginning.
I like to explain my reasons first and then I feel ok to ask them to do things for me." With such a strong
sense of "indirect self," she usually chose a "reason + request" sequence and used some other moves to
gradually steer her request while demonstrating her indirectness. Moreover, she also thought this
sequence beneficial to her e-mail interlocutors as it allowed them to be prepared for the ensuing request
but not to get a request abruptly, which she considered a way to show politeness as well.
Such an inductive approach, however, is likely to be viewed as an ineffective discourse structure by those
working in an institutional context where e-mails are often read quickly. As Crystal (2001) notes, "an e-
mail writer should assume that information located at the end of the message might never be seen, if the
reader decided not to scroll down any further" (p. 109). Thus, it is probably more effective to structure an
e-mail message in a deductive approach; that is, to place the most important information or the purpose at
the beginning, as many e-mail writing books (e.g., Booher, 2001; Flynn & Flynn, 2003) recommend. As a
novice e-mail user, Ling did not seem to realize the importance of using this approach to compose e-
mails, particularly long e-mails.
Ling’s continued use of the inductive approach to structure her e-mails is probably not just an
idiosyncratic practice but a common cultural practice for Chinese native speakers in making requests.
Studies on Chinese speakers’ (L1) oral requests (Zhang, 1995b) and business request letters (Kirkpatrick,
1991, 1993), as well as studies on Chinese English learners’ (L2) oral requests (Scollon & Scollon, 1995),
business request letters (Perotti & Bridges, 1993), and request e-mails in English (Chang & Hsu, 1998;