Cultures and communication: Email as a learning tool

I sent out my first email 20 years ago. By that time I could not anticipate that the email as a communication means would change our professional and personal lives.

My first emails were linked to teaching and learning activities. I then started to use email for personal communications. My first email account was created under Linux and I recall the joy when I got a Eudora free version application on my personal computer, years after. Moving from a black and white screen to a more appealing interface, with a lot of design improvements was such a big step!

Taking a picture (not an easy job there) of Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who sent a joint email to all schools participating remotely in some activities at the World Summit on Information Society in Geneva, Switzerland, 2003

Taking a picture (not an easy job there) of Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, who sent a joint email to all schools participating remotely in some activities at the World Summit on Information Society in Geneva, Switzerland, 2003

The email has brought innovation in the way we communicate, making our information exchange more dynamic than traditional face-to-face communication. I exchanged my first emails with peers from abroad, while carrying out a number of Web-based collaborative projects and I immediately noticed its delivery speed while overcoming physical distances.

Email advantages

An email could be delivered to multiple recipients. By contrast with face-to-face communication, email communication enables us to consider answering whenever we can. The email often removes barriers imposed by face-to-face communication: fear and anxiety, when communicating with people from other countries, who we did not meet face-to-face. The email actually is a “less threatening medium”, which enables reviewability and revisability, and may reduce stereotypical behaviour (see Table 1).

Table 1: Email advantages
1. Email provides “an accurate electronic record of communication without the possibility of human error” (Edwards et al., p. 9)
2. It overcomes long physical distances and “it charms us into forgetting that we are crossing boundaries, moving through lines of time and space that mark out difference” (Stacey et al., 1996, p. 294) (Willis, 2001, p. 3, citing Hirschheim, 1985)
3. Message is delivered faster than via other communication means, such as regular mail or phone conversation (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 44)
4. It is non disturbing compared with face-to-face or phone communication; receivers can read, think better of the response and answer when they find a suitable time, at a later date (Friedman and Currall, 2003, p. 1327), (Willis, 2001, p. 3-10, citing Hirschheim, 1985)
5. A sender can post a message to one or multiple recipients (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 44) (Willis, 2001, p.4)
6. It saves time because may be “a natural choice for unambiguous, straightforward questions” (McGee, 2000, p.46)
7. It may remove some of face-to-face communication barriers through an intimacy level “freely achieved in a mutual exchange of email messages” (Mann and Stewart, 2000, p. 170), because “people using email appeared to be less inhibited than those communicating face-to-face” (Dumlao and Duke, 2003, p.285); Furthermore, it provides people with a less threatening medium than face-to-face condition (Liaw and Johnson, 2001, p. 248)
8. It enables reviewability (“the ability to have a record of each person’s comments that can be reviewed as often as desired”) and revisability (“the ability to revise a statement before sending it”) (Friedman and Currall, 2003, p. 1329)
9. It may reduce stereotypical behaviour in a virtual context (Gragert, 1999, online)

In the particular case of language learning, during an online exchange between American and Taiwanese students, Liaw (2001, p. 248) found out that the “email exchange had provided them a less threatening medium than face-to-face meetings would have been”, “without leaving their home environment” and acting as “cultural informants and agents of cross-cultural exchange”. The email exchange Liaw refers to, took place in the context of learning English as a second language (ESL). The Americans helped the Taiwanese students to learn, improve and practise their English through email. It is important to stress that the exchange was unbalanced in a way, as students from both sides focused primarily on the American culture, as the purpose of the email exchange was to learn and practise English.

However, the study revealed that an intercultural email exchange usually runs in two stages, by moving from a more general level to a more personal one. At the beginning of the communication activity it was noted that the activity focused more on exchanging background information (local history, geography, customs and traditions). After a while the focus switched to a more personal level, exchanging information on current activities and favourite subjects of students.

From a social and psychological perspective, it appears that email has a significant advantage over face-to-face communication, because it removes barriers imposed by inhibition. The statements made by several researchers (see Mann and Stewart, Dumlao and Duke, Liaw and Johnson, Table 1) are strengthened by Paccagnella (1997, online):

“In particular conditions online behaviour can be even more social and normative than face-to-face interaction and relationships on the net can be altogether more or less democratic, uninhibited or egalitarian than in real life, depending on an intricate pattern of elements”.

Email drawbacks

Several drawbacks (see Table 2) are discussed by theorists in the referential literature. They all agree that the lack of social context and non-verbal cues may generate and maximise communication anxiety. For example Willis (2001, p. 2) stresses out that, “there are problems with the use of email as the sole communication medium”. She concludes that, according to the results of a survey she carried out, email has been proved to have many advantages over other communication tools, but “care must be taken to ensure that it does not become the sole communication medium” (2001, p. 14).

Checking email in the classroom, in the 90s

Checking email in the classroom, in the 90s; Very often email attachments were saved on a floppy disk to be able to distribute work to students

Table 2: Email drawbacks
1. An email message even important can be misused, as it can be posted to multiple users (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 45), (Friedman and Currall, 2003, p. 1338)
2. It may generate information in excess, not always relevant for many users (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 45), (Willis, 2001, p. 4)
3. When using email, people tend “to neglect grammar, spelling, and ‘good vocabulary’, and write text with incomplete sentences or use shorthand script” (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 45)
4. As a favourite communication tool for many people worldwide, email may de-personalise communication and may lead to lessening personal contacts (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 45)
5. It may be a threat to user privacy, because it can be used to monitor individuals (Sallis and Kassabova, 2000, p. 45); discussing confidential information is not always secure with email communication (Willis, 2001, p. 4)
6. Email lacks social context and non-verbal cues; it may generate cultural misunderstanding (Willis, 2001, p. 4); “The electronic message necessarily eliminates many cultural and social markers that people utilise in their everyday interaction with others” (Stacey et al., 1996, p. 297)
7. Writing email text requires more time than talking. It also requires efforts from the sender side to decode the message, but “the amount of the linguistic output is considerably reduced” (Newlands et al., 2003 p. 327)
8. Email is context deficient: there is no simple way to determine that the sender of an email is the person who claims to be (Willis, 2001, p. 4)
9. An email cannot be easily recalled once it is sent out (Willis, 2001, p. 10)
10. The response speed may lead to poor expression which makes the message difficult to understand (Willis, 2001, p. 10)

From the perspective of using email and other online tools in excess, Morahan-Martin and Schumacher (2003) draw the attention to a complex phenomenon of loneliness which has been associated with increased Internet use. Their study reveals that lonely individuals operate with the email to look for emotional support on the Net and furthermore to “modulate negative moods” (2003, p. 659), because their social behaviour was consistently developed online. Krug supports their argument, when discussing issues in relation to communication technologies and cultures in a nowadays world. He claims that: “people are arguably more isolated, more depressed, and more alienated in direct proportion to the amount of their life that they shift from spending with real people to spending with television, the Internet, the radio” (2005, p. 22).

Running a workshop on Intercultural Learning, in Rome, 2005

Running a workshop on Intercultural Learning, in Rome, 2005

In the context of intercultural email projects, the lack of face-to-face contacts could be minimised by combining online collaboration and face-to-face meetings. Gragert suggests this in an article, having as starting point a report published by the Carnegie Mellon University, in 1998, about the depression caused by the purposeless use of the Internet. Gragert argues (1999, online) that the power of the Internet should rely on its human potential to serve connecting people to communicate, otherwise it is useless or misused if it stores only virtual content:

“Our experience linking students and teachers around the world during the past ten years demonstrates that a combination of meaningful online collaboration and physical meetings enhances learning, creates a positive attitude toward education, and raises levels of self-esteem”.

Despite all drawbacks of the email (see Table 2), educationalists value its benefits. This explains why it has been successfully introduced in education to enrich the curriculum, develop innovative teaching methods and serve daily communication needs.

References

Edwards, K., et al. (2005), “What can email discourse and dynamics tell us about content creation?”, in Proceedings of the III International Conference on Communication and Reality, Digital Utopia in the Media: from discourses to facts. A Balance, Barcelona, May 20-21 2005

Friedman S. and Currall, (2003), “Conflict escalation: Dispute exacerbating elements of e-mail communication”, in Human Relations, Vol. 56, No. 11, Sage Publications, London

Gragert E., (1999), The Internet Potential for an Education of Hope, online, [accessed March 2014]

Krug S. (2000) Don’t Make Me Think! A common sense approach to Web usability, New Riders

Liaw M-L. and Johnson R.J., (2001), “E-mail writing as a cross-cultural learning experience”, in System, Vol. 29, pp.235-251, Elsevier Science Ltd.

McGee L., (2000), “Communication channels used by technical writers throughout the documentation process”, Technical Communication, February 2000, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 35-50

Morahan-Martin J. and Schumacher Ph., (2003), “Loneliness and social uses of the Internet”, in Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 19, pp. 659-671, Elsevier Ltd.

Newlands et al., (2003) “Adapting Communicative Strategies to Computer-Mediated Communication: An Analysis of Task Performance and Dialogue Structure”, in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 17, Wiley InterScience

Paccagnella L., (1997), “Getting the seat of your pants dirty: Strategies for ethno-graphic research on virtual communities” in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Vol. 1, Issue 3

Sallis Ph. and Kassabova D., (2000), “Computer-mediated communication: experiments with e-mail readability”, in Information Science, Vol. 123, pp. 43-53, Elsevier Science Inc.

Stacey D. et al., (1996), “The New Distance Learning: Students, Teachers, and Text in Cross-Cultural Electronic Communication”, in Computer and Composition, Vol. 13, pp. 293-302

Willis D., (2001), Computer Mediated Communication: the power of email as a driver for changing the communication paradigm, Leeds Metropolitan University, United Kingdom

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