When I first wrote my emails to peers in other countries I only looked at the enthusiasm of the moment and at its rewarding part: getting to know other people from other countries. Later on, when I looked for different project partners outside Europe, I started to pose a number of natural questions, when getting in touch with people I never met face-to-face before: “How do they look like?” “What are their habits?”.
Years after I discovered that things are not as simple as seen at a first glance. I had the chance to get involved in a small scale research project that focused on different aspects of both cultures and email exchange.
This article covers some key elements about anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour in intercultural email communication. The research project implied surveying a number of experts in the field of international collaborative school projects.
Theorists agree that the lack of social context and non-verbal cues in intercultural computer-mediated communication 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, email 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 (p. 14).
The research project I carried out confirmed that anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour may affect intercultural email exchange. It appears to be less obvious in an online than in a face-to-face context.
According to the research results, the difficulties and barriers encountered in face-to-face communication may apply to email exchange to some extent. Fear, anxiety and cultural stereotypes might be major difficulties and barriers in face-to-face communication, while in online conditions they appear to be softened by physical distances separating the senders and receivers.
Factors generating anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour
About 40% of the people taking the research survey reported that anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour do not happen in intercultural email communication while the remaining 60% said otherwise. The respondents also indicated that the three main factors leading to anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour in email communication are: misperception, lack of non-verbal cues and physical differences, even if the faceless interaction in email communication may make them minimal.
Due to cultural stereotypes, groups involved in email exchange may misperceive online reactions and behaviours (Koptyug, survey respondent):
When students first exchanged emails on Likes, Dislikes and Prejudices, there was some hurt feeling, because there were many stereotypes. “All Germans like to march, drink beer, all Americans are fat, like fast food, all Russians drink vodka, they have eternal winter”. We teachers acted as mediators, helped students exchange pictures and essays. It was a very good learning experience.
b) Lack of non-verbal cues
It appeared that the lack of non-verbal cues might be the main factor generating anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour in email communication (Gragert, survey respondent):
Without body language, smiles, etc., words by themselves can be received very differently than how they were sent. We have found that the way to most effectively avoid (or deal with) this behaviour is to involve students from a number of countries/cultures in the discussion. It is problematic to bring only students from cultures in conflict into the same room by themselves. We have learned that the most conflict-free way to engage such students is to enable them to work together on someone else’s problems/conflicts. So, students in India and Pakistan may look at the issues and possible resolutions in Northern Ireland.
c) Physical differences
While they are visible in face-to-face communication, physical differences are minor or totally absent in online condition (Riel, survey respondent):
You see the differences in size, colour, gender, age and style. And you don’t just “see” them. You very quickly make thousands of unconscious assumptions about the person based your experiences. The goal of initial interactions seems to be to discover what is shared in common. Questions are asked or stories are shared to find some degree of overlap in personal histories. One might share a travel story, or tell about a family or friend that might live in near the person. Or the person might ask questions about where or with who they studies, what books they have read, or check to see if some skill or hobby might be shared in common. The goal appears to be finding some form of co-membership. When the differences are visually clear, I think we are driven to find some common ground ideas, or interest that makes us feeling more similar.
How to prevent fear and anxiety in defensive behaviour in IC email communication
Anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour in email communication involving schools can be prevented if teachers are aware of three aspects:
- Time helps think before answering electronic messages because people have time to develop understanding
- Enriching the email exchange with pictures and essays and, where possible, by organising face-to-face meetings
- The online condition may remove physical differences and the initial feelings generated by them (Riel, survey respondent):
When you work with people online, I think you accept the stranger in a generalised sense as someone “like me,” until you are able to figure out the differences. Instead of trying to find the ways in which the person is similar, it seems as if people are drawn to understand how this person is different. This is normal, as the visual marker of differences is not available. Obvious visual markers of race, ethnicity, gender, age or physical appearance, are not initially available in computer messages. The absence of these markers reduces the tendency to form stereotypes. Instead, the “voice” created in the text creates the impression of the writer. It allows people to lead with what comes from their mind rather than with what is read from their face. Both parties in the conversation are curious to learn more without imposing stereotypes that would be so immediate with visual information.
The anxiety, hostility and defensive behaviour, otherwise natural in face-to-face context, may occur in online context from misperception and faceless communication. They could be prevented or minimised by reflecting more on the message before answering, supplementing email exchange with pictures or videos, and, where possible, organising face-to-face meetings. These actions help strengthen online communication.
Willis D., (2001), Computer Mediated Communication: the power of email as a driver for changing the communication paradigm, Leeds Metropolitan University, United Kingdom