LINGUIST List 31.1983

Tue Jun 16 2020

Review: English; Spanish; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Freytag (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 07-Apr-2020
From: Nicolas Ruytenbeek <>
Subject: Exploring Politeness in Business Emails
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Vera Freytag
TITLE: Exploring Politeness in Business Emails
SUBTITLE: A Mixed-Methods Analysis
SERIES TITLE: Language at Work
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Nicolas Ruytenbeek, Ghent University


In this monograph, Vera Freytag (VF) offers a detailed analysis of a corpus of authentic British English and Peninsular Spanish emails in the workplace, complemented by insights from a metapragmatic approach. Exploring Politeness in Business Emails (EPBE) reveals the use of a similar set of realization and modification strategies in English and Spanish directives, with differences in relative frequencies emerging between the two languages. The author devotes special attention to the interpersonal variables bearing on the form of directive business emails.

Chapter 1, “Directive Speech Events in Business Emails”, introduces the aims and the goals of EPBE. VF first explains why it is relevant to study politeness in email business communication, a genre characterized by participants’ efforts to maintain a balance between their interactional and transactional goals. The author proposes to fill research gaps concerning comparative and pragmalinguistic approaches to the realization of directive speech events in English and Spanish, as well as the social factors affecting politeness strategies used in business emails. She advocates the prevalence of directives in daily communication and their inherent face-threat as reasons to privilege them in this monograph (see also Flöck 2016). Combining insights from the universality paradigm and the diversity paradigm, VF provides a short historical overview of politeness theories originating in Brown & Levinson’s (1987) ground-breaking model, with a focus on the discursive turn and socio-constructionist approaches. This chapter also introduces social variables at the macro and micro levels of speech events and the notion of a community of practice, and it includes a state of the art concerning directives in institutional written, in particular computer-mediated, communication.

In Chapter 2, “A Mixed-Method Approach to the Analysis of Speech Events”, VF provides information about the methodological aspects of her research. She first explains how she operationalized directive speech events (SEs) in business emails and why she relied on the recipient’s interpretation to identify a particular directive SE. Then she presents her data consisting in 300 British English (BE) and 300 Peninsular Spanish (PS) professional emails exchanged between colleagues in the context of a hotel resort. These emails were collected about a year after their production, and a few email writers completed an online questionnaire probing into their perceptions of the (in)directness and the (im)politeness of these emails as well as their use of the email medium. VF also addresses the extent to which both data sets are comparable, as BE and PS emails have similar purposes. She includes an explanation about the different social variables taken into account for her corpus analysis, consisting in writer/recipient sex, social distance, power, degree of imposition, and email purpose. In addition, she presents Blum-Kulka & Ohlstain’s (1984) Cross-Cultural Speech Act Realization Project (CCSARP), which she uses to analyse the head act strategies and linguistic modification (downgraders and upgraders) in her directive SEs. The remainder of Chapter 2 outlines how the statistical analyses were carried out and described the research objectives and hypotheses.

VF reports on the results of her email analyses in Chapter 3, “A Cross-Cultural Analysis of English and Spanish Email Directives”. These results for different directive SE components, i.e., head act strategies and sentence-types, downtoners, upgraders, and sequencing strategies, are presented in separate subsections. The author discusses the most common patterns, such as the often downgraded preparatory interrogatives, shedding light on the relationship between head act realizations and modification strategies. Her data also reveals a general, somewhat surprising, preference for positive politeness in both languages. In addition, different roles are suggested for the so-called politeness marker “please”, which actually serves two distinct, yet not incompatible, functions: in some situations it increases message transparency, like upgraders, while in others it compensates for directness, as downtoners typically do. The results of the questionnaire about the perception of (in)directness and (im)politeness in head act strategies are also commented on in this chapter.

In Chapter 4, “The Contextual Complexity of Email Directives”, VF focuses on the bulk of results pertaining to the influence of social variables on head act strategies and sentence-types, downgrading and upgrading modification, sequencing strategies, and how these effects differ according to the language used. While no effect at all of the sex of the email writer was found, all the other variables gave rise to significant results (at least in some of the statistical models). Without giving too much detail, several results are worth mentioning. For instance, more direct strategies occur in same sex interactions, and there are noticeable differences in the use of embedded directives and reference markers with BE and PS recipients. Concerning social distance, direct strategies are more frequent in high distance situations, but they are complemented by an important use of downgrading devices, apparently not incompatible with emphasis on urgency, also common in these situations. For degree of imposition, preparatory interrogatives are more frequent in high imposition directives. Likewise, some of the linguistic downgraders, and upgraders such as intensifiers occur more often in high imposition situations. Concerning the variable of relative power, the need for mitigation, in particular the use of a second-person perspective, is more common in downward power interactions. By contrast, pre-grounders and thanking occur more frequently in upward power emails. Finally, different email purposes give rise to different head act strategies, e.g., imperatives are more frequent for requests for confirmation/reply, and preparatory interrogatives for requesting a piece of information. More than a half of the emails concerning price negotiation include a preparatory interrogative, and the object of an email influences the use of mitigation.

The conclusion, Chapter 5 entitled “The Study of Politeness in Business Emails: Concluding Remarks”, discusses the main implications of EPBE, and provides the reader with suggestions for future research on politeness in business written communication. From a theoretical perspective, EPBE confirms, on the one hand, the relevance of a distinction between (in)directness and (im)politeness and, on the other hand, the crucial role of the variables of distance, power and imposition on the form of email directives. From a methodological perspective, VF emphasizes the usefulness of the notion of a community of practice to address the shared linguistic repertoire of workplace colleagues. A practical implication is the need to stress awareness of national and cultural stereotypes (most of which are disconfirmed by the corpus data reported on in EPBE) among language learners and individuals in the workplace, so as to avoid that they endorse inadequate generalizations about linguistic behaviour. Furthermore, in view of the numerous contextual variables involved in email communication, it makes little sense to sketch general recommendations for appropriate business emails. However, VF provides a handful of guidelines based on the results of her corpus analysis. In this final chapter, she also outlines directions for further work on the perception of (im)politeness in email directives, taking into account different channels and the second language of the participants. The general preference for positive politeness in business emails also deserves extra investigation.


In EPBE, VF convincingly achieves her initial goals. In particular, she demonstrates the relevance of a cross-cultural analysis of email SEs in business communication, and she confirms the universalist tendency according to which BE and PS writers use a similar set of politeness strategies in their performance of directives. Despite VF’s insistence on the usefulness of combining an analysis of authentic production data and a perception study, one may regret that the online questionnaire probing into perceptions of (in)directness and (im)politeness was only administered to four email writers (cf. p. 177), thereby limiting the statistical power of the results obtained and the possible generalization to larger populations. However, I believe a proper investigation of how directive SEs are perceived by their recipients actually was beyond the scope of EPBE, which, in itself, is a very valuable and in-depth contribution to the study of email directives.

Throughout EPBE, VF systematically refers to the results of generalized linear mixed models, which she provides as Appendices, a useful resource for the readers who want to know more about the output of the statistical analyses. This rigorous treatment of the corpus data enables her to signal to the reader whether or not a particular result is statistically significant at p<.05. VF also provides many examples for the variety of politeness strategies and downgraders/upgraders present in the corpus, with English translations alongside the original Spanish examples.

Quite rightly, VF avoids assuming Blum-Kulka & Ohlstain’s (1984) continuum of (in)directness, for the reasons that it has not been consistently applied in the literature and it was based on an outsider’s perspective, not on the actual recipient’s. She also makes a clear distinction between speech acts, which are traditionally conceptualized in terms of single utterances, and speech events or “speech situations”, which consist in multiple utterances achieving a given perlocutionary goal. In addition, while she endorses most of the CCSARP’s politeness strategies, she added two new categories, based on the content of her data. In a similar vein, VF provides interesting descriptions of the variables of power and social distance and their importance in business communication, as she explicitly distinguishes between coercive and legitimate power, and between the degree of familiarity associated with liking vs. acquaintance, respectively.

VF offers up-to-date discussions of her findings with respect to her hypotheses about social variables, and she situates them against the background of previous work reviewed in e.g., Waldvogel (2001). That being said, two remarks concerning these results are in order.

First, due to the imbalanced composition of the email corpus -- about 70% of the emails were written in low imposition situations (p. 55-56) -- not all the observed results for the variable of degree of imposition are significant, as. The same limitation holds for relative power, the large majority of emails taking place in equal power situations (91% of the emails for the BE corpus; 62% for the PS corpus, cf. p. 53-54). This limited comparability for some of the variables of interest is a shortcoming that VF herself acknowledges on page 36, but it is difficult to tell, in particular in the sections on pages 153-161, which results are and which are not statistically significant.

Second, some of the author’s hypotheses outlined on pages 77-80 lack sufficient motivation. For example, it is unclear why VF does not expect any effect of writer sex on the realization of email directive SEs in her corpora. I agree that available empirical and experimental evidence on this issue is far from clear-cut, but I would have expected a hypothesis about writer sex in line with the idea that the communicative style typically associated with women has a stronger orientation towards politeness and mitigation strategies (Herring 1994; Lakoff 1975). Moreover, assuming that no effect of writer sex should occur, I fail to see why this variable was included in VF’s statistical models as a predictor variable, instead of being treated as a variable to be controlled for (random variable). In contrast to her quite detailed discussion of the non-necessarily linear relationship between indirectness and politeness, I was also surprised by the short size of the paragraph where VF explains that she did not expect mitigation strategies to go hand in hand with perceived indirectness in her pilot perception study (p. 80).

Summing up, “Exploring Politeness in Business Emails: A Mixed-Methods Analysis” is a well-written book that provides valuable insights into the choice of head act strategies, request modification in business directive emails and how these are determined by the interpersonal parameters of the interaction.


Blum-Kulka, Shoshana & Elite Olshtain. 1984. Requests and apologies: A cross cultural study of speech act realization patterns (CCSARP). Applied Linguistics 5 (3): 196-213.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Flöck, Ilka. 2016. Requests in American and British English. A contrastive multi-method analysis. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Herring, Susan C. 1994. Politeness in computer culture: Why women thank and men flame. In Cultural Performances: Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Women and Language Conference (pp. 278-294). Berkeley Women and Language Group.

Lakoff, Robin. 1975. Language and woman’s place. New York: Harper & Row.

Waldvogel, Joan. 2001. Email and workplace communication: A literature review. Language in the Workplace Occasional Papers 3.


Nicolas Ruytenbeek is a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University. He is interested in the study of utterance production and interpretation both from a theoretical and an empirical perspective, and more generally in topics at the semantics-pragmatics interface. He specializes in experimental approaches to indirect speech acts and politeness. His current research concerns the emotional responses to (im)politeness in online discourse.

Page Updated: 16-Jun-2020