Thread: Research

(Mis)Communications in email exchanges in academic settings: a preliminary study

Bella Rubin and Helen Sarid, Tel Aviv, Israel

Background and purpose The motivation for researching miscommunications in email came from two sources: email communications among students and teachers in academic writing courses and emails sent by colleagues, sponsors and conference planners while engaged in organizing an international multilingual academic writing conference. In both settings, emails were written in English by native and non-native writers of English and in Hebrew by native and non-native Hebrew writers. The authors found a high percentage of misunderstood emails among users in the above settings. Some emails may have elicited momentary gaps in communication which could be promptly clarified. Too often, however, misunderstood emails seemed to be the cause of conflicts, time delays in solving problems, misinformation, and occasional feelings of frustration, even anger, among participants. The possible causes of misunderstandings among email users have been studied by several researchers, mainly in business settings. However, not enough studies have focused on academic settings such as courses in academic writing for students for whom English is a foreign language or the complex processes of organizing an international conference where speakers of many languages communicate via email.

Methods The authors examined emails in these settings to answer the following questions: What aspects of miscommunications can be identified among email users in academic settings? What is the nature of the medium of email that may lead to miscommunications among users? How can the discourse of email become more effective, thereby avoiding pragmatic failure?

Results This presentation will report on the content analysis of representative emails sent and received by students, teachers and conference organizers during the year 2011-2012. One category that has thus far emerged is the -œlack of clarifying context- in email communications. Another is related to the issue of -œpoliteness- as interpreted in various ways by English/Hebrew email users. What may be considered polite in Hebrew may not be interpreted as politeness by English users. An attempt will be made to see how these and additional preliminary findings may have influenced the student-teacher relationships and those evolving among the participants in the case of conference planning.

Conclusions Although the exploratory nature of this study may not lead to theory-building, our description and initial interpretation of the phenomenon can lead to further studies which may have implications for language professionals.


Bella Rubin, senior lecturer in the Division of Foreign Languages of Tel Aviv University (retired), is currently teaching academic writing to doctoral students at the Porter School of Environmental Studies. She is one of the founders of the Israel Forum for Academic Writing (IFAW) and is co-chairing the IFAW International Conference -œAcademic Writing in a Changing World.- Her recent research interests include the development of Hebrew, English and Arabic academic writing in Israel.

Helen Sarid is a senior lecturer (retired) in the Division of Foreign Languages at Tel Aviv University, leading programs in both academic writing and English for Specific Purposes. She is currently tutoring Ethiopian students in various academic programs. She is also a member of IFAW and is serving on the abstract committee for their upcoming international conference.