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Saving Face: Reactions to Cultural Norm Violations in Business Request Emails

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Abstract

Purpose

This research examines reactions to relationship building statements (termed facework; e.g., I hope all is well) and message structure (placement of reasoning either before or after the request itself) in business emails presented to U.S. and Chinese employees.

Design/methodology/approach

Two studies manipulated the use of facework and message structure in samples of Chinese and American employees and measured reactions to the email. Study 1 sampled Chinese (n = 57) and U.S. (n = 56) employees within the same multinational firm. Study 2 employed multi-industry samples of Chinese (n = 99) and U.S. (n = 105) employees. Both studies also examined within-culture differences in self-construal as predictors of reactions to the messages.

Findings

Chinese employees reported greater desire to do business with the sender of an email that included facework and placed reasoning before the request, whereas U.S. employees were more irritated with this type of email (Study 1). However, when facework and message structure were manipulated independently (Study 2), Chinese employees preferred the messages with facework or reasoning before request only when the two strategies were not combined. Within-culture differences in independent and interdependent self-construal interacted with email condition in complex ways.

Implications

Results have implications for employees who use email to communicate cross-culturally and also point to within-culture differences in email preferences.

Originality/value

Despite the prevalent use of email for cross-cultural business communication, lack of understanding of cultural nuances may result in misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. Results have implications for training employees who communicate cross-culturally.

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Notes

  1. Per the suggestion of an anonymous reviewer, we re-ran these analyses controlling for participant gender and also examining interactions between gender and the manipulation. No significant effects were found for gender, and gender had no moderating effects. We also tested for gender differences in InterSC and IndepSC, and there were no significant differences. These analyses are available from the first author.

  2. We thank our anonymous reviewers for these ideas.

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Acknowledgment

The authors would like to thank Richard Griffith and Jessica Wildman for their helpful suggestions related to this research and manuscript preparation.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Erin M. Richard.

Appendices

Appendix A: Pilot study coding scheme

Messages were coded similarly to the process used by Chang and Hsu (1998) and Kirkpatrick (1991). Raters were instructed to identify whether each of the components below was included in the message structure along with the order in which they were found in each request email. These operational definitions were validated previously in studies involving both Chinese and American participants (Chen 2006; Chang and Hsu 1998; Kirkpatrick 1991).

  • Facework Statements: Statements expressing good will towards the receiver and reinforcing and maintaining the social identity of the sender and/or upholding and supporting the receivers.

  • Reason Statements: Statements describing the cause, context, and consequences for the request.

  • Request Statements: Statements expressing the sender’s expectation of the recipient with regard to prospective action.

Appendix B: Structure of study 1 email messages

Component

Deductive style email

Inductive style email

Facework statement

(Excluded)

I hope all is well.

Reasoning

(After request) I have learned that Razzle Dazzle has been recently presented at all the major product shows and the acceptance by the buyers has been very strong worldwide. I believe the product could end up being a very strong item for your company in terms of generating sales. Hopefully you can meet and discuss further.

(Before request) I have learned that Razzle Dazzle has been recently presented at all the major product shows and the acceptance by the buyers has been very strong worldwide. I believe the product could end up being a very strong item for your company in terms of generating sales. Hopefully you can meet and discuss further.

Request

I think you should reconsider your original decision to exclude Razzle Dazzle from your product line at this time.

I think you should reconsider your original decision to exclude Razzle Dazzle from your product line at this time.

Appendix C: Study 2 email messages

Deductive structure, including facework

Deductive structure, excluding facework

Inductive structure, including facework

Inductive structure, excluding facework

I hope all is well. I think you should reconsider your original decision to exclude Razzle Dazzle from your product line at this time. I have learned that Razzle Dazzle has been recently presented at all the major product shows and the acceptance by the buyers has been very strong worldwide. I believe the product could end up being a very strong item for your company in terms of generating sales. Hopefully you can meet and discuss further.

I think you should reconsider your original decision to exclude Razzle Dazzle from your product line at this time. I have learned that Razzle Dazzle has been recently presented at all the major product shows and the acceptance by the buyers has been very strong worldwide. I believe the product could end up being a very strong item for your company in terms of generating sales. Hopefully you can meet and discuss further.

I hope all is well. I have learned that Razzle Dazzle has been recently presented at all the major product shows and the acceptance by the buyers has been very strong worldwide. I believe the product could end up being a very strong item for your company in terms of generating sales. Hopefully you can meet and discuss further. I think you should reconsider your original decision to exclude Razzle Dazzle from your product line at this time.

I have learned that Razzle Dazzle has been recently presented at all the major product shows and the acceptance by the buyers has been very strong worldwide. I believe the product could end up being a very strong item for your company in terms of generating sales. Hopefully you can meet and discuss further. I think you should reconsider your original decision to exclude Razzle Dazzle from your product line at this time.

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Richard, E.M., McFadden, M. Saving Face: Reactions to Cultural Norm Violations in Business Request Emails. J Bus Psychol 31, 307–321 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-015-9414-9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-015-9414-9

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