Summary Master Thesis

"E-mail kommunikation" Masterspeciale i it, sprog og læring af Anne Albinus, 2004, IT-Vest, Ålborg Universitet



The subject of this thesis is email communication, and its purpose is to isolate major problems in the use of email as a medium of communication. In the thesis email is analysed as a linguistic and semantic phenomenon – the aim being to clarify whether email as a tool is able to bring about understanding and meaning.


The thesis takes its point of departure in the fact that email is a new tool as well as a problem in working life, and thus it is discussed whether the extensive use of email is appropriate, what can be done to improve the quality of emails, and what human relations are reflected in an email.


Anne Kathrine Lund’s Ph.D. thesis, ”Breve i brug“ [Letters in Use] and Ole Carsten Pedersen’s book, “Mail og mennesker” [Mail and Men] are taken into account in the thesis. As Danish literature on this subject is limited in scope, the paper also includes literature from the US, where email has been in use for a longer period of time, viz. among others David Crystal’s book, “Language and the Internet”.


After an introductory description of the background for my choice of subject and of the existing literature follows an exposition of the underlying choice of method, the hermeneutic method. The hermeneutic method is chosen as it has for its subject matter the potential conditions for meaning and understanding. The hermeneutic method is linked to the phenomenological tradition, and Hans Georg Gadamer’s concept “the hermeneutic circle” is taken into account, including his theories of “prior understanding”. In addition the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s theory of “the hermeneutic arc” is discussed, in which he describes the process of understanding as a ‘back and forth’ movement between proximity and distance, detail and whole. The hermeneutic approach is fundamental to the basic problem posited in the thesis as well as descriptive of the types of processes of understanding in play in an email.


In the thesis I discuss the concept of communication with the aim of placing the email more precisely as a medium of communication. The concepts of verbal and non-verbal communication are presented, - including verbal communication as both spoken and written language. Essential in this connection is the fact that written language is dependent on technology, and that it is characterized by distance between sender and receiver – i.e. it is not a face-to-face relation.


With this analysis as a basis, there follows a discussion of the linguistic profile of the email. As a genre, email is basically comparable to a letter. However, the language of an email approaches that of spoken language, and its position between speech and writing is discussed. Here I include David Crystal, who represents the view that emails are characterized by the same speed and energy as face- to-face relations, and that what he terms “netspeak” contains elements of both spoken and written language. The interaction in Netspeak, Crystal says, is slower than in face-to-face communication, but in a simultaneous Internet access the asynchronous element is reduced. In the conclusion I use Naomi S. Baron’s definitions to the effect that email  : is informal, helps develop a certain conversational playing field, encourages personal disclosure, but can become emotional /”flaming”. Baron also claims that emails most of all resemble speech, but a new kind of speech building on existing ‘stores’, a mixed idiom  reminiscent of an ongoing creolization.


Next, focus is turned to the concepts of understanding and intelligibility and the risks that are inherent in the speed that is characteristic of email communication as well as the ambiguity that may arise through the use of colloquial  language. In this connection I refer again to Ricoeur and include a number of other theoreticians in order to explain the two concepts. This leads on to a discussion of the responsibility incumbent on the sender of an email, and the importance of showing in an email who one is as a person. The concept of empathy is taken into account. Which eventually takes us into a discussion of the meaning of ethics on the web. Among other concepts, K. E.  Løgstrup’s “den etiske fordring” (the ethical demand) and E. Lévinas’ ”nærhedsetik” (the ethics of proximity) are included.


Finally I discuss the question of quantity and quality in the use of emails, and the question whether learning is possible to effect an improvement of the quality of emails, and whether this would help avoid the stress factor that answering emails constitutes, not least to many business executives. The importance of not personalizing the email problem is stressed, and it is suggested to handle it on an organizational level in the shape of an email culture: a documented set of values and rules for the use of email.


The conclusion is that work on this paper has contributed to a greater realization of the comprehension processes that take place in connection with email communication, as the thesis builds on and extends existing Danish literature on the subject while at the same time including aspects of comprehension and ethics. This results in a recommendation that the quality of emails be the object of learning in the workplace.
copyright Anne Albinus 2004

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Undersider (1): Resumé masterspeciale