Principal Investigators: David Warren, MA and Prof. (FH) Dr. Elisabeth Kübler
Duration of the project: August 2011 – August 2012
LBS is a highly intercultural business school with approximately 300 students, 240 of whom are studying for the B.A. in Intercultural Business Administration and 60 of whom are studying for the M.A. in Intercultural Management and Leadership. Students here come from over 40 different countries, especially Israel, Brazil and those countries within the former Soviet Union and Central and South East Europe.
At LBS, English is the Lingua Franca. All programmes are taught in English, a C1 command of English is an admission requirement and, in addition, Business English (taught by a native speaker) is a compulsory course in the B.A.
The University is located in a fully German-speaking environment (Vienna) and its faculty and staff are predominantly Austrian with international experience. On the student side, LBS’s undergraduates and graduates often have a multilingual background and have no clear first language.
Our research was conducted from the perspective of preparing students for an international business career in a Lingua Franca environment and to this end we developed two core research questions:
a) Research question: How do students ‘talk conflict’ in a Lingua Franca environment when confronted with wrong but not life-threatening accusations?
b) Follow-up question: Which are the most appropriate research designs to generate real-life reactions and to observe natural linguistic behaviour, respectively?
Research design and sample-building
Our research took place in an experimental setting and its goal was to generate real-life responses. We developed five conflict situations (which didn’t threaten the student’s continued participation at LBS) around which accusatory e-mails would be sent.
These conflict situations were:
- Lack of active participation in class
- Lateness in submitting assignment(s)
- Absence(s) from class
- Failure to adherence to LBS language classes behaviour (e.g. using a mobile phone)
- Copying assignments from other students (suspected plagiarism)
Two weeks in advance of the experiment, through the regular newsletter ‘News from the Dean’ hints were passed on to the student body as to the nature of the research project. Moreover, we informed students that they could withdraw from the forthcoming project if they so wanted to. This process can be compared to the use of recordings telling customers that their calls may be recorded when using a customer service hotline. For each conflict situation there were 12 e-mails, which were split up equally between the 3 Semesters (i.e. four each to each of semesters 1, 3, 5 of the Bachelor programme). To determine to which students the mails would be sent we fed the names of all students (divided according to Semester) studying Business English into a computer randomiser and then the mails were sent out to the relevant students by Elisabeth Kübler in the name of David Warren (Business English teacher and Head of the Language Department).
The response rate was good. In total there were 48 responses to the 60 e-mails which were sent out (although two students replied twice).
To mitigate any ethical challenges posed by the research design and using ‘real’ data (i.e. using replies that had been written in response to what potentially was thought to have been a real conflict situation) we implemented the following safeguards:
All-clear messages were sent to all students of the bachelors programme
Students had three days during which they could withdraw their response (two of them actually withdrew)
E-mails were not read or replied to individually
There was full anonymisation of the e-mails (only semester of study was recorded; no other data such as country of origin/secondary education, first language(s), gender, age)
Assessing the data
Given the small scale and limited resources for our project, as well as the relative lack of current research into our field, we opted for qualitative content analysis. This involved independent coding by both authors in MaxQDA to ensure inter-coder reliability.
These codes were based on work conducted on relevant fields within the literature on conflict management.
Our overall framework of investigation was provided by Spencer-Oatey’s (2000) 5 point model of dealing with conflict. This is:
- Illocutionary domain – speech act strategies (Writing strategies)
- Discourse domain – content inclusion/exclusion personal topics, organisation of sequencing information e.g. raising sensitive topics can be rapport threatening
- Participation domain – procedural aspects e.g. turn taking
- Stylistic domain – tone (Genre appropriate syntax, choice of genre appropriate terms of address or use of honorifics, sarcasm, conditional, genre appropriate vocab)
- Non-verbal domain
Of course, Spencer-Oatey’s model assumes that the participants are in direct physical contact with each other. Here, however, as the conflicting parties are only in e-mail contact with each other only a) Speech act strategies (transferred to writing strategies), b) Discourse domain and c) Stylistic domain are relevant.
In the context of this model we extracted more specific methods of dealing with conflict that have been observed in the literature:
- Apologising (Blum-Kulka et al. 1989; Spencer-Oatey 2000)
- Taking responsibility (Tanaka et al. 2000)
- Manage problem (Tanaka et al. 2000)
- Reverting to ‘Safe’ topics (Planken 2005)
- Using interactional strategies: developing a relationship with the reader (Jensen 2009)
- Using features of the appropriate genre (Spencer-Oatey 2000)
- Using other suitable features of tone (Van der Wijst 1996)
Categories in qualitative content analysis
From these seven headings we then developed categories which we applied to the 48 replies to the conflict e-mails. (In brackets is the occurrence of each category, in italics, an example of each category)
– IFID (Illocutionary Force Indicating Device)  I’m sorry for the misunderstanding
– Intensifying adverbial  I’m terribly sorry
– Emotional expression  Oh no!
– Expression marked for register  I do apologise
– Double intensifier or repetition  I am really dreadfully sorry
– Concern for recipient  I hope you are not worried about my progress
– Admission of responsibility  I know my work hasn’t been good
– Indeterminate responsibility  The atmosphere in class was productive
– Rejection of responsibility  My work has been really good
– Other responsibility related comment  I am afraid I don’t know
– Offer of problem repair  I’ll work harder from now on
– Suggestion  You can contact him/her to discuss this further
– Task oriented  What can I do so this won’t affect my mark?
– Refuse repair  I am not going to work any harder
Reverting to ‘Safe’ topics
– Greeting as initiator  Good to hear from you
– Enquiry after well-being as initiator  I hope things are well?
– Wishing the sender well as close  I hope you have a nice holiday
– Inclusion of personal opinion not strictly related to contents of accusatory mail as close  I really enjoy languages
Using interactional strategies: developing a relationship with the reader
– Hedges  possible, might, perhaps, would and could
– Engagement markers  I look forward to hearing from you
– Attitude markers  I understand your point of view
– Boosters  clearly, obviously, highly
Using features of the appropriate genre
– Genre appropriateness
– Genre appropriate syntax  writing in overly lengthy sentences
– Genre inappropriate syntax  David/Mr Warren (not preceded by Dear)
– Genre appropriate terms of address or use of honorifics 
– Genre inappropriate terms of address or use of honorifics 
– Genre appropriate terms of lexis  ‘grateful’ and not ‘thanks’, ‘concerns’, not ‘problems’, ‘complimentary’, not ‘free’, ‘do not hesitate’ not ‘don’t wait’
– Genre inappropriate terms of lexis 
Other suitable features of tone:
– Expressing thanks for a mail even though it is accusatory 
Overall, the use of engagement markers, attitude markers, hedges and involvement in safe talk increased with linguistic ability – here we are making the assumption that the longer the student has been at LBS, the greater his/her linguistic ability will be.
Students frequently used the conditional (particularly among students with advanced English)
Respondents did not apologise as much as might have been expected from Tanaka et al. (2000)‘s work
Respondents tended to deny accusations outright
Very few students accepted responsibility; although accusations were nominally unfounded, they were applicable to many students
Only 15 respondents expressed thanks for e-mails (though this is considered to be fairly basic rapport management in the respective literature)
There was plenty of Genre inappropriate lexis, including spelling and grammar mistakes (particularly among students with weaker language skills), implying that lexis was not seen by students as a means to deal with the conflict
The use of honorifics does not allow for any conclusions
Implications of the pilot study, conclusions and outlook
Overall, we can conclude from the above that respondents tended to deal with conflict using features of the English language itself rather than through ‘content’ such as apologizing, accepting responsibility etc.
Implications for Business English training
Years of learning do have a highly positive impact on language used in conflict situation
There is some evidence here for suggesting that in a lingua franca environment Anglo-Saxon/British norms of ‘talking conflict’ are imposed
Implications for research design
There is clearly a trade-off between collecting real-life data and obtaining clear informed consent. This is clearly one of the central challenges of such research as ours: how can we extract useful data that is ‘real’ in an ethically acceptable way?
Conflict communication in ELF remains a significant concern in our business education concept
Interest in other variables such as country of origin/secondary education, first language(s), gender, age
Continuation and development of the project
In April 2012 we presented our work at the CALPIU conference, ‘Higher education across borders: Transcultural interaction and linguistic diversity’, in Roskilde, Denmark and we have been invited to contribute to the conference volume. Given that our original experiment attracted occasional criticism as regards insufficient early warnings, we will re-conduct the experiment using a more sophisticated data generation instrument in order to assure informed consent.
Blum-Kulka, S., House, J. and Kasper, G. (eds) (1989). Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norward, NJ: Ablex.
Jensen, A. (2009). Discourse strategies in professional e-mail negotiation: a case study. In English for Specific Purposes 28 (pp.4-18).
Hyland, K. (1998). Persuasion and context: The pragmatics of academic metadiscourse. Journal of Pragmatics 30, 437–455.
Planken, B. (2005). Managing rapport in lingua franca sales negotiations: A comparison of professional and aspiring negotiators. In English for Specific Purposes 24 (pp.381–400).
Spencer-Oatey, H. (2000). Rapport management: a framework for analysis. In H. Spencer-Oatey (Ed.), Culturally speaking: Managing rapport through talk across cultures (pp. 11–46). New York: Cassel Academic.
Tanaka, N., Spencer-Oatey, H., amd Cray, E. (eds) (2000). ‘It’s not my fault!’: Japanese and English Responses to Unfounded Accusations. In H. Spencer-Oatey (Ed.), Culturally speaking: Managing rapport through talk across cultures (pp. 11–46). New York: Cassel Academic.
Van der Wijst, P. (1996) Politeness in requests and negotiations, Dordrecht: ICG Printing B.V.