Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Workplace email communication in New Zealand and Malaysia: Three case studies

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posted on 2021-11-14, 00:02 authored by Yeoh, Jackie Lay Kean

This thesis is an analysis of authentic communication between professionals at work in three workplaces (Company NZ1, NZ2 and M). The research involves a contrastive study of internal emails in two different countries (New Zealand and Malaysia) with very distinct cultures. In addition to the email corpus comprising 1745 emails, the analysis is supported by data collected using a mixed-methods approach: fieldwork observations, a questionnaire and interviews.  The analysis suggests that workplace culture influences people’s linguistic and non-linguistic behaviours. A Community of Practice (CofP) approach provided insights into characteristics of workplace culture such as the participants' behaviours, language, values and beliefs. This approach also facilitated analysis of how these behaviours were negotiated among the staff members, and how practices were established to signify membership of communities of practice.  Using an adapted version of Speech Act Theory, the email messages were coded initially for their main communicative function. The next layer of analysis involved exploring the interpersonal and power dimensions of the communicative function of making requests. To this end, Spencer-Oatey's Rapport Theory was applied as the primary theoretical framework and Halliday's three metafunctions were also used to interpret the emails.  The analysis indicated that all three workplaces use email for the same communicative functions, but the proportions of usage differed. In the New Zealand workplaces, providing information is the predominant function, followed by making requests. By contrast, making requests dominates the use of email in the Malaysian workplace.  The analysis demonstrates that rapport is managed differently in the three communities of practice. The greater use of informal greetings and closings and various linguistic strategies such as modalised interrogatives and mitigating devices in one New Zealand workplace suggests that participants are attending to rapport, and that they are aware of the importance of maintaining harmonious collegial relationships when making requests of their work colleagues. On the other hand, a greater use of formal greetings and closings, bare imperatives and boosting devices in the Malaysian workplace suggests the converse.  Furthermore, the analysis indicates that rapport is managed quite differently even when participants are from the same country (New Zealand) which practises an egalitarian culture.  The analysis also demonstrates how superiors and subordinates 'do' power and construct authority through the use of various linguistic strategies, such as imperative mood, use of the personal pronoun ‘I’, and boosting devices. The greater use of these linguistic strategies in the other New Zealand workplace and the Malaysian workplace suggests that more importance was placed on getting the job done than on maintaining rapport. In addition, the analysis identifies different attitudes towards the manifestation of power. In New Zealand where egalitarianism is highly valued, an overt display of power could damage work relationships. By contrast, in Malaysia, inequality in power is accepted as normal. People do not question superiors' authority, rights and entitlement to privileges. Recognising such culturally different values proved important in interpreting the data.  To conclude, this research illustrates how the use of a rapport management framework can provide new insights in relation to online workplace communication. Email not only 'does' power and performs transactional work, it also accomplishes relational work. Furthermore, the CofP approach provides insights concerning how each workplace establishes different linguistic and non-linguistic practices which form the basis of a distinct workplace culture. Finally, the analysis makes a contribution to the field of email communication from a cross-cultural perspective.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Applied Linguistics

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies


Holmes, Janet; Vine, Elaine