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Face-threatening e-mail complaint negotiation in a multilingual business environment: A discursive analysis of customer complaint and disagreement strategies

By Anneleen Spiessens and Sofie Decock


Discourse-pragmatic studies on complaints as highly complex ‘face-threatening’ speech acts have focused on their discursive and functional features on the macro-level and on their linguistic realizations on the micro-level (e.g. Olshtain & Weinbach 1993, Trosborg 1995, House 2006, Meyer 2007). However, few of these studies have examined written complaints in professional contexts, have worked with naturally occurring data, or have looked into languages other than English (exceptions: Hartford & Mahboob 2004, Geluykens & Kraft 2006, Geluykens 2007). Moreover, only Meinl (2010), Vasquez (2011), and Decock & Spiessens (2015) have investigated complaint situations in computer-mediated communication (CMC). Their research results indicate that CMC complaint (responses) are different (i.e. more direct and more aggravating) from oral, face-to-face complaint (responses). This paper, which builds on an authentic corpus of German- and French-language business e-mails on complaint negotiation gathered ethnographically at the sales department of a Belgian multinational, probes further into non-English and authentic CMC business complaints. Our study offers a discursive analysis not only of customers’ complaints but also of disagreement statements, which we extracted from 85 German and 50 French e-mail sequences. By adapting and complementing previous classifications in the CCSARP-tradition (cf. House and Kasper 1981; Trosborg 1995), we discuss, from a cross-linguistic perspective, the strategies or realization patterns that are used to formulate both speech acts. We establish the level of directness of these strategies, varying from neutral explanations and expressions of dissatisfaction to explicit performatives, accusations and threats – and look at how directness levels are aggravated or mitigated through internal and external modification. An analysis of the frequency of the different (combined) strategies allows us to draft a prototypical structure for complaint and disagreement e-mails. We conclude from our results that customers in general resort more frequently to indirect strategies in their initial complaint e-mail, and mitigate their message through the use of face-saving internal and external modifiers. If their complaint is refused by the company, however, they will not refrain from expressing their disagreement or frustration in an emotional and even manipulative language, selecting direct strategies and intensifiers to enhance their message. The study of speech act realizations is complemented with a comparative analysis of the German and French data. We find that, when formulating initial complaints, German-speaking customers have a more explicit communication style than the French, which is reflected in their marked preference for direct strategies (explicit complaints and accusations in particular). Native speakers of French, on the other hand, voice their disagreement in a more direct and face-threatening way than their German counterparts, using also higher numbers of aggressive upgraders (negative evaluations, sarcasm, and threats)

Topics: Languages and Literatures, disagreements, complaints, speech act, direct strategies, modification, pragmatics, cmc, business communication
Year: 2015
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