The Politeness of Requests Made Via Email and Voicemail: Support for the Hyperpersonal Model


  • Kirk W. Duthler

    1. Department of Communication Studies
      University of North Carolina, Charlotte
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    • Kirk W. Duthler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he teaches mass media, media law, computer-mediated communication, and research methods. His current research concerns the impact of instructional technology on communication in the classroom and persuasion on the web.

      Address: Department of Communication Studies, UNC Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28223, USA


This study analyzes requests made via email and voicemail for properties of politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Voicemail users have less control over planning, composing, editing, and executing messages, and must manage more nonverbal cues than email users. Thus, it is predicted that email will enable users to create more polite speech than voicemail. A 2 (communication medium: email or voicemail) x 2 (imposition: low or high) factorial design was implemented to test this hypothesis. One hundred fifty-one participants created request messages that were subsequently analyzed for properties of politeness. Overall, the results indicate email requests were more polite than voicemail requests. These results are consistent with the hyperpersonal model (Walther, 1996).


Two competing themes characterize the computer-mediated communication (CMC) literature concerning the ability of low bandwidth media to foster social and negotiation tasks. Short, Williams, and Christie (1976) suggested that effects on interaction can be predicted by the cues that are not transmitted via various media (p. 207). Lower bandwidth media, because they restrict more communication cues than face-to-face communication, are less suited for social and negotiation tasks than face-to-face media. CMC theories following this line of reasoning have been referred to as the cues filtered out model (Culnan & Markus, 1987). Walther and Parks (2002) describe the basic assumption of this model as follows:

the functions served by nonverbal cues in face-to-face interaction go unmet in computer-mediated interaction because the nonverbal cues are absent. If no other cues can perform the social functions that physical appearance, copresence and dynamic nonverbal behavior can, then … CMC must always be impersonal. (p. 532)

An alternative and more recent development is Walther’s (1996) hyperpersonal model, which predicts that low bandwidth media can facilitate social and negotiation tasks beyond what is possible in face-to-face interaction. According to this model, the filtering of nonverbal cues advantages communicators. Communicators are strategically enabled to manipulate their identity, time the transmission of their messages, and plan, organize, and edit their communication in pursuit of relational goals. Such strategic control in CMC can facilitate negotiation, relationship development, and social tasks.

The cues filtered out model has received a great deal of attention in the CMC literature by virtue of its tenure and face validity. In contrast, empirically-based research articles investigating Walther’s (1996) hyperpersonal model are only beginning to appear in the literature. The relative novelty of the model, the initial support it has received (Chester & Gwynne, 1998; Walther, 1997; Walther, Slovacek, & Tidwell, 2001), and the existence of alternative hypotheses concerning the effects of low bandwidth on social tasks justify its continued investigation.

To this end, a useful vehicle for investigating hyperpersonal communication is politeness theory (Brown & Levinson, 1987). This is a theory of language production based on a rational individual’s cognitive assessment of a social situation. It is a theory about the manner in which a person phrases “things” given an assessment of the social situation (Holtgraves, 2002, p. 38). A major component of politeness theory is an arrangement of politeness strategies along a continuum from least polite to most polite. Politeness theory thus outlines a system where speech can be evaluated according to its overall politeness.

Politeness theory has primarily been investigated in face-to-face situations, with some exceptions (Herring, 1994; Morand & Ocker, 2003; Sussman & Sproull, 1999). Yet variations in CMC technology identified by the cues filtered out and hyperpersonal models may significantly influence one’s ability to cognitively assess a social situation. In turn these variations may influence one’s ability to produce polite speech. For example, electronic mail allows communicators more control over planning, composing, editing, and delivering messages than face-to-face communication (Herring, 2002; Walther, 1996). This elevated control over message production and delivery suggest that email may help communicators create more polite speech than with the use of other CMC media. The purpose of the current research is to utilize politeness theory as a tool to investigate the effect of CMC technology on communication. Specifically, email requests are predicted to be more polite than voicemail requests. Literature relevant to politeness theory and CMC is reviewed below, followed by the theoretical development of the hypotheses, presentation of the nature and results of the empirical tests, and a discussion of the findings.

Literature Review

Politeness Theory

Politeness was presented as a formal theoretical construct by Brown and Levinson (1978; 1987), based on earlier work on ‘face’ by sociologist Erving Goffman (1955). According to Holtgraves (2002), it is an extensive and complex theory of the interpersonal underpinnings of language production seeking to answer why people do not always speak in the clearest, most direct, and most efficient way possible. The reason, suggest Brown and Levinson (1987), is that we are all motivated by two desires: (1) the need to be approved of by or connected to others (positive face), and (2) the need to remain autonomous or independent (negative face). Examples of the desire for positive face include the wish to be respected by colleagues, evaluated as competent and fair by subordinates, and strongly valued as a member of a community (Wilson, Aleman, & Leatham, 1998). Examples of the desire to maintain negative face include the wish to be left alone, to be self-directed and independent of others, and not to be restricted or otherwise impeded upon. Brown and Levinson (1987) maintain that individuals recognize that in order to maintain one’s own positive and negative face, one must support the face needs of others.

Even though individuals are motivated to support their partner’s positive and negative face, during the course of social interaction each still needs to make requests, disagree, and offer advice or criticism to others. A Face Threatening Act (FTA) is any utterance that intrinsically threatens another’s face (positive or negative) and includes disagreements, criticism, delivery of bad news, and requests. For example, simple requests threaten the target’s negative face because the target’s compliance with the request interferes with his/her desire to remain autonomous. Criticism threatens the positive face of the recipient because it threatens his/her desire for approval. Holtgraves and Yang (1992) define politeness as “phrasing one’s remarks so as to minimize face threat” (p. 246).

Brown and Levinson (1987) propose that when confronted with the need to perform a FTA, the individual must choose between performing the FTA in the most direct and efficient manner, or attempting to mitigate the effect of the FTA on the hearer’s positive/negative face. The mitigation strategies are what Brown and Levinson (1987) labeled politeness strategies. For example, suppose a student desires to meet with a professor in order to better understand a concept discussed in class. The request to meet with the professor threatens the professor’s negative face by disrupting his/her desire to be left alone and autonomous. In making the request, the student can take one of five courses of action, listed in increasing order of politeness: (1) the student can simply state the request Baldly, On Record in the imperative and most direct and efficient way (e.g., “Meet with me!”); (2) the student can express solidarity or affinity by phrasing the request using Positive Politeness (“Let’s meet to discuss your ideas.”); (3) the student may attempt to minimize the imposition by wording the request with restraint or Negative Politeness (“Would you be willing to meet with me for just a minute about this concept?”); (4) the student can make an Off-Record request by hinting or using ambiguous language to minimize the threat and provide deniability (“Usually when I talk through a concept, I can understand it better”); (5) or the student may not make the request at all.

The strategy an individual chooses to employ depends upon the weightiness or seriousness of the FTA. Weightiness is an assessment of the social situation calculated by the speaker. The speaker considers three variables when assessing weightiness. First, the speaker appraises the degree of imposition associated with the FTA. Brown and Levinson (1987) define the degree of imposition as “a culturally and situationally defined ranking of impositions by the degree to which they are considered to interfere with an agent’s wants of self-determination or of approval (negative and positive face wants)” (p. 77). Second, the speaker considers the relative power of the hearer over the speaker, defined as “the degree to which the hearer can impose his own plans and his own self-evaluation (face) at the expense of the speaker’s plans and self-evaluation” (p. 77). Third, the speaker evaluates the social distance between the speaker and the hearer. Social distance is defined by Brown and Levinson (1987) as the “symmetric social dimension of similarity/difference within which” the speaker and hearer “stand for the purposes” of an act, and can refer to the frequency of interaction and the kinds of goods exchanged between the speaker and the hearer (p. 77).

Previous politeness studies have manipulated one, two, or all three of the variables in the weightiness formula to observe their impact on politeness strategies. A number of studies (Brown & Gilman, 1989; Holtgraves & Yang, 1992; Leitchy & Applegate, 1991) have demonstrated a clear and positive relationship between the degree of imposition and overall politeness of language used. Therefore, consistent with these previous studies, the following hypothesis is proposed:

H1: Imposing requests will be rated higher on measures of politeness than unimposing requests.

The studies upon which politeness theory is based have primarily addressed face-to-face communication. The cues filtered out and hyperpersonal models provide insights into how politeness may vary according to social and technical concerns within the context of CMC. This literature is reviewed below.

Theories of CMC

Cues Filtered Out Model

The cues filtered out model is based on the concepts of bandwidth and social presence. Walther and Parks (2002) define bandwidth as “the number of communication cue systems a technology can convey, specifically, the incremental addition to verbiage of voice, kinesics, and proxemics” (p. 531). The bandwidth of a communication medium directly affects the degree of social presence (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976)—“the feeling that the other person is involved in the communication exchange” (Sussman & Sproull, 1999, p. 152). As social presence decreases, the conversational partner is deindividuated. Deindividuation results in an increased likelihood of antisocial behavior, lack of adherence to convention, and disinhibited behavior (Chester & Gwynne, 1998; Culnan & Markus, 1987; Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). Thus, the cues filtered out model proposes a negative relationship between bandwidth/social presence and deindividuation.

One empirical study of the cues filtered out model is Sussman and Sproull’s (1999) comparison of bad news delivery across synchronous CMC technologies. Sussman and Sproull (1999) expect that synchronous CMC technology, as compared to face-to-face communication, fosters more direct communication strategies because of deindividuation or by “buffering the deliverer from the receiver” (p. 152). The researchers reason that:

Compared to face-to-face communication CMC provides the deliverer of bad news with relatively fewer cues regarding the social context and the recipient of the communication (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Where these cues are attenuated, the social presence of the recipient … is less salient … by buffering the deliverer’s psychological discomfort throughout the delivery process. If discomfort is reduced, the tendency to distort negative information … may also be reduced. (p. 152)

Sussman and Sproull (1999) found that individuals communicating via synchronous CMC were less likely than those communicating face-to-face or by telephone to be polite or “sugar-coat” (p. 152) information, by delivering bad news as efficiently as possible. During face-to-face interactions, in contrast, the bad news message was positively distorted. In summary, the cues filtered out model predicts a positive relationship between bandwidth and politeness. Text-only CMC is best suited for the efficient transmission of information (e.g., bald, on record). However, while the cues filtered out model proposes the positive relationship between bandwidth and politeness discussed above, the hyperpersonal model suggests that a negative relationship may exist.

Hyperpersonal Model

In contrast to the cues filtered out model, the hyperpersonal model (Walther, 1996) suggests that CMC can facilitate more socially desirable levels of interaction than face-to-face communication precisely because of its lower bandwidth. Partial cues in CMC allow users to employ visual anonymity strategically. Common identity cues such as gender or physical ability are not immediately apparent. Computer-mediated communication users can manipulate these cues to optimize their self-presentation. In combination with this identity optimizing effect, receivers formulate idealized perceptions of the sender. Cues such as language use or timing of self-disclosure are among the few mechanisms by which one can form an opinion of the other’s identity. As the sender successfully manipulates these cues, the receiver creates an idealized perception of his/her conversational partner.

Asynchronicity, a property of many forms of CMC, further encourages selective message construction. During asynchronous interactions, individuals are better able to plan, compose, edit, and review message content, as well as to time self-disclosure and message exchange with more forethought. In asynchronous CMC, one can divide the cognitive load of message construction across more moments than in instantaneous, simultaneous face-to-face interaction. “Asynchronous interaction may thus have the capacity to be more socially desirable and effective as composers are able to concentrate on message construction to satisfy multiple or single concerns at their own pace” (Walther, 1996, p. 26).

The research study presented here explores these conceptualizations of CMC in the context of student-to-professor communication. It seeks to test the efficacy of Walther’s (1996) hyperpersonal communication model by asking if asynchronous, limited-cue CMC enables the creation of polite speech.

Hyperpersonal Communication: Electronic Mail and Voicemail

Although voicemail and electronic mail are both asynchronous and neither requires the copresence of communicators, email may better facilitate hyperpersonal communication. “The asynchronous nature of e-mail allows users to take time to compose and edit their messages” and these messages can be “carefully edited, formal, and linguistically complex” (Herring, 2002, p. 115). The control afforded by email to plan, compose, edit, review, and execute helps enable hyperpersonal communication. Voicemail, in contrast, is asynchronous and allows the communicators to plan messages in advance, but editing is not possible. The voicemail caller has an opportunity to strategize only prior to delivering the message. As soon as the message is composed, the opportunity to change the message is gone. Furthermore, a discrepancy between plan and performance often exists for voicemail. One must be particularly skilled (or write it down verbatim in advance) to deliver the voicemail message exactly as planned. Given these limitations, the sender of voicemail is less likely to create messages characteristic of hyperpersonal communication.

In addition to the lack of editability and the discrepancy between plan and performance, voicemail filters fewer cues than email. Voicemail message creators must manage performance cues such as vocalics and paralanguage (rate, pitch, loudness, pauses, inflection) (Burgoon, 1994), and pronunciation, in addition to content. These properties of speech are not a consideration in text-based electronic mail. The reduced cues in email allow for greater cognitive concentration on attaining multiple goals in interpersonal interactions, including optimizing self-presentation and concern for the communication partner’s needs and wants, at one’s own pace (Walther, 1996). Thus asynchronous interaction has the capacity to be more socially desirable and effective. Citing Greene and Lindsey (1989), Walther (1996) claims that research has “found that communicators facing multiple conversational goals were more fluent in better preserving the ‘face needs’ of communication partners when they could plan, rehearse, and then speak compared to those who had to construct and produce such messages immediately” (p. 26).

In sum, although email and voicemail both allow for planned message composition, email allows greater control over composing, editing, reviewing, and delivery, as well as less concentration on performance cues. Therefore, three properties of voicemail lessen its potential to facilitate hyperpersonal communication: lack of editability, discrepancy between plan and performance, and increased need to manage speech cues. Based on these distinctions, electronic mail is predicted to enhance communicators’ abilities to construct more polite messages than voicemail communicators.

H2: Electronic mail requests will be rated higher on measures of politeness than voicemail requests.

In communicative situations where degree of imposition is low, users of email and voicemail are expected to create equally polite messages. In simple situations, simple messages suffice. There is little need to plan, compose, edit, or review, because the face threats are minimal. However, when imposition is high, email users will create more polite messages because of improved control over editing, plan to performance, and reduced cues. The same properties are unavailable to voicemail users.

H3: Less imposing requests made via email or voicemail will not differ on ratings of politeness. Highly imposing requests via email will be rated higher on measures of politeness than voicemail requests (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Hypothesis H3: Degree of imposition by communication medium interaction diagram.


Design and Overview

The hypotheses were tested using a 2 (communication medium: electronic mail or voicemail) x 2 (degree of imposition: low or high) factorial design.1 Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four experiment conditions using systematic random assignment. The participants reported to a typical on-campus college office, equipped with a desk and chair, computer, and a telephone. All participants read on a computer screen a communication scenario requiring them to make a request of a professor. Participants either emailed or left a voicemail message request. Low imposition participants requested to meet during regular office hours. High imposition participants requested a meeting at a time other than the professor’s regular office hours. Voicemail messages were transcribed, saved as a word processing file, and printed. Electronic mail messages were copied, pasted into a word processing file, and printed. All requests were subsequently coded for politeness by two judges.

Independent Variables

Communication Medium Participants assigned to the electronic mail condition were instructed to create a message in response to the communication scenario by typing their request using electronic mail software (Microsoft Outlook 2003). Upon completing the email message, respondents clicked the “send” button to deliver the message to the professor. The participants assigned to the voicemail condition were instructed to pick up the handset of the phone located on the desk, dial the professor’s number, speak into the receiver, and replace the handset upon completion.

Imposition Participants in the high-imposition condition requested a meeting with the professor to discuss a class-related concept outside the professor’s normal office hours, whereas participants assigned to the low-imposition condition made the same request, but during the professor’s office hours. The high-imposition request threatened the receiver’s negative face to a greater degree than the low imposition request. To comply with the high-imposition request, the receiver would need to take time from other activities to meet with the student.

A pretest was conducted to determine the optimal operationalization of high and low imposition. First, 34 undergraduate students were asked to respond to the following 2 statements: (1) Describe 2 situations where you made a small (unimposing) request of a professor; (2) Describe 2 situations where you made a large (imposing) request of a professor. Sixty-eight unimposing and 68 imposing requests were compiled; duplicate requests were eliminated. Five unimposing and 5 imposing requests were chosen for the pretest.

A second sample of 28 participants rated 10 randomly ordered requests on degree of imposition. Degree of imposition was measured by the seven-point scale “Please respond to the following statements by indicating its degree of imposition (1 = not imposing; 7 = very imposing).” Meeting the professor during his or her office hours resulted in the lowest mean score (M= 1.36) of the ten requests. Changing a test grade resulted in the highest rating of imposition (M= 5.79). However, this request was not chosen as a manipulation of high-imposition because of the parsimony with the request chosen for the low-imposition condition and the possibility that the participants may have gauged the legitimacy of the request rather than its imposition. Therefore, for parsimony and face validity, requesting a meeting outside of the professor’s office hours (M= 4.71) was chosen for the high-imposition condition. The results of a two-tailed paired samples t test indicated a significant difference between the two means selected for the manipulation of imposition,2t (27) = 9.601, p < .05.

Participants and Procedures

One hundred fifty-one undergraduate students enrolled in communication classes at a large southeastern university in the United States participated in the study. Each created a request message, which was later analyzed for politeness. In the final analysis, 148 messages were usable. One voicemail message was eliminated because it was incomprehensible. Two other requests were eliminated due to technical difficulties with their delivery. Of the participants in the study, 102 (69%) were female and 46 (31%) male. The average age of the participants was 23 years.

Participants completed the procedures within the privacy of a typical office, which included a desk and chair, a computer running Windows XP and Microsoft Office, and a telephone. To ensure privacy and comfort in creating the messages, participants were left alone in the office and the door was closed. The participant began the experiment by clicking a hyperlink in an Internet Explorer 6.0 browser window that took him/her to an online questionnaire. The first section of the questionnaire requested demographic information (age, gender, year in school). Clicking a “Submit” button directed the participants to a text describing a communication scenario that set up the degree of imposition.

Participants assigned to the electronic mail condition read a text requesting them to type an email message to Professor Chris Lane, a pseudonym created for the purposes of this study. To create the message, the instructions directed participants to click a hyperlink labeled “E-mail Professor Lane.” As the participant clicked the link, the electronic mail window of Microsoft Outlook 2003 appeared on the computer’s monitor. Participants were able to type the message to Professor Lane, click the “Send” button, and continue with the questionnaire.

The participants in the voicemail condition read a scenario requesting them to leave a voicemail for Professor Chris Lane. Rather than clicking a hyperlink, the participants assigned to the voicemail condition read instructions to pick up the phone handset and dial an on-campus telephone number. Subsequently, the participant listened to the following message recorded in a woman’s voice: “Professor Chris Lane. Press 1 to leave a message.” The voicemail greeting was purposeful and brief to minimize differences between the voicemail and electronic mail manipulation. Upon pressing the numeral 1 on the telephone’s key pad and hearing a tone, participants spoke into the handset’s receiver to leave their message, and subsequently hung up the receiver.

In the electronic mail condition, Professor Chris Lane was identified as female with the use of appropriate pronouns. In the voicemail condition, Professor Chris Lane was identified as female by the use of the same pronouns, in addition to which the voicemail greeting was recorded in a female voice. The final section of the questionnaire requested that the participant answer a postresponse item designed as a manipulation check.

Coding Requests for Politeness

Coding of the politeness of requests proceeded in three steps. First, the request messages were segmented by the author into components (described below) including: address phrase, meeting request, request for reply, and adjunct phrases. Second, a graduate student and a professor, both familiar with politeness theory but not the hypotheses of the study, separately analyzed the components for politeness. Coding disagreements between the judges were resolved through discussion. A coding scheme for politeness developed by Holtgraves and Yang (1992) was modified to accommodate complex requests. Consistent with Holtgraves and Yang (1992), the judges subsequently rated on nine-point Likert-type scales the overall politeness of the request message and the formality of address phrase. The judges’ ratings of these variables were based on the content coding completed in step two. In addition, as a measure of politeness, the total number of words and number of adjunct phrases were counted for each message. Number of adjunct phrases, number of words, formality of address phrase, and overall politeness formed the four measures of politeness analyzed in this study.

Message Component One—Address Phrase

The address phrase is the greeting at the beginning of the message created by the participant. Judges determined if the address phrase was informal, formal, or not present. Informal address phrases included the use of first names, nicknames, or slang terms such as “teach,”“prof,” etc. Formal address phrases included the use of Dr., Professor, Mrs., etc. If no address phrase was used, the judge coded it as such.

Message Component Two—Meeting Request and Request for Reply

The meeting request was the sentence that actually requested a meeting with the professor. Given the nature of asynchronous communication, many of the participants requested a reply from the professor via phone and/or email. The sentence requesting a reply was categorized as the request for reply. Both the meeting request and the request for reply were coded utilizing Brown and Levinson’s (1987) five superstrategies.

The first superstrategy was bald and on record. This strategy is the most direct and efficient method of making a request and is typically phrased as an imperative or command. Meeting requests or requests for reply such as “Meet with me” or “Call Me” were coded as Bald on Record.

The second superstrategy was the use of positive politeness. This is a request designed to appeal to the connection or affinity between the speaker and the receiver. The sender makes an assumption that because of the affinity or connection between them, the receiver should comply with the request. Examples of the subcategories of positive politeness include: direct request plus please (“Please meet with me”), being optimistic (“Let me know when you are available”), and the use of contractions or slang (“I’d like to meet with you”).

The third superstrategy was negative politeness. This is a request that makes an attempt through language to minimize its imposition (Holtgraves & Yang, 1992). Holtgraves and Yang’s subcategories of “conventionally indirect forms such as questioning the hearer’s ability (could you?) or willingness (would you?) to perform the act” (p. 249) were employed as content categories for negative politeness.

The fourth superstrategy was off-record politeness. A request was coded as an off-record strategy “if some type of nonconventional indirect form was used” (Holtgraves & Yang, 1992, p. 249). This was usually expressed as a need and had characteristics of ambiguity and hinting. Examples of such hints include using the sentence, “I wish someone could explain this material” as a request for a meeting.

The final superstrategy was the no-request strategy. This was used as a content category when no meeting request and/or request for reply was made by the sender, even though the sender was clearly instructed to make the meeting request.

Message Component Three—Adjunct Phrases

Adjunct phrases included any sentence or phrase of positive or negative politeness other than those in the address phrase, meeting request, or request for reply. Adjunct phrases coded as positive politeness included any small talk, humor, identity marker (“This is Jane from Class X”), offer or promise to reciprocate, or providing reasons for making the request. The identifying characteristic of a positively polite adjunct phrase was an attempt to buttress the relationship between the receiver and the sender. Adjunct phrases were coded as negative politeness when the identifying characteristic was recognition on the part of the sender that the request was an impingement on the autonomy of the receiver. Adjuncts coded as negative politeness included admission of impingement, expressions of appreciation, indication of reluctance to make the request, giving overwhelming reasons for making the request, asking for forgiveness, and going on record as incurring a debt.

Consistent with Holtgraves and Yang (1992), the reliability ratings for the message components were calculated by dividing the number of disagreements by the number of agreements plus disagreements between the two judges. The reliability ratings were as follows: address phrase .94, meeting request .94, request for reply .96, and adjunct phrases .92.

Measures of Politeness

According to Holtgraves and Yang (1992) and Craig, Tracy, and Spisak (1986), a weakness of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory is their failure to develop a precise measure for politeness. Several measures of politeness exist (Ambady, Koo, Lee, & Rosenthal, 1996; Holtgraves & Yang, 1992; Lee, 1993, 1999; Reel & Thompson, 2004; Sussman & Sproull, 1999). Holtgraves and Yang (1992) devised a precise quantitative measure of politeness; it is utilized in the present study.

Formality of Address Phrase

Each of the two judges evaluated the address phrase by rating it on a nine-point scale for overall formality (1 = very informal; 9 = very formal). Address phrases utilizing the greeting “Hi” without a formal name were considered informal. Address phrase such as the greeting “Dear” accompanied by the formal label “Dr. Chris Lane” were considered formal. According to Brown and Levinson (1987), informal address phrases represent positive politeness, and formal address phrases represent negative politeness. The two judges’ ratings were summed and averaged to form this dependent variable. Inter-rater reliability for formality of address phrase was .853.

Number of Words and Adjunct Phrases

The number of words was calculated by counting the number of words in an entire request message. Vocalized pauses (um, ahh, an … dahh) were subtracted from the voicemail condition. The number of adjunct phrases was calculated for each message to form the final dependent measure of politeness for analysis.

These measures objectively measure the politeness of the entire request. According to Brown and Levinson (1987), the absence of politeness is the performance of an FTA baldly, on record with maximum efficiency. For example, a highly efficient request could be made by uttering “meet with me,” but as requests deviate from maximum efficiency to accommodate the face needs of the hearer, the number of words and adjunct phrases must increase. Therefore, the number of words and adjunct phrases in a request measure movement away from maximum efficiency and toward more polite speech.


A goal of the present study was to measure the effect of communication technology on the politeness of requests. Although many measures of politeness exist, Holtgraves and Yang’s (1992) measuring technique was utilized. To assess the impact of the politeness coding of request messages on the evaluation of overall politeness, a standard multiple regression analysis was performed using SPSS REGRESSION. Overall politeness served as the criterion variable. The politeness superstrategy for meeting request, superstrategy for request for reply, formality of address phrase, number of words, and number of adjuncts served as predictor variables in the analysis. Nearly half of the variance (R2= .46; adj R2= .442) in overall politeness was accounted for by the five predictor variables, F [5, 143] = 23.62, p < .001. Table 1 displays the unstandardized regression coefficients (β), standardized regression coefficients (β), t-value, and probability for each predictor variable. Each of the predictor variables contributed significantly to overall politeness. Unexpectedly, the number of adjunct phases was inversely related to overall politeness (β=−3.41, t=−4.404, p < .001).

Table 1.  Regression of coding components onto overall politeness
 Overall Politeness
  • R2= .461; F (5, 143) = 23.616, p < .001.

  • *

    p < .001.

Meeting Request Superstrategy.783.4947.792*
Request for Reply Superstrategy.384.3655.558*
Formality of Address Phrase.104.2523.966*
Number of Words.028.4746.32*
Number of Adjuncts−.311−.341−4.404*

Presented in Table 2 are the descriptive statistics for all measures of politeness, as well as the F statistics and their associated probability levels resulting from a series of ANOVAs.

Table 2.  The effect of medium and degree of imposition on measures of politeness
 VoicemailElectronic MailF
Low IMP (n= 36)High IMP (n= 36)Low IMP (n= 37)High IMP (n= 38)IMPCMCM x IMP
  • IMP = imposition; CM = communication medium; M= mean; SD = standard deviation.

  • *

    p < .05.

Number of Adjuncts
Number of Words
Formality of Address Phrase
Overall Politeness

Hypothesis One (H1)

Hypothesis One (H1) predicted that imposing requests would be rated higher on politeness than unimposing requests. Hypothesis One (H1) received partial support based on factorial ANOVAs. First, as predicted, significantly more adjunct phrases were produced by those creating requests that were imposing (M= 3.81) than by those creating less imposing requests (M= 3.44), F [1, 143] = 4.56, p < .05. Second, as predicted, those making highly imposing requests used significantly more words (M= 62.32) than those making less imposing requests (M= 55.67), F [1, 143] = 5.84, p < .05. Third, the results indicate that formality of address phrase did differ between high-imposition (M= 5.87) and low-imposition requests (M= 6.72), F [1, 143] = 4.54, p= .035, though the difference was not in the hypothesized direction. Fourth, the results indicate the overall politeness of imposing requests (M= 5.39) was rated as nearly the same as the politeness of unimposing requests (M= 5.33; F[1, 143] = .12).

Hypothesis Two (H2)

Hypothesis Two (H2) predicted that email message requests would be rated higher on measures of politeness than voicemail requests. Based on the results of factorial ANOVAs, Hypothesis Two (H2) was partially supported. First, as predicted, email requests incorporated more adjunct phrases (M= 3.89) than voicemail requests (M= 3.36), F [1, 143] = 9.10, p < .05. In addition, the difference between email requests and voicemail requests for number of words approached significance (M= 61.17 vs. 56.82) F [1, 143] = 2.50, p= .116. The address phrase was not more formal in email (M= 6.28) than voicemail requests (M= 6.31), F [1, 143] = .004, p= .949. Moreover, the email requests were not significantly more polite overall (M= 5.24) than voicemail requests (M= 5.48) F [1, 143] = 2.04, p= .156.

Hypothesis Three (H3)

Hypothesis Three (H3) predicted that less imposing requests made via email or voicemail would not differ on ratings of politeness, but highly imposing requests via email would be rated higher on measures of politeness than voicemail requests (see Figure 1). As predicted, the pattern of results and statistical tests indicate that email requests were more polite than voicemail requests under conditions of high imposition.

Number of Adjuncts

The interaction hypothesis for the dependent variable number of adjuncts was supported (see Figure 2). As predicted, the number of adjunct phrases in email requests and voicemail requests were similar under conditions of low imposition (M= 3.51 vs. 3.36). However, email requests included more adjunct phrases (M= 4.26) than voicemail requests (M= 3.36) under conditions of high imposition, F [1, 143] = 4.70, p < .05. A two-tailed independent samples t-test confirmed that highly imposing email requests included significantly more adjunct phrases (t=−4.124, p < .05) than highly imposing voicemail requests. As predicted, less imposing email requests and voicemail requests produced a similar number of adjunct phrases (t= .567, p= .572).

Figure 2.

Degree of imposition by communication medium: H3 results for number of adjuncts interaction diagram.

Number of Words

The interaction hypothesis for the dependent variable number of words was supported (see Figure 3). As predicted, under conditions of low imposition, the number of words in email requests was similar to the number of words utilized for voicemail requests (M= 56.6 vs. 54.7). However, under conditions of high imposition, email requests included more words (M= 67.6) than voicemail requests (M= 57.0), F [1, 143] = 5.13, p < .05. A two-tailed independent samples t-test indicated that the number of words incorporated into highly imposing email requests was significantly different than the same measure for voicemail (t= 2.676, p < .05). Further supporting the hypothesis, an independent samples t-test revealed that less imposing email and voicemail requests did not differ significantly in the number of words needed to construct the message (t= .409, p= .684).

Figure 3.

Degree of imposition by communication medium: H3 results for number of words interaction diagram.

Formality of Address Phrase

The interaction hypothesis for the dependent variable formality of address phrase was supported by a Factorial ANOVA (see Figure 4). Under conditions of low imposition the mean of formality of address phrase for email requests was higher (M= 7.09) than the mean of formality of address phrase for voicemail (M= 6.35). Unexpectedly, under conditions of high imposition, the formality of address phrase mean of email requests was lower (M= 5.47) than the formality of address phrase mean of voicemail requests (M= 6.26), F [1, 143] = 3.67, p < .05.

Figure 4.

Degree of imposition by communication medium: H3 results for formality address phrase interaction diagram.

Overall Politeness

The interaction hypothesis for the dependent variable overall politeness was not significant according to the factorial ANOVA, F [1, 143] = .765, p= .383. Under conditions of low imposition the overall politeness of email requests (M= 5.29) was slightly lower than voicemail requests (M= 5.38), and under conditions of high imposition, email requests were also rated slightly lower in overall politeness (M= 5.20) than voicemail requests (M= 5.58).


The results demonstrate that communicators using electronic mail produced more adjunct phrases and more words than those using voicemail. In addition, email requests varied in the number of adjunct phrases, number of words, and the formality of address phrase according to imposition, while voicemail requests were stable and static across these same variables. This support for the hypotheses leads to the conclusion that email facilitates politeness strategies in support of hyperpersonal communication.

As predicted in Hypothesis Two (H2), politeness varied by communication medium. Electronic mail requests resulted in a significantly greater number of adjunct phrases than voicemail requests. The email requests also contained more words than voicemail requests, although not significantly so. Additionally, consistent with Hypothesis Three (H3), as imposition varied, so too did email requests. Yet voicemail requests remained stable and static. This pattern of results across most dependent measures suggests that email enabled users to customize their messages. For example, the average email request contained 3.52 adjunct phrases and 54.7 words when imposition was low, but when imposition was high email requests contained an average of 4.26 adjunct phrases and 67.6 words—a statistically significant difference between experimental conditions (see Figures 3 and 4, respectively). However, voicemail messages varied little across these same conditions. For example, in the voicemail condition there was no difference in the number of adjunct phrases between low and high imposition or the number of words.

This same pattern of the adaptability of email versus the stasis of voicemail was further evident for the dependent variable formality of address phrase. The address phrase in voicemail messages varied little in formality between low and high imposition, an outcome consistent with the hypothesis advanced in this study. However, the formality of the address phrase in email messages varied widely between low imposition and high imposition requests. The statistically significant interaction lends further support to the argument that voicemail limits and email facilitates hyperpersonal communication.

Unexpectedly, and contrary to the hypothesis, for those participants creating electronic mail messages, unimposing requests were accompanied by more formal address phrases than imposing requests, and according to a post-hoc independent samples t-test these means were significantly different. Politeness theorists would expect imposing requests to be accompanied by a higher degree of formality of address phrase. The use of less formal/polite address phrases when imposition was high might be a strategic tactic to redefine the nature of the student-professor relationship. Sensing a disparate relational bond, communicators may attempt to redefine the relationship by utilizing less formal address phrases. Since attempting to bolster the feeling of solidarity in a lean/low bandwidth context is consistent with the hyperpersonal model, this proposition warrants further research.

Significant main effects for imposition on measures of politeness emerged to support Hypothesis One (H1), even though the manipulation check for imposition proved insignificant. For most dependent measures (not overall politeness) there were significant main effects for imposition (see Table 2), thus supporting the conclusion that as imposition increased, so too did the measures of politeness. Participants assigned to the high imposition condition utilized more adjunct phrases than those assigned to the low imposition condition. Additionally, high imposition participants utilized significantly more words to make requests than did low imposition requesters. Also apparent was a significant difference between formality of address phrase under conditions of low imposition and high imposition. These results reflect a successful manipulation of imposition, and thus constitute support for politeness theory.

In summary, for the dependent measures of politeness, only email messages varied according to imposition. Voicemail messages remained static and unchanged between low and high imposition requests, and there was evidence of a main effect for communication medium and imposition. Overall, messages created with email included more adjunct phrases and words than voicemail messages. Consistent with the predictions of the hyperpersonal model, users of email were able to construct more polite messages. These results support the claim that control over editing, plan and performance, and the reduced cue properties of email, provide users with the capacity to create socially desirable messages. In contrast, voicemail, with its lack of editability, discrepancy between plan and performance, and multichanneled demands, appears to constrain users’ ability to produce similar messages.

At the same time, it is possible that the study design limited the findings in certain ways. A multiple regression analysis of the dependent variable overall politeness revealed a significant inverse relationship between it and the number of adjunct phrases (see Table 1). This inverse relationship accounts for the lack of significant differences for the variable of overall politeness in this study. Compared to a message containing few adjunct phrases, a request message containing many adjunct phrases resulted in a decrease in overall politeness. In the current study, judges were instructed that the use of positive politeness (expressions of solidarity) was less polite than negative politeness (admissions of impingement) no matter the number of positively polite or negatively polite adjunct phrases. The majority of adjunct phrases in the current study were positively polite. Moreover, email requests included significantly more adjunct phrases than voicemail requests. Because of this, the rating of overall politeness decreased disproportionately for email requests. Had the measure of overall politeness been more sensitive to the impact of the number of adjuncts on politeness, the measure of overall politeness for email would very likely have been rated higher than that of voicemail.

This research was designed to be generalizable to the population that was sampled, in a context in which that population actually uses email and voicemail. First, participants were asked to respond, using familiar communication technology, to a common situation. Students were asked to do what students do often: email or leave a voicemail for a professor. Second, politeness was observed in an asynchronous communication context. By definition, a message creator’s request is separated from the recipient’s reply by time and space; copresence is unnecessary. Therefore, politeness evaluations of the entire conversational turn (sender and receiver) are not strictly necessary. In this study, message creators focused entirely on the creation and delivery of a request message. Traditionally, politeness behavior (Ambady et al., 1996; Craig et al., 1986; Greene & Lindsey, 1989; Holtgraves & Yang, 1992; Lee, 1993, 1999; Leichty & Applegate, 1991; Sussman & Sproull, 1999) has been observed from either a message generation or receipt perspective, and this has been a limitation. Future research focusing on synchronous media and politeness should consider the entire conversational turn.

Future research into synchronous text-based CMC and politeness may find that real-time communication does not facilitate the creation of polite speech. Sussman and Sproull (1999) found synchronous CMC to be more direct and less polite than synchronous telephone or face-to-face interactions. Although Sussman and Sproull attribute “straight-talk” in synchronous CMC to low social presence and deindividuation, participants in their study reported greater satisfaction, comfort, and liking of their conversational partners compared to phone or face-to-face discussants. If deindividuation were the best explanation for these results, one would expect to observe a positive relationship between politeness and satisfaction, comfort, and liking.

The hyperpersonal model may be a more suitable explanation for the conflicting findings reported in Sussman and Sproull (1999). Because of the demanding time constraints of instantaneous interaction, communicating with synchronous text-based chat systems requires efficiency, utilization of short sentences, abbreviations, and straight-talk (Herring, 2002). Synchronous communication in a highly interactive environment demands simultaneous concentration on the mechanics of typing and the pursuit of maintaining face, consequently dividing one’s available cognitive resources (Greene & Lindsey, 1989). Senders may also consciously optimize their self-presentation by adopting visual and aural anonymity, while receivers formulate idealized perceptions of the sender on the basis of limited cues (Walther, 1995, 1996). According to the hyperpersonal model, synchronous text-based communication messages may be less polite than asynchronous messages, yet participants may still rate one another positively. Future research should test these propositions.

Future research into the politeness of CMC might also proceed by considering the work of a group of researchers studying the politeness strategies of nonverbal communication. The researchers (Ambady et al., 1996) found that nonverbal cues carry significant and meaningful politeness information. Politeness strategies were encoded through kinesics, facial expressions, and vocalic and linguistic cues. Such an approach in the current study might have revealed politeness strategies encoded in the vocal characteristics of voicemail messages. Politeness strategies not encoded in the content of the request might be given off through the vocal characteristics of the spoken words, the greater politeness in the email messages functioning as compensation for the lack of such nonverbal cues. This proposition would be important to test in future research.


The results of the current study stand in strong support of Walther’s (1996) observation that CMC technologies, particularly low bandwidth, lean, asynchronous, text-based CMC, can facilitate socially desirable communication. In this study, email enabled the creation of more polite message content compared to messages created through voicemail. Text-based, asynchronous communication eliminates the necessity to concentrate on performance cues and adds the capability to plan, compose, and edit a communication. This increased functionality enables communicators to create more carefully considered messages. More generally, the present research has demonstrated that the intersection of politeness theory and CMC can lead to a deeper understanding of the constraints and freedoms offered by CMC technology.


This article improved greatly with the support of many people. Laura Vaughan, research assistant to the author, offered her excellent intellectual and technical support to this project. Richard Leeman, Chair of the Department of Communication at UNC, Charlotte, found financial support for the technical resources required for this project. The editor and two anonymous reviewers for JCMC provided invaluable comments and suggestions for the improvement of this manuscript.


  • 1

    In addition, a weak distance manipulation was included and participants imagined being unfamiliar and only having one class with the professor or familiar and having had several classes with the professor. Analyses indicated no effect of this variable on any dependent measures, nor did it enter into any interactions. Therefore, it is not discussed further.

  • 2

    In addition to the pretest, a manipulation check for imposition was conducted for the experiment. Responses to the following nine-point scale were gathered upon completion of the requests: Please rate on the following scale, how imposing the request was that you made of your professor (1 = very imposing; 9 = not very imposing). Low and high imposition were compared on a single item designed to gauge the perceived imposition of the request, F [1, 147] = .023, p < .879. Unexpectedly, both high (M= 6.26) and low (M= 6.19) imposition participants rated their respective situation as somewhat unimposing. However, the imposition pretest and the significant imposition main effects for the number of words, number of adjunct phrases, and the formality of address phrase together provide robust support for a successful manipulation of imposition.

About the Author

  1. Kirk W. Duthler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he teaches mass media, media law, computer-mediated communication, and research methods. His current research concerns the impact of instructional technology on communication in the classroom and persuasion on the web.Address: Department of Communication Studies, UNC Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28223, USA