Email Copies in Workplace Interaction

Authors

  • Karianne Skovholt,

    1. Norwegian School of Management BI
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    • Karianne Skovholt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, Culture and Languages at the Norwegian School of Management BI. She does research on email interaction in the workplace.

      Address: Norwegian School of Management BI. Department of Communication, Culture and Languages. Nydalsveien 37, 0442 Oslo, Norway

  • Jan Svennevig

    1. Norwegian School of Management BI
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    • Jan Svennevig is Professor of Communication at the Norwegian School of Management BI. His research interests include conversation analysis and spoken and computer-mediated interaction in the workplace.

      Address: Norwegian School of Management BI. Department of Communication, Culture and Languages. Nydalsveien 37, 0442 Oslo, Norway


Abstract

This study examines how employees in a distributed work group use email copies in networks of collaboration. It studies the audience design of messages with multiple recipients, analyzing explicit and implicit addressing devices used to appoint recipients as primary and secondary participants in the interaction. Copying in recipients serves to share knowledge of ongoing projects and to build up a common information pool. Furthermore, it is used to facilitate multi-party interaction and to build personal identity and alliances. Copies to third parties may also be used for reasons of social control, for instance in order to gain compliance or to put pressure on the addressee to conform to social norms of conduct.

Introduction

In formal, institutional communication, there has long been a routine of sending paper copies of letters to relevant third parties. With the development of email as a central tool for workplace communication, the practice of sending copies has proliferated. No longer associated with formal correspondence, copying is a common way of including several participants in networks of day-to-day professional communication. This requires new forms of competence in addressing multiple participants with varying participation statuses and amounts of background knowledge. In this article we investigate the use of the copy field in email messages between members of a distributed workgroup. We ask in which situations copying in third parties is done, how the in-copied recipients are accommodated into the message, and what sorts of communicative functions the copy practice serves.

Previous Research on Email Interaction

The current study falls within the framework of Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA).1 In this tradition we find relevant studies of email communication from both linguistic and organizational perspectives. However, none of them address the copy phenomenon explicitly.

Linguistic studies of computer-mediated communication (CMC) often focus on the formal qualities of language used in electronic media. Scholars have attempted to grasp the nature of electronic language by comparing it with oral and written language (Baron, 1998; Collot & Belmore, 1996; Sims, 1996; Yates, 1996), by identifying special features of orthography, typography, and grammar in electronic texts (Crystal, 2001; Gimenez, 2000; Murray, 1991) and by identifying structural regularities and gender differences in Internet mailing lists (Herring, 1996). Drawing on Biber’s (1988) studies of spoken and written texts, Collot and Belmore (1996) and Yates (1996) analyzed spoken, written, and computer-mediated texts with respect to linguistic variables such as vocabulary type/token ratio, lexical density, and use of pronouns and modal auxiliaries. Their results show that electronic language approximates both writing and speech depending on which linguistic variable is measured. For instance, lexical density approaches written style, whereas pronoun use is more in line with spoken style. However, both studies emphasize that CMC is heterogeneous and “affected by the numerous social structural and social situational factors which surround and define the communication taking place” (Yates 1996, p. 46).

Clearly, CMC is not a unitary linguistic system but rather needs to be differentiated according to technological and situational factors (Herring, 2001, 2004). Even within the single type of CMC studied here, namely email, there is vast linguistic variation. Baron (1998, p. 162) notes that “email is a communicative modality in flux” and more “a moving linguistic target than a stable system” (1998, p. 144). The existing linguistic studies show the need for analyzing computer-mediated communication in specific social and cultural settings, as is the aim of the current study.

Some authors do address contextual issues, such as Yates and Orlikowski (1992, 2002), Orlikowski and Yates (1994), Nickerson (1999), Mulholland (1999), and Kankaanranta (2005). These studies approach email as communicative practices linked to communicative purposes and hierarchical roles within a community, e.g., the organization. They investigate the use of language in “typified social actions,” or genres (Bargiela-Chiappini & Nickerson 1999, p. 8). The pioneers in this tradition, Orlikowski and Yates (1994), illustrate how the communicative practices of community members using email are organized through an overall repertoire of four different genres: the memo, proposals, dialogue, and the ballot genre. Interestingly, they found that dialogue, which was a small part of the group’s repertoire in the beginning, became an “increasingly accepted and used genre” during the course of the project they studied (Orlikowki & Yates, 1994, p. 564).

Inspired by the studies of Orlikowski and Yates, Kankaanranta (2005) identified three overall email genres, namely the noticeboard, postman, and dialogue genres: “The Dialogue genre is used to exchange information about corporate activities, the Postman genre to deliver other documents for information and/or comment, and the Noticeboard genre to inform employees about workplace issues” (Kankaanranta, 2005, p. 45f.).

It has been shown that when humans attempt to communicate via new technologies, they rely on communicative conventions and practices acquired in other contexts (Hutchby, 2001; Orlikowski & Yates 1994). Accordingly, we assume that participants in email interaction import practices, rules, norms, and conventions from conversation as well as traditional written genres. In this sense the study is also an investigation of the emergence of new forms of literacy.2 According to Barton (1994), literacy is “a set of social practices associated with particular symbol systems and their related technologies. To be literate is to be active; it is to be confident within these practices” (Barton, 1994, p. 32).

For the purposes of the current study, the notion of genre can contribute to describing the social interaction of the project group under investigation. Is the practice of copying in recipients restricted to—or typical of—one specific genre? And are the interpersonal consequences different in the dialogue genre compared to the other genres? Analyzing a community’s genre repertoire can also lead to a better understanding of how members operate as a social group, for instance to what extent they appear democratic or autocratic (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994). In order to go deeper into such questions, however, we need to draw on insights from organizational studies.

Organization scholars have focused on the social impact of electronic mail in organizations. The focus has generally shifted from identifying the nature of the technology and its impact on human communication (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986), to assessing a medium’s richness and predicting which channel is appropriate for what type of interaction (Markus, 1994). Within the media-richness framework, email is traditionally considered a lean medium, compared to face-to-face interaction. The theory predicts that managers would perceive email as an inappropriate medium for managing equivocal communication tasks. However, Markus (1994) found that email was indeed used effectively for equivocal communication.

One example from her data shows an equivocal email conversation between a senior manager, ‘Ted,’ and his subordinates, ‘Sheila’ and ‘Mike,’ which involves the exchange of different subjective views, a disagreement, and a movement toward an agreement. The exchange ended by ‘Sheila’ forwarding the whole exchange to a subordinate to explore the issues raised in the message, and sending a copy of the same message to ‘Ted.’ According to Markus (1994), this use of email “seems an especially effective way of quickly involving more than two people in a complex interaction that stretched well outside of normal business hours” (Markus, 1994, p. 517). The current study addresses one of the mechanisms that may explain the popularity of email as a workplace communication tool.

While organizational studies do not take up the copy phenomenon in any further detail, some case studies discuss how email in general can be used strategically, for instance to increase central power or to build coalitions in the work place (Romm & Pliskin, 1998). The discussions reveal that email is a “double edged sword” (Brigham & Corbett, 1997, p. 28-29). On the one hand, it decentralizes institutional power and represents a democratizing medium:

However, groups using email tend to produce more diverse opinions and better contributions to the decision making process. Email increases access to new people; weakens spatial, temporal, and status barriers, and provides access to information that would otherwise be unavailable. (Garton & Wellman, 1995, p. 434)

On the other hand, it enables managers to control their subordinates at a distance (Brigham & Corbett, 1997). Because managers in some organizations have access to the employees’ email account, the email system facilitates monitoring and control of the on-going working process. According to Brigham & Corbett (1997), these technological affordances “highlight the power of email and facilitate individual acts of self-control and discipline” (Brigham & Corbett, 1997, p. 31).

Linguists have also investigated the power of email. Mulholland, for instance, argues that the practice of appending the responder’s messages to the original one is democratic in nature: “There is a democratic virtue to such unordered strings, precisely because no authoritative sender has digested and summarized the information in the string of texts for the reader; there is therefore less prior control of that information” (Mulholland, 1999, pp. 73-74). Mulholland’s further characterization of appended messages as “raw and unrestricted information” (1999, p. 74) seems relevant for our understanding of email copies in the current study. A central question is to what extent the practice of copying in recipients may contribute to institutional power or equality.

Most linguistic studies focus on how language is manifested in electronic discourse rather than on social interaction in electronic media. Organizational studies, on the other hand, focus on the social implications of email, but do not base their discussion on actual instances of email interaction. Consequently there seems to be a need for discourse analytic work on email interaction with an explicit focus on the interactional processes and procedures involved, which is what we propose to do in the following.

First, the data used in the study are presented, followed by a presentation of the theory of audience design. Then the implicit and explicit addressing devices in email interaction and the functions of sending copies are analyzed. Finally, we consider the organizational implications of sending email copies and discuss how the copy routine establishes a social practice and develops the participants’ digital literacy.

Data and methods

The data for this study are emails from a distributed project group called ‘Agenda’ in a Norwegian telecompany, ‘Telecom’ (TCM).3 The email exchanges were gathered from August 2004 to December 2004 and amount to approximately 700 emails, of which 300 contain in-copied recipients. The messages were collected with assistance from the Agenda members, who during the period continuously forwarded their exchanges to the researchers.

Agenda’s main task is to edit all confirmation letters that are distributed to customers in the private market. The members formulate, revise, and standardize letters and templates, with the purpose of giving all letters a uniform style that communicates in a clear and polite way to the customers. They are frequently contacted by various divisions in the company with requests to reformulate their letters. In order to give the letters a unified tone, they follow a set of guidelines concerning orthography, sentence structure, and style.

The project group consists of 12 members, each representing a team from the different divisions of the company: Telephony, Birgitte Hansen; ADSL, Siri Vogt; Dial-up, Elisabeth Eide; Mobile, Jon Olavsen; Customer Service, Geir Olsen; Credit, Line Larsen; and Invoice, Janne Eia. In addition, Agenda includes text designer Maria Monsen, system operator Geir Johnsen, and an observer and system operator from another division, Tore Strand. The manager of the project group is Line Myhre, and she in turn reports to Arvid Lervik, the Information Director of TCM Private.

The senders and recipients of the messages are primarily Agenda members. Most of them are physically located in different departments and even in different parts of Norway. They have occasional meetings at the main office, but most of their communication is carried out by email and telephone. The members usually interact in dyads, sometimes with selected co-members copied in, and seldom address the group as a whole. Some members are more active than others, for instance text designer Maria Monsen, manager Line Myhre, and the system operators Geir Johnsen and Tore Strand. Yet all of the members are represented in the data. The members also interact with external collaborators within and outside of TCM, such as employees at the print central ‘Strålfors’ and members of Agenda Business.

In addition to the email collection, extensive ethnographic and interview data were collected in order to contextualize the communicative practices. The emails were originally written in Norwegian, but are translated into English here. The translations are idiomatic, rather than word-by-word, in order to keep the style as authentic as possible.

The investigation is a case study, primarily based on close reading of all the email messages that involve in-copied recipients. First, each email message was categorized with respect to the various explicit and implicit addressing devices used. Second, the situations in which senders copy in others were identified. This resulted in a list of functions, which in turn were associated with ideational, textual (interactional), and interpersonal meta-functions. The identification of communicative functions is carried out by sequential analysis, based on the participants’ displayed orientation to a specific meaning of a message in the subsequent responses (cf. Heritage, 1984). This limits the problems associated with the multifunctionality of communicative actions. However, the total meaning of a message will never be completely revealed in the response. We therefore address certain problems associated with multifunctionality in further detail in our analysis.

Audience design in conversation

The point of departure for the current study is Bakhtin‘s (1986) concept of “addressivity,” which involves the notion that every utterance intrinsically embodies the quality of “turning to someone.” This is based on an epistemology of “dialogism,” emphasizing the “reflexive relations between discourse (and cognition) and contexts of various kinds” (Linell, 1998, p. 9). Other approaches dealing with addressivity in slightly different terms are Goffman’s theory of “hearer roles,” i.e., his “participation framework” (Goffman, 1981, p. 154), Sacks‘s notion of “recipient design” (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974) and Clark’s theory of “audience design” (Clark 1992, 1996). According to Sacks, et al. (1974), recipient design“refers to a multitude of respects in which the talk by a party in a conversation is constructed or designed in ways which display an orientation and sensitivity to the particular other(s) who are the co-participants” (p. 727). Clark (1992) has developed the ideas of Goffman and Sacks into an analytic framework that we will use as our primary tool in the following.

Clark (1992, p. 218) distinguishes four basic participation roles:

  • 1Speaker (the person who performs the illocutionary act)
  • 2Addressees (the participants who are, or could be, designated vocatively in the utterance)
  • 3Participants (the hearers the speaker intends to “take part in” the illocutionary act that is directed at the addressee)
  • 4Overhearers (the hearers who are not intended by the speaker to “take part in” the illocutionary act)

These basic roles can be further subdivided into roles such as side participants, bystanders, and eavesdroppers.

  • 5Side participants (the participants who are not addressees)
  • 6Bystanders (those overhearers who have access to what the speakers are saying and whose presence is fully recognized)
  • 7Eavesdroppers (those overhearers who have access to what the speakers are saying, but whose presence is not fully recognized)

(Clark, 1992, pp. 202, 250)

When speakers design their utterances for overhearers, they take into consideration that the overhearers can form hypotheses about what they are saying. Senders cast the in-copied recipients in an observer role by informing them of the speech acts they perform towards primary recipient(s). The copy reveals information at two levels. First, the in-copied recipients are informed of the actual tasks that are in progress. Second, they become witnesses to how the information is communicated, the stylistic register, and its social implications. When speaking for overhearers, the speaker can perform one illocutionary act toward a primary addressee, and another to an indirect addressee. This is what Clark (1992) calls a lateral indirect illocutionary act: “In talking laterally, the speaker doesn‘t seem to be speaking to the indirect addressee, but to someone else” (p. 213). Clark uses the following example to illustrate illocutionary acts which is lateral and indirect: “Mother, to three-month-old, in front of father: Don’t you think your father should change your diapers?” (1992, p. 212).

As we will argue in our analyses, copying in recipients serves to inform colleagues of ongoing activities in the organization. We examine how senders tailor their messages to in-copied recipients. Additionally, we discuss in which circumstances a copy may lead the in-copied side-participants to form hypotheses about how the senders are doing their job, about relational implications, and about the relevance of being copied in.

Audience design in email interaction

Participants in email interaction use two general strategies in assigning their recipients to different participant roles. One is by using the heading system; the other is by addressing recipients in the message itself by means of various explicit and implicit addressing devices.

By placing the recipients in the ‘To’ and ‘Copy’ fields, senders explicitly define who they intend as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ (in-copied) recipients. Using Clark’s participant roles, we could define participants placed in the ‘From’ field as ‘senders’ (corresponding to Clark’s ‘speaker’), participants in the ‘To’ field as ‘primary recipient(s)’ or ‘addressees’, and those placed in the ‘Copy’ field as ‘side-participants’ (see Table 1).

Table 1.  Recipient statuses and participant roles
Email HeadingRecipient StatusParticipant Role
From: Johnsen Geir (Networks)Sender‘Speaker’
Sent: 27.oktober 2004 08:33
To: Gran Hanne (Norway)Primary Recipients‘Addressee’/‘Side-participant’
Copy: Bruset, Arne (Norway; Røed, ToveIn-Copied Recipients‘Side Participants’/‘Addressees’
Subject: “quiet period” for changes (Intern)

Explicit addressing by the heading system may involve several constellations of individual and collective participants. The sender may address people individually or collectively, and as primary or secondary recipients. The various possibilities are listed in Table 2.

Table 2.  Addressing devices in the heading system
Explicit addressing by the heading system
1. One primary recipient in the ‘To’ field, no in-copied recipients
2. One primary recipient in the ‘To’ field, one ore more in-copied recipients
3. Two ore more recipients in the ‘To’ field
 a) addressed as a group (TelecomAgenda)
 b) addressed as multiple individuals (Gran, Johnsen)

Interestingly, the participant status in the heading does not correspond directly to the participant roles assigned in the message itself. As in face-to-face-conversation, participant roles can change in the course of one message. Whereas the recipient statuses in the heading system may seem stable and fixed, the participant roles in the message itself can shift depending on the sender’s addressing devices. In the following, we demonstrate how senders address their recipients differently, assigning them different hearer roles by using different addressing devices, as listed in Table 3.

Table 3.  Addressing devices used to assign participant roles in the message itself
Explicit addressing in the text
 a) Salutations (Hi Eva!)
 b) Second person pronouns (du – you (sg.), dere -‘you’ (pl.))
 c) Vocatives (Maria, will you…)
Implicit addressing in the text
 a) Targeting of speech acts (direct or lateral)
 b) Tailoring of information to assumed background knowledge

Types of explicit addressing devices used in the message itself include salutations, pronouns, and vocatives, highlighted in boldface in the example below:

(1) From: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Sent: November 23, 2004 10:04

To: Engseth Eva (Telecom)

Copy: Lervik Arvid (Telecom); Marit Fondenær (Email); Monsen Maria (Telecom); Eide Elisabeth (Telecom)

Subject RE: Agenda meeting today - abuse letter (Intern)

Hi Eva! thanks for your response, but in my opinion too comprehensive. Abuse is one letter that needs a better tone of voice. As you [sg.] saw in the previous mail, this is a letter that is sent from Internet, NOT a confirmation letter. […]

Maria, would you estimate how much time it will take?

Thanks in advance for your help on behalf of the abuse group in Internet.

Best regards Line

In example (1),4 Eva Engseth is the primary recipient, and Arvid Lervik, Marit Fondenær, Maria Monsen, and Elisabeth Eide are copied in. Line Myhre addresses Eva Engseth explicitly by salutation (“Hi Eva”) and further by using the singular personal pronoun “du” (“As you saw…”). Then Line Myhre turns to Maria Monsen, who is copied in, and explicitly addresses her by a vocative (“Maria, would you…”). This example demonstrates how the hearer roles may shift in the course of the message, Maria Monsen becoming temporarily the main addressee, while Eva Engseth is turned into a side-participant.

Senders also use implicit addressing devices to assign in-copied recipients the role as addressees. Example (2) was initiated by a message from Maria Monsen providing a new version of the back of the invoices. Her message was sent to Janne Eia, with Line Myhre and Heidi Fossnes copied in. Maria Monsen’s message was followed by a suggestion from Line Myhre that they should involve Katrine Bakke from Customer Service to verify that the invoice is legally correct. Maria Monsen then replies by indirectly and laterally addressing the in-copied Janne Eia:

(2) From: Monsen Maria (Telecom)

Sent: September 30, 2004 13:46

To: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Copy: Fossnes Heidi (Telecom) Eia Janne (Private) Fondenær Marit

Subject RE: reformulating the text on the back of the invoices

I believe that Janne is taking care of this (?)

:)

Maria

Maria Monsen’s reply in (2), “I believe that Janne is taking care of this (?),” is explicitly directed to Line Myhre, the primary recipient. However, it is simultaneously an indirect request to the in-copied recipient, Janne Eia. Maria Monsen does not address Janne Eia directly (vocatively), but refers to her indirectly and laterally, as a third person. Thus in example (2), Maria Monsen is performing illocutionary acts directed at both recipients. The indirect request to Janne Eia is an implicit way of appointing her as addressee.

Senders may also address in-copied recipients implicitly by modulating the information presented to fit their background knowledge. Quite commonly such messages present information that is already known to the primary recipient, and thus seem primarily directed at the in-copied recipient. When Janne Eia from the Invoice division asked Agenda to reformulate the invoices in Telecom, she addressed Line Myhre. Line Myhre then forwards the order to Maria Monsen, copying in Janne Eia:

(3) From: Myhre Line (Teleconm)

Sent: September 13, 2004 09:47

To: Monsen Maria (Telecom)

Copy: Eia Janne (Private); Fossnes Heidi (Telecom)

Subject: RE: reformulating the text on the back of the invoices

Hi Maria, have you got any possibilities to look at these texts. A “face-lift” on the in-voice is needed so that the tone of voice becomes CONSEQUENT AND CLEAR.

Notify me in case you haven’t got the possibility.

rgds Line

What is interesting in example (3) is that Line Myhre makes it explicit to Maria Monsen that she wants the wording (“tone of voice”) of the invoices “CONSEQUENT AND CLEAR.” This phrase is a quote from Agenda‘s guidelines, and is often cited in their meetings. So why should Line Myhre stress this point when it is already part of her and Maria Monsen’s background knowledge? The answer seems to be that she is doing so to inform Janne Eia of the guidelines in Agenda. Maria appears to be tailoring her utterance to take account of the background knowledge of the external “customer,” Janne Eia; she thereby implicitly makes Janne the addressee of this information.

Secondary recipients orient to the copies as relevant messages, for instance by replying to indirect, lateral illocutionary acts. However, the relevance of a copy is not always obvious, especially when the sender does not address the in-copied recipients explicitly. In such instances the copy invites the in-copied recipients to fill in the relevant context and compute the necessary conversational implicatures.

The employees in Agenda (and TCM) accomplish a great deal of their work through email interaction. They report that email traffic is pervasive and that they are flooded by emails every day. In this context, the use of various addressing devices to grade and rank participation status can be considered a resource for managing the flow of information. By assigning roles as addressees and side-participants, senders indicate the relevance of the message to the individual recipients and their expected degree of involvement and participation.

Communicative functions of copying in recipients

The employees in Agenda use the copy function in connection with certain recurring activities. Copies are related to various aspects of the discourse context, such as the activity displayed (or speech act performed) in the email message and the in-copied recipient’s affiliation/professional role (manager, text designer, system administrator, etc.).

Informing co-workers

In this section, we examine in what circumstances senders copy in recipients, and what kind of information senders orient to as “shareable” and useful information for their co-workers. In the data, employees typically send copies to co-workers with common institutional responsibilities. The main purpose of the copy is to build a pool of information concerning ongoing activities and institutional rules. Copies are primarily used in three types of circumstances in Agenda. First, they distribute reformulated letters, with the reformulated letter attached. Second, they distribute information about specific ongoing activities in the group. Third, they distribute information about general rules and guidelines for the work.

The main task for Agenda is to check and reformulate letters for the entire company. The text designer, Maria Monsen, has a major responsibility in this process. After having reformulated a letter, the procedure is to return it to the product owner in the division where it belongs, with a copy to collaborators on the actual letter, which in (4) is Heidi Fossnes:

(4) From: MonsenMaria (Telecom)

Sent: September 10, 2004 3:23 PM

To: Jon Olavsen (Telecom)

Copy: Fossnes Heidi (Telecom)

Subject: Notice letters

Hi Jon!

Here’s the text. As you’ll notice, I’ve made some changes ;)

I wish you a brilliant week-end (or monday – depending on when you read this).

Greetings

Maria

Distributing documents is an important function of sending copies. As text designer in Agenda, Maria Monsen reformulates and sends back letters to the different divisions that have assigned her tasks. Very often she copies in affiliated co-workers when sending back a reformulated letter. The copy serves to update and inform the co-workers, as well as to give them the possibility to respond to the new text.

The members of Agenda routinely inform their colleagues of progress in specific projects. In example (5), Line Myhre informs her co-members in Agenda of the signatures that are going to be printed on all the confirmation letters:

(5) From: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Sent: September 8, 2004 14:32

To: Strand Tore (Networks); Lervik Arvid (Telecom)

Copy: Johnsen Geir (Networks); Monsen Maria (Telecom)

Subject: Signature review in one document

Hi

Tore, ref today’s conversation. Here comes the document which sums up the current signatures. At the bottom of the page you’ll find a task for Agenda Business and Networks.

Arvid, I ask you to look at my proposal at the bottom at the page concerning returning customers

With best regards

Line Myhre

In (5) Geir Johnsen and Maria Monsen are not explicitly addressed, and the relevance of the information to them is not indicated. By copying them in, however, Line Myhre provides information to a common institutional log (or “diary,” cf. Clark, 1996, p. 114). The information about the activities in progress continuously updates the participants about the current situation as the work proceeds. Additionally, the fact that Maria Monsen responds to Line Myhre’s message demonstrates that the sender makes it possible for more people to contribute their ideas and suggestions to the question being handled when sending an email to multiple recipients. This function of facilitating participation is developed below.

Many emails among Agenda members consist in defining rules and procedures for the work of the team. Prior to example (6), Maria Monsen asked whether notice letters belong within Agenda’s domain. With her authority as Director of Agenda, Line Myhre, defines the notice letter as a confirmation letter and thus as belonging to Agenda’s domain:

(6) From: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Sent: September 13, 2004 15:46

To: Monsen Maria (Telecom)

Copy: Fossnes Heidi (Telecom)

Subject: RE: Notice letters (Intern)

Notice letters belong to Agenda Private’s domain

- orders and notices are confirmation letters […]

In speech act terms, Line’s definition is a declarative, establishing a new institutional reality (Austin, 1962). By copying in Heidi, she adds this information to their common base of institutional rules and guidelines. Copying in employees may thus serve to announce new rules and procedures to the parties affected by them. Significantly, these rules may be stored in the participants’ email archive and made available for future reference. Brown, Middleton, and Lightfoot (2001) observe how the archives allow the manager, or the employees, “to view these archived messages as a series of obligations or promises that are pertinent to a particular project.” Accordingly, the manager can “evidence what she takes to have been a promise, either by referring to the email or by forward it back to original sender” (Brown, et. al., 2001, p. 136).

Facilitating participation

Our analysis showed that copying in colleagues facilitated participation from the in-copied recipients. Employees strikingly often copy in co-workers who have been or are going to be involved in a common task. They thereby establish a common pool of information. Additionally, they implicitly or explicitly invite the in-copied participants to provide information or comment on the work in progress. In other words, they establish a virtual dialogue space. We found that the function of facilitating participation can be differentiated in three categories. First, email authors facilitate participation by producing indirect requests for action that are potentially directed at several recipients, as in lateral indirect illocutionary acts. Second, they use copies to appeal indirectly for approval or collaboration in decision-making. Third, a copy may serve to reframe the participant structure within an existing network of collaboration or to expand the network by inviting new colleagues to participate.

Participants can facilitate participation by indirectly requesting action. As noted in connection with example (2), senders may implicitly address in-copied recipients by performing a lateral indirect illocutionary act (“I believe that Janne is taking care of this (?)”). By doing so, they perform two illocutionary acts, one directed at the primary recipient, and another directed at the in-copied recipient. This may be a practice for saving time and maximising efficiency. In (2), neither Line Myhre nor Maria Monsen needs to write a separate email request to Janne Eia. Lateral indirect illocutionary acts may also have social implications. They may be more polite because they present the request more as a suggestion than as an imposition. However, they may also be experienced as condescending or patronizing in that they do not show explicit concern for Janne Eia’s face (e.g., Brown & Levinson, 1987) and seem to take compliance for granted.

When copying in co-workers, senders implicitly or explicitly invite them to provide information to, or comments on, work in progress. Copying in a superordinate may be used to implicitly seek approval of the action performed in the mail message. In example (7), the Agenda manager Line Myhre copies in her superordinate in responding to a question from Geir Johnsen, the system operator. Initially, Geir Johnsen had proposed a temporary solution to a problem. Line replies to Geir’s proposal with approval:

(7) From: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Sent: September 30, 2004 11:49

To: Johnsen Geir (Networks)

Copy: Lervik Arvid (Telecom); Marit Fondenær (Email)

Subject: RE: Progress Letters with signature?

Geir, it’s a very good solution to start with name and affiliation in the signature and after that when we start with Strålfors we will add the signatures as well.

rgds Line

In this message, Line copies in the Information Director Arvid Lervik. He later responds with a ‘reply to all’: “I agree with Line! Arvid.” By copying in Arvid Lervik, Line gets backing for her decision and indirectly invites him to approve. Copying in co-workers when decisions are made can thus be a device for implicitly inviting them to evaluate or certify the decision. This form of appeal is less compelling than a lateral speech act, and may be more easily ignored. It is more a matter of giving people an opportunity to participate than of requesting a response.

Copies sometimes serve to inform the in-copied recipients of alterations in the participant framework. The most typical format is when members of Agenda forward an email request to a colleague. In such cases they usually copy in the employee requesting the service. The main purpose seems to be to inform the requester of the new participant structure of the future contact.

Senders may also expand networks by inviting colleagues to participate in the future. Example (8) is a typical instance:

(8) From: Calle Persson [mailto:calle.persson@stralfors.no]

Sent: October 25, 2004 1:45 PM

To: Strand Tore (Networks); Johnsen Geir (Networks); Isaksen Øystein (Mobile); Olavsen John (Telecom);

Copy: Trine Martinsen, Simpsson Derek (Private); Harald Nilsen Lg3; Ole Vindtorn […]

Subject: Attachments – specifications for production

Hi!

Attached are the specifications and guidelines for production of attachments to invoices and letters. (…)

(…)

If you are going to produce an attachment, it is a nice rule to check it with Trine Martinsen in Strålfors before your work has come too far. I recommend you to seek advice before the creative process starts so that you do not waste time and energy on things that could have been avoided in advance.

You meet Trine on:

Xxxxxxx

With best regards

Calle Persson

In example (8), Calle Persson, representing Strålfors, informs employees in various divisions in Telecom of new routines. He requests them to contact Trine Martinsen at Strålfors before they start producing attachments to letters. Trine Martinsen is copied in, and thereby informed of his request to Telecom employees. Simultaneously, she is informed that she has a responsibility to help the Telecom employees in producing attachments. By copying her in, Calle Persson includes her in a future network of collaboration.

Building up networks, group identities, and alliances

Sending copies is an important resource for building networks, group identities, and alliances in work life. Sending a copy to important persons in the organization may be a way of boosting one’s own position with regard to the primary recipients. It may also serve to make one’s professional achievements visible to superordinates. Copying in others may thus have important relational implications and may contribute to establishing one’s institutional position and identity. Our data reveal that copying in recipients can serve to back up reasoning and build up alliances in emerging conflicts. Additionally, it is used to back up reminders and to appeal for support, feedback, and acceptance.

Prior to example (9) below, Line Myhre had sent an email to her superordinate, Arvid Lervik, informing him about the last Agenda meeting where the group discussed a new task for Agenda, namely to reformulate the ‘Abuse’ letters.5 She reported that the task was assigned to Maria Monsen, who has a 30% workload in Agenda. The message included copies to Eva Engseth, Elisabeth Eide, and Maria Monsen. Five days later she receives the following response from Eva Engseth in the Internet division:

(9) From: Engseth Eva (Telecom)

Sent: November 23, 2004 09:20

To: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Subject: RE: Agenda meeting today - abuse letter

What’s this Line? If this is going to be given priority in connection with Maria’s 30%, you have to present the whole case with a brief concerning activity, purpose, estimated time needed, when you wish to start, the responsible for the activity, target group, message and possibly other comments so that we can evaluate this against other things acc. to a prioritization. Per today Maria is fully booked almost until Christmas with tasks from Internet and we need more capacity throughout this (??). Therefore, I have started to see if it’s possible to hire an external text designer, but until this is realized we alternatively have to use an external agency when necessary.

Eva

In example (9), Eva Engseth complains to Line Myhre that she has assigned new tasks to Maria Monsen without consulting her and without presenting information about the activity. In Line’s reply in example (10), she copies in Arvid Lervik, her superordinate, plus Maria Monsen and Elisabeth Eide:

(10) From: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Sent: November 23, 2004 10:04

To: Engseth Eva (Telecom)

Copy: Lervik Arvid (Telecom); Marit Fondenær (E-post); Monsen Maria (Telecom); Eide Elisabeth (Telecom)

Subject: RE: Agenda-meeting today - abuse letter

Hi Eva! thanks for your response, but in my opinion too comprehensive. Abuse is one letter that needs a better tone of voice. As you [sg] saw in the previous mail, this is a letter that is sent from Internet, NOT a confirmation letter. Arvid wishes to prioritize this on behalf of Telecom, because we have much badwill in this area. (ref VG article last week.)

Maria, will you estimate how much time it will take?

Thanks in advance for your help on behalf of the abuse-group in Internet.

Best regards Line

Line appends Eva Engseth’s previous mail (example 9) and thereby exhibits her message to all the recipients. And since she characterizes Eva Engseth’s reaction as unreasonable (“too comprehensive”), she may be considered to be invoking them as witnesses to this “overreaction.” Furthermore, she strengthens her case by referring to Arvid Lervik‘s point of view (“Arvid wishes to prioritize this”) and Telecom’s interests (“on behalf of Telecom”). Copying in Arvid Lervik while making claims about his wishes signals clearly that he is “on her side.” Line boosts her authority and strengthens the legitimacy of her claims by invoking support from her team and the Information Director. Copying in Arvid Lervik also gives him the opportunity to comment on her decision, which he actually does 15 minutes later in a personal reply: “Well done, Line!! Arvid.” Line follows up with: “Nice feedback :-)), Arvid (…).”

By copying in co-workers in Agenda, Line Myhre thus makes them into witnesses and supporters, and this contributes to backing up her argumentative position. By demonstrating that she has the authority on her side, she dismisses Eva Engseth’s objections without even going into the discussion.

Copying in superordinates is also used to back up reminders and increase the pressure put on the recipients. In example (11) the system operator, Geir Johnsen, sends a reminder to Arvid Lervik, copying in Line Myhre, his superordinate. Prior to this example, Geir Johnsen had asked Line Myhre for information. Her reply was: “Arvid will get back to you concerning this subject,” with a copy to Arvid Lervik. Laterally and indirectly her reply requested Arvid Lervik to provide the information to Geir Johnsen. One week later, Geir Johnsen sends Arvid Lervik the reminder, requesting him directly to provide information about the signatures:

(11) From: Johnsen Geir (Networks))

Sent: August 26, 2004 10:30

To: Lervik Arvid (Telecom)

Copy: Myhre Line (Telecom)

Subject: RE: Signatures

I wonder if you could find the official titles that I’m going to publish together with the signatures.

Regards Geir Johnsen

- - - - - Original message - - - - -

[…] (original thread deleted)

By appending the whole thread of messages, Geir Johnsen reminds Arvid Lervik of Line Myhre’s previous request. A copy to Line Myhre, his superordinate, serves to increase the pressure. It also serves to inform Line Myhre that the signature task has not progressed, and is delayed because of the lack of response. This frees Geir Johnsen from the responsibility for the delay. In addition, copying in Line Myhre could be a device for indirectly requesting her to take responsibility for the situation. As such, copying in superordinates to back up reminders can be a safeguarding strategy, either to inform or to shift responsibility.

When conflicts arise in email interaction, superordinates may be invoked as witnesses and arbiters by sending them copies of mails that may not be relevant in other respects. For example, Hanne Gran and Geir Johnsen are discussing what would be a suitable time for a “letter freeze,” that is, a period when the computer system is down and no changes can be made to letters. They use an informal and personal style in their exchanges, as in example (12):

(12) From: Gran Hanne (Norway)

Sent: August 27, 2004 15:43

To: Johnsen Geir (Networks)

Subject: RE: “quiet period” for changes

Hi,

I don’t think Diff abm. will be further postponed. But there will be more fun in November. Between 1st– 15th of November is the starting-shot of the Christmas Campaign (both telephoni and ADSL), then Total Customer will be on the air from about November 15th and […]. I would recommend instead that you consider December, evt. January if you (pl.) consider it hard to get finished until the middle of October.

Best regards

Hanne

After approximately two months, Hanne Gran comes back to Geir Johnsen, complaining that the freeze period has been set at an inconvenient time. The style is suddenly more formal, and she copies in two colleagues:

(13) From: Gran Hanne (Norway)

Sent: October 26, 2004 16:37

To: Johnsen Geir (Networks)

Copy: Bruset Arne (Norway); Røed Tove (Norway)

Subject: RE: “quiet period” for changes

Hi Geir,

I read at the Letter-corner6 web yesterday that there is a freeze period for letter changes from October 20 to November 22. This creates huge problems for us […] it is very unfortunate that we aren‘t warned about such a long-lasting and comprehensive freeze period that you [pl.] are carrying out in that period. I reckoned that my email below gave clear feedback that this was an unfortunate period and as long as I didn’t hear anything more from you [sg] I supposed that this was taken into account.

I hereby ask you [pl.] to implement letters according to the campaigns we are going to run and that this is dealt with as critical letter changes. This includes primarily:

1) Super Saturday 2005

2) Wireless web-telephones

3) Changes in texts for Diff. sub.7

4) Christmas Campaign ADSL

5) Change of product-code

All the changes have previously been reported to Agenda att. Bente Underud or to you by Kristian Almo, Arne Bruset and Tove Røed.

Can you [sg.] confirm that the implementation of these letters is OK?

Best regards

Hanne Gran

IT Change management

Example (13) represents a shift to a more formal style, including such expressions as “I hereby ask you” and frequent use of passive voice (albeit with certain lapses into informal style, as in “huge problems”). Considering that this is a complaint, there are few expressions of emotion, except for formal expressions such as “very unfortunate.” By using this style, Hanne Gran takes on an institutional role rather than a personal one. The fact that she copies in third parties further serves to depersonalize the correspondence and underline the institutional character of the complaint. The in-copied recipients are invoked as “witnesses,” potentially testifying that the complaint is reasonable and legitimate. In addition, as colleagues from her department, they can be considered “supporters,” backing up the claims and strengthening the institutional authority of the message.

Geir Johnsen answers Hanne Gran, adding one more recipient to the copy field, namely Line Myhre, the manager of Agenda:

(14) From: Johnsen Geir (Networks)

Sent: October 27, 2004 08:33

To: Gran Hanne (Norway)

Copy: Bruset Arne (Norway); Røed Tove (Norway); Line Myhre (Telecom in Norway)

Subject: RE: “Quiet period” for changes

I regret that you [sg.] didn’t know about this letter freeze, but Agenda did carry out an ‘information round’ to all the product leaders in good time ahead of the letter freeze. Before the letter freeze we were informed about points 3, 4 and 5 in the list below and they have been taken into consideration and will be implemented. Points 1 and 2 have popped up after the letter freeze was introduced. We’ll see what we can do about these. Let’s manage this in the simplest way possible while the letter freeze lasts.

We made, as you [sg.] remember, inquiries to find a suitable time for both the TAPAS project and a period with as few changes as possible for letters. However, we didn’t receive as much response as we had expected about planned letter changes. The only thing was Diff. sub.

That’s why we kept the suggested period that is now introduced.

There is a general problem that we in Agenda do not have any overview of what letter changes are planned.

[…]

Regards Geir Johnsen

In the second paragraph in example (14), Geir Johnsen refers explicitly to their common ground (“as you remember”). This recapitulation of their previous correspondence seems primarily aimed at updating Line Myhre. The topic of discussion does not directly concern her, as manager of Agenda; the reason she is copied in seems to be related to the interpersonal conflict itself. As we see, Geir Johnsen does not accept the criticism, but presents the problem as Hanne Gran not having informed him properly. However, the tone is less confrontational than in Hanne’s message in (13), in that he uses non-agentive constructions, for instance, when claiming that she had not informed him previously about certain letters: “Points 1 and 2 have popped up after the letter freeze was introduced.” He goes on to say that it is a general problem that various divisions do not inform the production unit about changes. In this way he returns the complaint, albeit mitigating it slightly by presenting it as a general problem (and not just a problem with Hanne Gran).

By copying in his superordinate, the manager of Agenda, Geir Johnsen also seeks support and backing for his account of the problem. In this way, they both use in-copied recipients from their own departments as “supporters.” In addition, the third parties may serve as “witnesses,” that is, an observing public of not directly involved participants who can serve as arbiters that propriety and tact are observed in an emotionally loaded situation. In this way, side participants have a dual function in situations of conflict. They may serve both to strengthen the sender’s position, thus contributing to escalating the conflict, and to make the discussion public, thus contributing to decreasing the conflict.

Line Myhre answers Geir Johnsen: “Thanks for info in the other mail, Geir. Great that you follow up on this! If you need any help, let me know.” She thus takes on the role of a supporter, in that she compliments him with her reply and offers more “help” if needed.

Conclusion

Designing email messages for multiple recipients is a complex operation that requires attention to the different sorts of background, interests, and affiliations of the recipients addressed. This study has shown that participants in a Norwegian distributed work group design their messages with side participants in mind, and that they use copies strategically to fulfill work-related tasks and to manage social relationships. Bringing in certain patterns of communication from conversational interaction, the participants establish new practices and conventions of email interaction.

By differentiating between primary and secondary recipients, senders assign their colleagues various recipient roles and create a virtual communication space where the in-copied recipients are more or less explicitly invited to respond. Senders address their recipients explicitly, by adding them to the ‘To’ and ‘Copy’ fields, or by using salutations, personal pronouns, and vocatives in the message itself. They also address them implicitly, by producing lateral indirect speech acts and by tailoring their messages to the in-copied recipients’ background knowledge. When copied in, recipients are given the possibility to contribute their opinions or suggestions. In the case of lateral speech acts, the evocative function is even more salient.

The employees in Agenda accomplish a great deal of their work tasks through email interaction. As a consequence of the electronic network, email traffic is pervasive and employees are innundated with emails of varying relevance. The grading of recipient roles and addressing devices may be considered a method the employees have adopted to manage the flow of information. By indicating variable participant statuses, the sender indicates the relevance of a message and invites various degrees of contribution.

The copy function is an effective tool for building a common pool of information and inviting further contributions to it. The employees send copies in order to distribute documents, to update their colleagues about ongoing activities, and to define rules and procedures for their work. In addition, they use copies to establish networks of collaboration, informing customers and colleagues of who will be involved in a given task.

Copies are also used for building alliances and personal identity within the organization. Copying in colleagues, and especially a superordinate, from one’s own department is a practice for giving a message a stronger institutional anchoring and thus for strengthening one’s authority as a speaker. Side participants may also be invoked as “witnesses” to the exchange, securing that the communication conforms to norms of propriety and seriousness.

The current analysis has made visible the local practices of copying in colleagues in workplace interaction. Our findings, summarized in Table 4, suggest that copying in recipients serves informative, interactive, and interpersonal functions.

Table 4.  Communicative functions of copying in recipients
1. Informative function: Establish and update information pool
 a) Distributing reformulated letters (attachments)
 b) Distributing information about ongoing projects
 c) Defining general rules and procedures
2. Interactive function: Facilitate participation – reframe participant structure
 a) Lateral speech acts
 b) Indirect appeals for approval or collaboration in decision making
 c) Reframing the participant structure within a network of collaboration
3. Interpersonal function: Build up networks, group identities, and alliances
 a) Copying in superordinate to back up reasoning
 b) Copying in superordinate to back up reminders
 c) Copying in superordinate to seek support in emerging conflicts

Organizational and social implications

The practice of sending copies of letters is not new, and electronic copy practices have clearly taken up certain elements from the use in traditional correspondence. However, the ease of adding recipients to the copy field has made the electronic version more pervasive and has led to new interactional practices. Employees use copies to achieve routine collaboration in their daily work tasks, sharing knowledge, prompting feedback, and seeking support. They thereby establish ad hoc networks across physical and institutional boundaries. This contributes to creating new patterns of interaction and to erasing traditional hierarchical structures and established lines of information flow. From this perspective, copying in recipients may lead to alternative, emergent structures within the organization and thereby have a “democratizing” effect. This is in line with observations in other studies of email in organizations (Brigham & Corbett, 1997; Garton & Wellman, 1995; Markus, 1994; Mulholland, 1999). On the other hand, the practice of copying others in can also serve to reinforce hierarchical structures within the organization. It makes it easier for participants to appeal to superordinates to back their claims in cases of conflict and thereby to stress the importance of institutional status rather than the force of the argument. Furthermore, calling in “witnesses” may increase the degree of social control by exerting institutional pressure on recipients to conform to a corporate norm of behaviour. This supports Brigham and Corbett (1997), who claimed that the technology of email facilitates individual acts of “self-control” and “dicipline” (1997, p. 31). In conclusion, electronic copy practices have the potential to render internal communication both more democratic and more hierarchical. It is the various contexts that decide the actual effect of copying in recipients.

Copying in recipients gives employees the opportunity to build their professional identity by presenting their ideas and achievements to other members of the organization, and especially to superordinates. Our data contain several instances (e.g., (7) above) where employees copy in their superordinates and receive praise for their performance in response. This becomes even more significant if other members are copied in as witnesses. Copying in employees in such circumstances contributes to building up both individual and group identity. The copy practice makes it possible for employees to promote themselves to selected individuals in the organization, under the guise of “just informing.”

Digital media literacy

The fact that the copy practice serves identifiable functions and is used in recurring activities indicates that certain common norms have evolved for the use of email. Digital literacy involves competence in participating in electronically-mediated social activities among multiple participants. It involves competence in using various addressing devices to differentiate among recipients with varying participation statuses. This is used as a conventional system for signalling various degrees of relevance and for inviting various degrees of involvement.

Digital media literacy also involves receptive skills, such as interpreting the relevance of a message according to one’s status as primary or secondary recipient. It includes the competence to fill in with relevant context, to sort messages with various degrees of relevance, and reply to them accordingly. Digital literacy involves a strategic competence, that is, a competence in using copies in order to achieve different goals. These skills are crucial to managing professional activities in a distributed work group that uses electronic mail as its primary communication tool.

Notes

  • 1

    For an introduction to CMDA and an overview of different approaches, see Herring (2001, 2004).

  • 2

    See Murray (1991, pp. 3, 55f, 151f) for a discussion on CMC and literacy.

  • 3

    All names of companies and employees are pseudonyms.

  • 4

    Boldface added. VG is a Norwegian newspaper.

About the Authors

  1. Karianne Skovholt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, Culture and Languages at the Norwegian School of Management BI. She does research on email interaction in the workplace.Address: Norwegian School of Management BI. Department of Communication, Culture and Languages. Nydalsveien 37, 0442 Oslo, Norway

  2. Jan Svennevig is Professor of Communication at the Norwegian School of Management BI. His research interests include conversation analysis and spoken and computer-mediated interaction in the workplace.Address: Norwegian School of Management BI. Department of Communication, Culture and Languages. Nydalsveien 37, 0442 Oslo, Norway

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