This study examines the effect of relative power and rank of imposition on the selection of internal and external modifiers by Mandarin Chinese speakers and Australian English speakers in email requests. Elicited email data instead of naturally occurring data was used in order to ensure cross-cultural comparability. Thirty-seven native speakers of Mandarin Chinese and 35 native speakers of Australian English participated in the study. Altogether 288 emails were collected. Data was classified according to an adapted version of the coding scheme developed by Blum-Kulka et al. (1989). Internal modifiers include downgraders and upgraders with the focus of study on downgraders. External modifiers include all the supportive moves in the opening, body, and closing of email requests. Following Beebe et al. (1990), data was analysed in the frequency, content, and average number of internal and external modifiers. Both qualitative and quantitative analysis methods were adopted. Findings of the study show that both relative power and rank of imposition had an effect on the use of internal and external modifiers by the Mandarin Chinese speakers and Australian English speakers in email requests. However, while the two groups exhibited sensitivity to rank of imposition to a similar extent, the Chinese participants seemed to display a greater degree of sensitivity to relative power than the Australian participants. This paper discusses the sociocultural norms underlying the different requestive behaviour of the Chinese and Australian participants. It predicts the potential problems in communication between the two cultures, and highlights the importance of developing cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity. The findings of the study will shed more light on cross-cultural pragmatics and intercultural communication, and will also be of implication to learners of Chinese or English as a second or foreign language.
pragmatics, requests, politeness, Chinese, Australian English