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E-mail and culture

Nigel Meek is a British libertarian, a Samizdata reader and an executive officer with both the Libertarian Alliance and the Society for Individual Freedom.

I work in a state-sector Further Education college in the London suburbs. Most of our students are 16 to 19 year old full-timers taking A-levels or vocational equivalents, but we also have a large number of part-time adult students, mostly doing evening classes of one sort or another. We have a fair number of overseas students, and indeed enough of them to warrant the College employing a part-time International Students’ Officer.

One of my jobs is as the first point of contact with people submitting general email enquiries to the College. Mostly these are requests for prospectuses or other straightforward matters that I can deal with myself. Sometimes I have to pass them on to others.

It took me some time to realise – or at least to hypothesise – how illustrative emails were about the differing cultures that people come from. Emails from youngsters wanting a full-time prospectus are nowadays often written in mobile phone text language and/or are simply semi-literate. Emails from adults wanting a part-time prospectus are often just old-fashioned letters – “Dear Sir/Madam, blah blah blah, Yours faithfully” – sent via a new medium. The point is that in either case they tend to be quite short and direct: This is who I am, where I live, and what I want.

Emails – and indeed still the occasional letter – from overseas are often very different. And by ‘overseas’ I mean a very limited number of countries that between them supply the majority of such enquiries to the College: Pakistan, Nigeria, and The Gambia. The most noticeable feature about them is the quite astonishingly flowery, sycophantic, and obsequious tone in which they are often written. “Esteemed Sir, I have heard about your outstanding institution from many sources… It will fulfil a dream for me to come there… I would be truly honoured if you would provide me with information… Your humble servant…” I make this up by way of example, but believe me, it does not begin to do justice to how some of them are written.

At first, I thought that this was merely a rather quaint, if excessive, courtesy. It took me some time to consider that there might be another interpretation, and one that if correct offers an insight into the nature of the societies from which the authors come – and therefore also about our own. Emails from UK enquirers – or indeed the very occasional enquiry from Western Europe or the USA – whether from an adult or a teenager, and whatever the standard of English, tend to share one feature, one which the authors are almost certainly not consciously aware of. They rest on the assumption that their enquiry or request will be dealt with by somebody who they have never met because it is their job to do so and not because of any personal relationship between them and (in this case) myself. We are not related by blood, marriage, or tribe. Indeed, we have never met and quite probably never knowingly will. We owe or are owed no favours to each other. Beyond some modicum of common civility, flattery really will get them nowhere. They likely have no means to coerce or threaten me into (say) sending them a prospectus even if they had the inclination. In short, our relationship is a purely impersonal contractual one involving a number of different parties including myself, the College as my employers, the taxpayer (since the College is mainly in the public sector), the government of the day, the enquirer, and heaven who knows who else. I do ‘x’ for ‘y’ because ‘z’ pays me to do it. I operate in the impersonal ‘cash nexus’.

The overseas ones, however, reveal a fundamentally different set of social assumptions. It is one in which people rarely do anything for impersonal, contractual reasons. Instead, on a case-by-case and arbitrary basis, there is ‘something in it for them’. It may be ties of kinship. It may be personal favours and debts called in, traded or promised. It might be threats or actual force. It might be flattery or outright bribery. Whatever form it takes, it is personal. In the West, we have another term for such dealings: corruption.

If this analysis is correct, then it has profound and indeed profoundly depressing implications for the countries and societies in which the latter type of attitude and behaviour are prevalent. When we look at the advanced Western world, one of the many things one notices is a bifurcation of relationships. There are indeed personal relationships between family, friends, and others that one joins with from time-to-time on a more-or-less voluntary basis. Features of such relationships include that they often fulfil expressive needs and are dependent upon mainly subjective evaluation.

However, the other type of impersonal relationship – most commonly found in that sphere of life we call ‘work’ – have the features of being based around abstract notions of contract and often fulfil instrumental needs and are frequently dependent upon objective evaluation. And it is these types of relationships that are the basis of advanced industrial and post-industrial society, whether of the capitalist, socialist, or mixed-economy type. When one thinks of what is involved in, say, the now familiar act of ordering something on-line, particularly from another country, it is clear that the complex web of relationships involved from hitting the ‘ok’ button to taking delivery of the item cannot be conducted on anything other than an impersonal basis.

It is another matter to try to determine the ‘chicken and the egg’ question of whether the first faltering steps of advanced society helped to develop this new impersonal form of relationship or the other way around. No doubt, it can be a diverting pastime to revisit Marx and try to determine whether economic relations determine social attitudes as he thought, or the other way around, or a fortuitous mix of both. However, it seems reasonable to suggest that countries and cultures where relationships are still primarily based around a constant series of ad hoc interpersonal negotiations lack the fundamental attitudinal infrastructure on which an enduring, advanced society can be built. In the meantime, they will also suffer from what by our standards is endemic corruption.

If my correspondents from West Africa and Pakistan are anything to go by – and presumably they must be amongst the best and the brightest – and short of a policy of frank neo-colonialism from the major nations of the West – I do not hold out much hope for their countries in the foreseeable future.

13 comments to E-mail and culture

  • I don’t have much to say other than I laughed orange juice out my nose and on to my laptop while reading this.

  • LuminaT

    haha u get reqs from smacktards

    at least u no they’re dum up front. usually u have 2 read 2 find out they’re lcd.

  • LuminaT

    Drat, apostrophes–two of them. Too many periods. Not enough exclamation points. There goes my cred.

  • Liz

    Allowing for the flowery language, this sounds like any small town in the US where half the town’s business is conducted on the post office or courthouse steps every morning, and where social and family relationships have as much significance as contractual ones. There may be more corruption in Nigeria than in small-town America (though I wouldn’t take bets on that), but I don’t think the phenomenon indicates any more than that the writer’s culture values personal relationships. In a time when people shrug at others’ misfortune because “It’s none of my business,” that may not be entirely a bad thing.

  • I’d suggest this has more to do with the ‘scalability’ of the culture. In terms of networks (which an economy and culture are just human networks) ‘scalability’ is a function of the number of nodes compared with the ability of that network to actually create value. There has long been debate among network engineers about whether the intelligence should be in the network (as in the telephone system) or in the end nodes (the end-to-end model that the Internet is built on). One of the emergent qualities of the end-to-end model is that innovation happens orders of magnitude faster on a dumb, end-to-end network. Also, because routers within that network can be extremely mechanistic, throughput is also orders of magnitude faster.

    It seems as though the same concept holds for human networks as well: as the transaction cost for each node in the network goes up compared to the number of nodes, the total value of the network goes down, thus showing that human networks cannot scale unless an end-to-end model for human transactions is adopted. Thus the ‘work oriented’ anonymity mentioned above is really the only way to create a scalable society.

  • I have come across these cultural differences too. CVs/resumes from ex-communist countries often bulge with pathetic, pity-seeking personal detail.

    I suspect many of us in the West are naive, though, about the extent to which our own societies are impersonally, contractually run. [And perhaps our fixers have a subtler style.] Often only a handful of leading-edge industries maintain a truly meritocratic ethos. In other industries “who you know” is still surprisingly important. They just don’t put it into the application letter as brazenly.

    You’d be surprised how much easier it is to get a book published or an article accepted if you know one of the editors personally. The same goes for a large number of industries like finance, education, advertising, the media in general. Any sector where there are not crystal-clear measurable criteria for success is quickly invaded by a network of personal contacts.

    Outstanding quality is always valued, but most jobs don’t require outstanding candidates – they just need one of the many quite good candidates. Personal contacts, first impressions, the desire of an interviewer to get to know an attractive candidate all count for more, because there are plenty of quite good people to choose from for most jobs such as receptionist, junior account manager, trainee broker, personal assistant, cashier, trainee technician etc. Most jobs are of this type, not high-flying posts for meritocratic achievers.

    We deceive ourselves if we think objective quality is more than just one of a number of hurdles to clear for the average job.

  • Rick

    I’ve noticed this even in the U.S.: civility plays well everywhere, of course, but personal relationships (even in small towns where the courthouse is as well-attended as the moviehouse) are only enough to get you to the door. For results, you have to rely upon the merit of your proposal/idea/request. Of course, as any trial lawyer can tell you, just because the clerk has to accept your filings at court, doesn’t mean that s/he has to be helpful in getting them in front of the judge…

  • Here’s the most (in)famous recent application of the use of florid language: the Nigerian Scam Letter that’s become part of our modern folklore.

  • Rajesh Sharma

    I have a number of relatives in India and have noticed that some of them will write in this fashion in letters.

    Those who do so tend to be those who have not had a great deal of exposure to modern business. i.e. those who are not working in a multinational or corporate environment.

    I don’t think the reasons are as sinister as you imagine. The fact is that Indian (& Pakistani) culture & language has a great deal of respect for elders & superiors. When I get e-mails from Nephews I am “Respected Chachaji “(Uncle). This more formal way of speaking is translated into written English and is then sent to people with a less formal style.

  • Kevin

    Seems to follow what Edward T. Hall describes as low-context and high-context cultures. In general:

    1. High-Low context languages. This refers to the amount and specificity of information in a given situation. Verbally this is related to words, their definitions and nuance; nonverbally it is related to voice (inflection, pitch, pace), gestures, and facial expression.
    a. Low Context cultures transmit information in explicit code to make up for lack of shared meanings. Meanings are determined by what is said, rather than how it is is said. Like talking with a computer, if information is not explicit and detailed, meaning is distorted. This mode is used in cultures where backgrounds, meanings, and experiences are diverse; they also occur in cultures where individualism is promoted over commonality.
    b. High Context communication relies heavily on nonverbal and contextual and shared cultural meanings. Meanings are determined from how things are said, rather than what is said. High context is faster, more economical, and more satisfying than Low context communication; however, if time is not devoted to shared and common programming, communication is incomplete. This mode is used in cultures where backgrounds are common and shared, and where “we” is emphasized over “I.”

  • Kevin: you’re referring to Edward T. Hall’s “Beyond Culture“, yes? I’ve not read it; do you recommend it?

  • Kevin


    Yes, that’s the book I’m referring to….. It’s been a long time since I read it but I do remember enjoying it at University.

  • Kevin: thanks! I’ve put Hall’s book in my Amazon Wishlist.

    It will be interesting to see how/if Hall’s “high/low context language” mappings correspond to Francis Fukuyama’s “high/low trust society” mappings.