A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Letters of Recommendation

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English for Specific Purposes, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 241-265, 1998 © 1998 The American University. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd All rights reserved. Printed in Great Britain
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A Cross-cultural Comparison of Letters of
Kristen Precht
Abstract--Letters of recommendation (LRs) from different countries are as individual as the local academic cultures from which they arise. Distinct regional patterns emerged in this comparative study of letters of recommendation from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Two types of analysis were performed: first, a quantitative analysis examined features such as linearity, symmetry, data integration, advance organizers and sentence types; second, a qualitative analysis examined the content of the sections of the letters. Differences were found cross-culturally in the quantitative analysis. Significant differences were also found in the organizational patterns and methods of support. Organizational patterns varied from topical to chronological organization. LR writers from different regions supported their recommendation of the applicant with different types of evidence, from factual lists of achievements to storytelling. The format of the letters themselves showed similarities cross-culturally. © 1998 The American University. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved Introduction

A great deal has been written in the past decade on cross-cultural differences in academic writing; not surprisingly most of this attention has been focused on the research article. Little notice has been given to the less public texts of the academic community, aptly named occluded genres in Swales (1996). The purpose of these texts is primarily to conduct the business of the academic community--requesting reprints, recommending students, reviewing articles, evaluating colleagues, and so forth. Since these occluded genres are private documents, they are much more likely to retain their authors' cultural influences than are the more public, highly stylized texts such as research articles. That is, according to Swales, the rhetorical patterns of the L1 would likely be more pronounced in these private, occluded texts than in research articles, and therefore the study of the occluded genres might yield some interesting cross-cultural comparisons. Cross-cultural comparisons of texts promise to give insight into the differences in the way that the same intention is expressed from one culture Address correspondence to: Kristen Precht, Department of English, Northern Arizona University, Box 6032. Flagstaff, AZ 86001, USA.

242 K. Precht
to another. Though intentions may be the same cross-culturally, differences in verbal and nonverbal expression are as subtle as the degree of directness that's considered appropriate in making a request, or as obvious as a bow vs a handshake. A comparison of ways cultures express themselves in writing is undertaken in contrastive rhetoric.

In examining the discourse of letters themselves, one can see elements of both spoken and written discourse, as well as a great deal of variety, from the very formal business letter to the chatty holiday newsletter, each type with a host of expectations as to form, structure, and content. Within academia itself there are many types of letters, from submission letters, to reprint requests, to correspondence with colleagues and editors. Amidst all the academic correspondence, letters of recommendation for graduate school are a particularly interesting text type to study cross-culturally; they are occluded, and representative of local academic culture. LRs themselves can vary to a certain degree within a given cultural context (recommending either admission, or funding, or advancement), but the intention of recommending a student or junior colleague allows for a great deal of functional similarity in LRs, as most admission or...
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