Week 7 – Negative Letters

Locker, Kitty O. “Factors in Reader Responses to Negative Letters: Experimental Evidence for Changing What We Teach.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 13, no. 1 (1999): 5-48.

In “Factors in Reader Reponses to Negative Letter:  Experimental Evidence for Changing What We Teach,”  Locker established the six traditional textbook principles about writing negative messages.  These principles include:

1)      Use a buffer.

2)      Explain why you are refusing.

3)      Please the reason before, not after, the refusal.

4)      Phrase the refusal itself as positively as possible.

5)      Offer an alternative or a compromise, if one is available.

6)      End on a positive note.  (5)

Locker believes that evidence from scholarly debates and her evidence from her own research indicate that these six principles need modification in order to be effective.  At the beginning g of her essay, Locker identifies the diversity of negative messages in the business world and discusses the current debate about these negative messages in regards to the six principles.  She emphasizes that the effect of buffers varies depending on cultural sensitivity and cultural expectations.  For example, the degree of directness or indirectness in a negative message depends on:  1) writer/reader stakes in the message, 2) community or culture, 3) ethos the writer wishes to establish, 4) anticipation of reader responses, and 5) reader’s personality and/or characteristics.  Additionally, Locker addresses the effect of explanations (the principle which hold the most support across literature) and the effect of alternatives and positive endings (only alternatives matter in regards to reader perceptions) (11-12).

Locker’s own research tested three of the traditional principles:  use a buffer, place the reason before the refusal, and end on a positive note (12).  Her research also addressed the role of gender and the role of situational context.  Her findings revealed that neither using buffers nor placing the reason before the refusal produced more positive responses in the credit refusal experiment (21).  Ultimately, Locker concludes that “we have little reason for mandating buffers as the standard opener for a negative letter” (21).  In regards to using positive endings, Lockers determined that ending a negative letter with an alternative is more effective than ending a letter with a sales pitch or a positive paragraph (22).  The effects of gender and context in Locker’s research indicated that 1) gender is not a factor in how a reader responds to a negative message, and 2)situation and context affect a reader “far more than do direct or indirect patterns of organization” (25).

The recommendations Lockers includes at the end of her research indicate that writers should abandon buffers, give a reason for the refusal, present the negative positively but clearly (and offer an alternative/compromise if one exists), and do not assume that a positive ending is a requirement (28).  The remainder of Locker’s essay focuses on slight variations of these suggestions which include advising a buffer if the “individual or culture values harmony and attention to feelings” (29).

As I read this essay, I immediately thought back to the fifteen individual e-mails I sent to parents of my junior and senior students last week – e-mails announcing to parents their students had failed the first six weeks grading period in Honors English.  I sent those e-mails before I read this chapter; however, I recognized some of my own tendencies in the principles spelled-out by Locker.  The most significant aspect which stood out to me both from reading this essay and from comparing the content to my recent communication with my students’ parents is to remember that the audience and purpose of writing any type of negative message outweighs any list of standards.  For example, because I am the third teacher my students have had this semester, I opened the beginning of my e-mail by establishing my ethos as their new teacher and giving some context to why I was contacting the parents of those particular students in the first place.  I believe that learning the most effective practices of negative letters and then modifying such practices to fit specific circumstances is the best way to avoid unfortunate repercussions both in the field of business as well as in education.  When is it appropriate to use a different mode of communication instead of a letter (i.e. e-mail, phone call, in-person conversation, etc.)?


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