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A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Letters of Recommendation

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English for Specific Purposes, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 241-265, 1998

Ð'© 1998 The American University. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd

All rights reserved. Printed in Great Britain

0889-4906/98 $19.00+0.00

PII: S0889-4906(97)00012-4

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. Ð'© 1998 The

American University. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved


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 fellowship committee members

will readily attest. Bouton (1995) highlighted important differences in the

structure of LRs from different Asian countries and the United States; the

present study seeks to look more carefully at cultural differences in discourse

features, content, and semantics.

The cross-cultural study of LRs also highlights a more practical aspect of

contrastive rhetoric research. As the graduate programs in the United States




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