Cyber Support: Bo Feng

How do people respond to advice? How do their responses vary when that advice comes from cyberspace? Associate Professor of Communication Bo Feng explores what factors improve the effectiveness of supportive cyber-messaging.

Bo Feng - UC Davis
Bo Feng

Communication varies across contexts. Figuring out effective, as well as ineffective, ways of communication requires a scientific approach.  

"To study communication as a human and social phenomenon is a very challenging task," Feng explains. "Humans are complicated creatures. Any kind of social behavior is multi-layered. What we do or say in a given situation depends on a multitude of factors. It's like a big puzzle."

Communication researchers such as Feng are tasked with developing and assessing theoretical frameworks for the research and practice of social interaction. "As social scientists, we pursue our investigations very carefully and systematically," Feng says. "Each study we conduct adds one piece of the puzzle to form a bigger and more complete picture of communication behaviors." 

Feng's recent research is at the vanguard of studies attempting to better understand social relations at a time when human interaction increasingly occurs online. Her work on support-seeking and support-giving in cyberspace not only benefits communication across multiple sectors (medical, educational, business, etc.) already providing online messaging services, but also everyday life in the Digital Age.

"I am very intrigued to understand the 'why.' I like finding the connections that can help me theorize why, for example, people sometimes respond to online postings in a more polite, sensitive, and supportive manner and other times more straightforward and bluntly or simply do not respond at all." 

Becoming a communication scholar

Feng came to the United States from China in 2001. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in linguistics from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The university’s engineering focus did not stop Feng from combining her interest in science with her language studies. 

Indeed, Feng’s interdisciplinary curiosity first led her to social linguistics. She examined how Chinese people use so-called address terms such as kinship terms to speak with strangers. To further improve her proficiency in English and expand her learning, she entered the doctoral program in communication at Purdue University in Indiana, where she studied with Brant Burleson and Erina MacGeorge, who introduced her to the field of supportive communication. 

Defining supportive communication

According to Feng, supportive communication can be very broadly defined as “situations where people interact for the purpose of seeking or providing some form of assistance for the purpose of coping with problematic situations.” It can occur within different forms of relationships, including personal, intimate relationships such as friends, family, and romantic partners and professional relationships such as those between students and instructors, doctors and patients, and between co-workers.

The art of advice-giving

"Supportive communication, especially advice-giving, is a very ubiquitous form of communication," says Feng.

"Advice-giver is a role we play a lot more often than we realize. When someone tells us some issue or trouble that they are experiencing, oftentimes we feel the impulse to tell them what we think they should think, act, or feel in that situation."

Common sense dictates that advice is a positive form of human interaction. Yet, in practice, advice can be received in multiple ways. Recipients might feel offended and end up disliking the person giving the advice, thus hurting relationships. Recipients may even end up feeling worse. "It can backfire," says Feng, "even though in most cases advice is well-intended." 

Feng sought to understand the factors that explain the variations in people's response to advice. She wondered: "What is the art of advice-giving? What can people actually say or do to make a difference in the listener's response? What about the features of the relationship? What about culture, gender, and conversational contexts?"

Some of Feng's early research focused on cultural comparisons. In "When Should Advice be Given?" (2014), Feng finds that, compared to Chinese participants, Americans considered advice with emotional support as higher in quality. In "Examining Cultural Similarities and Differences in Responses to Advice" (2013), she finds that, compared with Americans, Chinese participants are more likely to implement advice based on perceptions of the advice-givers' qualities such as expertise, trustworthiness and likeability.   

Supportive communication in cyberspace

Feng's recent work has transitioned from supportive communication in face-to-face contexts to cyberspace interactions, especially among people who have never met in person. "It has become increasingly common for people to go online in search of help or support," Feng elaborates. "My recent work fits within a fast-growing subfield in communication."

Despite the existence of video-messaging for online interaction, most forms of online communication nowadays still remain text-based. Feng's academic background gives her an appreciation for the use of linguistic cues. "The power of language cannot be over-exaggerated," she affirms. Nonetheless, Feng also finds that the lack of non-verbal cues causes a constraint for conveying feelings online. "Ambiguity can easily lead to misunderstandings, confusion, and even conflicts," she adds.

Feng finds that, in online communication, self-disclosure alone is not enough to elicit good quality responses or advice. More sensitive and higher-quality responses are given to individuals that appear to be more real than anonymous.

"Anonymity online can serve as a double-edged sword," Feng warns. "When people are anonymous, they feel protected, freer of imposition to express themselves. Yet, with higher anonymity, the viewers' trust decreases. That is sort of the dilemma of online communication I am investigating in my current research." 

Since trust is an important issue in online environments, Feng's research indicates that providing personal identity cues increments the likelihood of positive feedback. In “Is a Profile Worth a Thousand Words? How Online Support-Seeker’s Profile Features May Influence the Quality of Received Support Messages” (2016), Feng finds that personal identity cues—in this case, the inclusion of a profile picture and using a realistic name for the username ID—which do not necessarily need to be the person's actual picture or name, can elicit more sensitive (person-centered) and more polite support messages.  

"The idea is that the identity cues can enhance people's perception of your realness, your presence," suggests Feng. "It's a strategic process of employing various communication techniques to enhance people's impressions of you, while at the same time being ethical and truthful." 

A.I. supportive communication 

For future research projects, Dr. Feng is interested in exploring how supportive communication functions in the context of human and artificial intelligence interaction. "I am very fascinated by this emerging phenomenon where people can actually seek and obtain advice and other forms of support from non-humans. I want to study whether and how this form of interaction functions similarly and differently from human-to-human interactions.”

As Professor Feng pursues her research inquiries, it seems clear that she will also continue pushing communication studies towards helping humanity better comprehend and make better use of the new — and sometimes challenging— technological tools for social interaction. 

— Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani

This article originally appeared on the website of the UC Davis Institute for Social Sciences

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