Cross-Cultural Communication and International Email Etiquette
By this point in your professional career, you’ve mastered the art of the business email, comprising a professional greeting, succinct, organized body paragraphs and a brief, cordial closing. The keystrokes become automatic as you type dozens — perhaps hundreds — per day. It’s an efficient system when emailing within your own organization, but what about when you need to contact or introduce yourself to a global client or counterpart? What about when you’re managing a multicultural team?
The reality is that the American email prototype isn’t a model for all global cultures, many of which perceive the direct style of American writing as impolite or even abrupt. With email as one of the primary modes of business communication, with more than 250 billion sent daily, it’s easy for lines to become crossed when communicating across cultures. What are the solutions?
CREATING CULTURAL ALLIANCES
New research from Stanford and Cornell academics reveals that certain country cultures tend to correspond via email more intensively due to economic and cultural similarities. Even geographically distant cultures tend to coalesce based on commonalities that facilitate easier communication. Factors such as language and gross domestic product — as well as cultural dimensional traits like individualism, masculinity and how power is distributed in a society — all influence international communication.
These implicit characteristics will ring a bell to anyone familiar with social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s research on cultural dimensions and their impact on global management. It seems they also affect our email habits. So to effectively communicate across cultural, linguistic and geographical lines, it’s important to consider how we format our email according to various cultural standards.
Conducting due diligence in email communication will build trust, inspire respect and build long-lasting relationships in a globalized world.
CRAFTING THE PERFECT INTERNATIONAL EMAIL
Even the most culturally savvy professionals can be blindsided by a forgotten courtesy or neglected cultural nuance. To make sure that you’re corresponding with global clients and colleagues appropriately, follow these guidelines for a polished email that keeps the conversation going:
Be sure to include a subject line, with at least two to three words summarizing what will be included in the email. Avoid using “Hi” or “Hey,” as this vague subject line may cause the recipient to ignore the email altogether as potential spam.
When working with time-conscious cultures such as Germany, Israel and Switzerland, include the level of urgency in the subject line. Some good examples include adding “Action Needed” for important projects and “Action Required” for timely projects.
When addressing the email, use proper titles — according the contemporary customs of the recipient’s culture. As with “Miss” and “Ms.” in the United States, in France the form of address “Mademoiselle” has almost been phased out in favor of the more respectful “Madame.”
Avoid beginning your email with “Hi” or “Hey.” This lacks professionalism in nearly every country. Consider beginning your email with “Dear” or “Greetings.” If you’re using time-sensitive greetings, consider the recipient’s time zone so you avoid wishing your Chinese client a good morning when it’s already close to midnight in Beijing.
In direct cultures like the United States, it’s best to reintroduce yourself before getting to the main part of your email. Restate your name and organization. Conversely, in indirect cultures, do your homework to understand modern practices in the receiving country. For instance, it’s popular in Japan to ask about the weather in your email introduction. Directly introducing yourself without pleasantries is perceived as rude and abrupt to the Japanese.
Don’t be a jerk. Humor is culture-specific, so do your due diligence based on location and customs. Most jokes will only be funny and inoffensive to those with similar cultural views. If the punchline is rooted in Western culture, your joke will likely fall flat. Also note that sarcasm rarely comes through in email — instead, attempts at sarcasm or irony may translate as flippancy or a jab.
When scheduling a meeting or setting dates with a global counterpart, research their country’s date format. For example, in China the date is written as “Year/Month/Day”; in some European and Latin countries it is written as “Day/Month/Year.” In the United States, it is written as “Month/Day/Year.”
Consider time notation. Many countries keep time on the 24-hour clock rather than the 12-hour clock used in the United States.
Close the email professionally. If you’ve prepared the email correctly up to this point, wrap things up like a pro. In international emails, use closing phrases or words such as “Kind regards,” “Kindest regards,” “Best regards” or “Sincerely.”
Although there’s no perfect universal formula, conducting due diligence and mastering cultural excellence in email communication will build trust, inspire respect and build long-lasting relationships in a globalized world.
About the Author
Sharon Schweitzer, JD, is the Founder of Access to Culture, an award-winning entrepreneur and a cross-cultural trainer accredited in intercultural management. She provides practical techniques to improve communication and increase revenue and has traveled to 75 countries and all 7 continents. Her Access to Asia is an Amazon bestseller and was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She won the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Austin Business Awards.LinkedIn