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Email across cultures: more do’s and dont’s

Wednesday January 13th, 2016

Blog 2 of 2. In today’s work environment, ‘email’ is equivalent to ‘conversation’. The medium is not of relevance, as long as we can reach out to others to get things done. In trainings about cross-cultural communication, the issue of email often comes up. This blog is the second one in a series of two on the do’s and don’t’s of writing emails in an intercultural context (for part I, click here).

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7.  What do they say, and what do they want to say

In many cultures like most Asian cultures, India, but also France and to some extent the UK, communication is indirect: implicit messages are sent, where the receiver is expected to properly decode the message. This form of communication maintains harmony and avoids confrontation, however, it also creates confusion as not all cultures share the same context. One should even assume that receivers from low-context cultures (like The Netherlands, Finland and Israel) are often unable to ‘read between the lines’. This is not unwillingness, they simply are not used to interpret the context. So when from a low-context culture yourself, you should read mails and ask yourself “What do they want to say?”. When from a high-context culture, the best advice is to practice indirect and explicit communication. In trainings, I often do this with participants, and for many this is hard. How often did you receive a mail with the last sentence “Please follow up.” Often, this is not an order to do something with the mail, but a way to say “Please be informed of the content of this message”.

8.  Keep it short and simple

Although this anyway is a good advice in whatever form of communication, especially in a cross-cultural context all communicators should learn to be ‘short and to-the-point’. Email is not the medium to give lengthy explanations, and certainly not to convince others with a long monologue. The communication channel loses effectiveness when too much is said. Remember also the message in point 7: receivers from high-context cultures will actively try to interpret every message you send. Keeping your message short reduces the probability of wrong interpretations. When native English yourself, realize that the reader of the message does not pick up the subtleties in your language that for you are common: use simple language.

  1. Formal, diplomatic, informal, direct?

When you are used to diplomatic and harmonious forms of communication, the message “Your argument does not make sense. I disagree” comes across as blunt. When you are more familiar with direct communication, any communication that is diplomatic and formal sounds inefficient, bombastic or even suspicious to you (“What does he try to hide?”). First put yourself in the shoes of the receiver of your message, and only then start writing your mail. Your aim is to be effective: sometimes diplomacy is the key to effectiveness, and sometimes directness is. Make a choice.

  1. What subordinates do with the boss’ email

How people deal with hierarchy is different across the world. Somebody from a high power-distant culture like Korea, France or India will see a message from a superior as ‘the truth’; subordinates are expected to do what the boss says, and not question the person. In a low power-distant culture like The Netherlands, Sweden or Norway, everybody is expected to be heard, and subordinates can question the opinion (or even the authority) of the boss. When from a high power-distant culture yourself, know that people will not question you. When you write “Don’t you think we should do A?” the answer will be “Yes, A is a good idea”. Even when it’s not.

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11. Task or relationship?

In task-based cultures like Germany, the US and The Netherlands, you should get to the point quickly. Ideally, the first sentence of your mail says what you want. Although this is a good idea in any culture, fact is that in most cultures of the world people value the relationship just as much – and sometimes even more – than the content. This does not mean your mail should become an endless inquiry about personal matters. Please not. But it is good advice to ensure that a few things in your mail are personal, and show that you value the relationship. Emoticons can be of great help here, as they are universal, and bring a personal note. Use them 1-2 times max in an email, otherwise you won’t be taken very serious, no matter what culture you work with :-). In relationship cultures like many countries in the Middle-East, Africa, mediterranean Europe and Latin America, consider to follow-up your email with a call. Occasionally, it can be a good idea to send one mail with the formal content of your message (this will be forwarded to others and end up in archives), followed-up by a personal note. Finally, know that emotions are hard to express in words. When you decide to include statements about your emotional state (“I was disappointed to read your email”), know that they run a high risk of being interpreted wrongly.

  1. Signature

Certainly in hierarchical cultures, people value your formal title. When communicating with Germans or Japanese, ensure that your title is directly under your name in the signature, such that people know your formal position (and hence your status, power etc.). In egalitarian cultures where hierarchy plays a smaller role, there’s nothing wrong with stating your job title, but keep it short (often: ‘product manager’ will do, rather than product manager followed by all responsibilities you hold). In emails, keep signatures short. Your email address is already on top of your message, your office address will hardly be used by anyone, and one phone number will do. Stay away from interesting quotes, philosophical thoughts and poems in your signature: they irritate and don’t add any value except for yourself.

 

These rules are no ‘golden rules’ that always should be followed. Rather, use the list as a checklist. Re-read your mail before sending, and just ask yourself two simple questions: 1) how will this mail come across to others? and 2) is that effective?

And although we all know email can be an effective medium, when used in the wrong way it can be a source of stress and annoyance. So the final question to ask yourself before sending a mail should always be: “What if I would not send this?”

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