email étiquette

Before Hitting the Send Key


What you Need to Know about Cross-Cultural Emailing

Cultural understanding can make or break any team, but especially an international one. Cultural misunderstandings can drive irreparable wedges in relationships. Not only is it important in avoiding potentially expensive and embarrassing blunders but it is also important in building cohesive teams.

When reading the emails of people from different cultures, we do not have the luxury of being able to read their body language as we do face-to-face; therefore the precise meaning of their words is extremely important. This difficulty is amplified when the emailer is from a culture different from your own. Understanding the cultural context of their words is essential to your overall understanding of intent.

How Email Varies from Country to Country

First, be aware that people differ—that we don‘t all have the same perspectives, nor the same assumptions about actions and behaviors. What is polite and assumed in one country isn’t necessarily so in another. For example, Americans generally shoot off many emails quickly and casually, and are generally straight to the point; however, in much of Africa and South America,  it would be considered rude not to add a personal touch and to get down to business right away. Additionally, in countries like Germany, there are clearly delineated formal rules for business emails.

Language Pitfalls

It is paramount to be mindful of potentially confusing idioms, jargon, or too much slang. For Americans, this might mean avoiding phrases like “bite the bullet,” which might be taken too literally by nonnative speakers.

Confusion can occur even between native English speakers from different countries. For example, in the U.K., “To table the discussion” in the parliamentary sense is to lay a topic on the speaker’s table for discussion, while in the U.S. “to table the discussion” means to postpone it until later.

Many countries — but not all — love to use sports references in business–everything will be a “homerun.” People from countries where sports analogies are not the norm may wonder why they have to run home or devine no meaning from a “sticky wicket” reference — it is all but meaningless to those unfamiliar with the sport of cricket.

Generally, to avoid language misunderstanding, make what you think is implicit explicit. Double-check your wording for idiomatic phrases that may not be universally understood.  Don’t assume that your reader understands your metaphors or analogies.

Differences in Culture

Of course language is just a manifestation of the differences in cultures. There are High and Low Context cultures. In High Context cultures, messages have very little meaning without an understanding of the surrounding context. France is very high context culture–you need to understand the culture in order to understand the intent. While a non-French speaker may think they are being friendly by putting “merci” at the end of their email, to a French speaker it is a passive aggressive “thank you–now go forth and do my bidding.”

On the other hand, in Low Context cultures the meaning lies mostly in the message itself. In many English speaking countries, for example, as well as countries like Germany, Norway, or Sweden there is less need to read between the lines, as from a young age they are taught to say what they mean and communicate directly. However, a “yes” in a high-context culture like Japan does not imply a firm commitment but generally means “Yes, I understand.”

If email is the only point of contact you have with someone, and they commit a cultural faux pas, it can be harder to overlook and overcome when all that is seen is the email address and not the person behind that address.

It’s important to know what is appropriate to say and do given a person’s position within the company. Integral to this understanding is Power Distance–which anthropologist Geert Hofstede defines as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. In a Large Power Distance country, the distance between bosses and their subordinates is liable to be more significant, and must be especially observed.  For example, in many Asian cultures, subordinates are more deferential to their bosses and authority, so be careful not to address bosses in a too familiar manner.  On the other hand, in low distance countries like the Netherlands and the U.K., bosses are seen as more approachable “equals” and language may feel somewhat disrespectful or mutinous, if you are in a leadership position receiving communications, as it may be far less deferential than you may be accustomed to.

When emailing to Large Power Distance countries, bosses may need to give permission to subordinates, so they should not be contacted directly. At the very least, the supervisor should be CC’d in the email.

While acknowledging differences in manners and values be careful not to overgeneralize. These are people too, working within their own cultural context of assumptions and predispositions, just we as you are. Not all Americans eat fast food in the slowlane of the highway (credit: the late George Carlin). Be careful not to attribute one action of one person to an entire country.

To mitigate problems of traversing different cultures, be as overt as possible with your intentions. Assume benevolence and don’t assume that actions you find hostile to be ill-intended. Whenever possible ask for clarification! This is a trust building opportunity!

Once you learn how other cultures interact, you’ll see how stereotypes about “rudeness” and other misunderstandings just melt away.

Readers: Please share any experiences you have had with emailing or communicating with people from cultures other than your own! Thank you!

Electronic Body Language — Beyond Etiquette!


When most of us hear the term “Electronic Body Language”, we think about being polite, clear, and concise in our electronic communications so that each message is received as intended. We think about email etiquette.

While this certainly matters, the bigger picture is the underlying assumptions that people make about YOU based on your virtual behaviors.  As technology replaces many face-to-face interactions, the ability to accurately interpret virtual behaviors is quickly becoming an essential workplace skill.  And yet, we tend to interact with others through virtual communications without much awareness (or concern) of the impressions we are making.

Our Electronic Body Language is our virtual presence – the judgements about competence and credibility we make about others, and vise versa, based on virtual habits.

The opportunities for misinterpretation transcend email etiquette. Consider the following:

  • What assumptions do we make about someone who doesn’t reply to an email, or who doesn’t capitalize or spell check?
  • What does it say about someone who shouts into a speaker-phone during a teleconference meeting (or who can’t seem to figure out how to “mute” and “unmute” properly?)
  • What happens to our confidence in a leader who can’t facilitate a virtual meeting well?
  • Does knowing highly personal information posted on social media sites about a colleague impact how you work together or your expectations about what that person can accomplish?

There are two distinct viewpoints to consider when setting out to align your true professional self and your projected virtual self.

  1. You must understand your audience and the associated distances between you and them with regards to geography, generation, culture, and job position.
  2. You must develop excellent virtual work skills and habits to avoid behaviors that impede the projection of your true self.

For example, if you are leading an offshore engineering team based in India, you must understand the different power structure in order to effectively communicate critical information like project scheduling.  Culturally, in India, people are highly deferential to authority and are unlikely to challenge your schedule, even if they see problems with it.  Knowing how to effectively communicate virtually with this team will be critical to the success of your project.  You may be aware of this distance in a theoretical manner, but you must also learn how to apply it in your day-to-day virtual communications.

When you lead a team that meets virtually and you are constantly scrambling for call-in information, or are constantly sending incorrect information because your team is spread out over time zones, then you are presenting yourself as disorganized (at best), or lacking commitment or competency (at worst).  On a more subtle level, if you do not know how to interpret and manage silence in a virtual meeting, your meeting is not going to be a productive as it should be and, again, you are going to project an image that is not flattering.

You are the right person for the task at hand, and the best candidate for the leadership role you aspire to (or have).  When you develop and maintain solid virtual behaviors then your Electronic Body Language will accurately reflect how amazing you are, and will be an asset to your overall career development.

Consider your own Electronic Body Language.  What is something you have noticed or changed that could help someone else?


What is Your Electronic Body Language Saying About You?

For years, office combat was waged in the open: man-to-man, woman-to-woman, woman-to-man. A boss’s crossed arms, raised hand, head nod, or arched back spoke to us in an unwritten languag that immediately relayed whether we were going to praised or buried.  Just as the subtle and not-so-subtle signals of body language contribute to your reputation, so do the nuances of virtual communication.  Collectively, these virtual nuances create your “Electronic Body Language.”

The rules of engagement have changed. More often, our main contact with peers and colleagues occurs through virtual communication.  And, at its core, an organization that relies on virtual communications carries an overall, but false, assumption — that we all share the same email standards of etiquette.  As emails are misunderstood and co-workers are offended, productivity and team cohesivenss  declines.  These misunderstandings are often the result of poorly communicated electronic body language and they lead people to develop an unfavorable impression of you.

Our research has brought a few salient points to light:

  • Over 40% of respondents check their email immediately when notified of a new message.  Given that it takes the average person 12 minutes to reengage in a task, this might explain a corresponding finding — that the majority of respondents feel that the volume of their email prevents them from completing their job.
  • Nearly all respondents feel “slighted” when someone takes too long to respond to an email that they sent.  However, when asked how long it took to become slighted, answers ranged fom two hours to one week.
  • 28% said that less than “one in four” office emails left them with a positive impression and/or motivated them to want to work harder with that person.

Traditionally, work relationships developed in a meeting environment. Visual cues helped fill gaps between words and their intended meaning. But in the virtual arena, without the benefit of these visual clues, the communications themselves take on added importance.  Believe me, people are still gathering data and forming opinions on your competence, style, gender, nationality, temperament, attitude, and so on.  Chances are, you’re basically a pretty great person, but if you aren’t careful, your electronic body language may be sending a very different message.

Understanding and appreciating your group’s attitudes around the use of technology is an important first step to deflect misunderstandings. For some managers, staff members who receive a significant number of emails or are frequently interrupted in meetings are unconsciously seen as important “go-to” colleagues.

In other situations, employees who are constantly available and quick to respond to emails are viewed as highly productive. In these office settings, high performance is inadvertently based on communication habits, not necessarily standard metrics. Yet few companies are explicitly aligning these habits with desired outcomes. A supervisor, for example, who asks to be “cc’d” on all emails conveys conflicting messages to his staff relative to work flow and undermines trust.

Managers are beginning to understand how electronic body language can work for them — how they can inspire colleagues and staff to put the needs of the team above those of fires burning in closer proximity. Often this means developing explicit rules of engagement for interactions and communications, understanding the unintended consequences of email or an invite to a meeting, and making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.

If used effectively, electronic body language can motivate employees and colleagues to work effectively, instill creativity and to inspire confidence. The key is adopting policies that are universally understood and which genuinely reflect the company culture.

By identifying what we find acceptable, rude, professional and effective, good managers can improve team interaction and can manage the diverse standards applied inconsistently across individuals, functions, organizations, geographies, and cultures. Electronic body language will expose the unintended consequences of information overload and pose a visible and real deterrent to organizational fatigue.

Question for readers:  What steps do you take to project your true electronic body language?

"Replyallcalpyse" or "The Day NYU Broke"

It was bound to happen.

Every single one of us has accidentally sent an email somewhere, for whatever reason, and suffered through the unintended consequences.  But likely none of us quite so spectacularly as NYU sophomore Max Wiseltier.

Poor Max thought he was forwarding an email to his mom asking for help on a new paperless tax form request from the university’s bursar’s office.

What he, in fact, did, was click “reply all” and PRESTO, BAM-O, his message hit the inbox of every single one of his fellow students — all 39,979 of them!  Yikes!

As realization dawned, Max fired off a quick apology, but it was too late.  His errant message “triggered a rare, University-wide revelation,” wrote Kelly Weill in NYU Local.  “We simultaneously realized that any message, complaint, whim, link, video, or GIF could be sent to nearly 40,000 people in an instant.”

And the messages flew:

“Does anyone have a pencil I can borrow?” asked one.

“I want us all to be happy,” said another.

“Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses, or 1 horse-sized duck?” posed yet another.

That was just the beginning.  Many students took the opportunity to send out Nicolas Cage photos (in both regular and crazy).

Weill continues, “We had been given a great and terrible power.  For a moment we contemplated responsibility, then gleefully tossed it aside in favor of posting pictures of cats.”

The culprit, ultimately, was a poorly managed listserv.  Apologies were made, lists updated, all ended well.

As you go about your daily email today, take a little extra caution around that “reply all” button.  You never know what havoc you may wreak.

Share your funny / tragic “reply all” story!