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.
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.