email protocol

Before Hitting the Send Key

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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!

5 Tips to Get Your Email Read

email symbol on row of colourful envelopes

“Did you see my email?”

“I have so much email, I haven’t had a chance,” Chris responds.  I groan on the inside.

Email remains the most popular form of business communication.  Research shows that the average business email account receives 81 messages per day, while sending 39.

There are only a handful of reasons people email each other at work, either within or without of their own organization.  As a result, the person getting your email is likely getting a lot of other, similar messages.  But your email is important, and you would prefer your answer sooner rather than later.  So, what can you do to get your message opened, read, and responded to?

1.  Start with a good subject line.

It makes a difference.  A good subject line significantly increases the chances that your message will be read.  Keep your subject line short, descriptive, and convey why your message is important to the recipient (as opposed to why it is important to you).

Consider the difference between:

“information relating to potential things in project”  and “Potential Project Delay”

or

something I’d like to talk to you about soon” and “Can I buy you breakfast tomorrow?

Stop sending emails with subjects lines containing only a form of greeting.  Please.  Unless you are Barack Obama, no one is going to read your message titled, “Hey!

2.  Begin message with the most important information first.

Get to the point and to the part that is most relevant to the recipient.  Every morning begins with scanning the inbox and pausing to read the preview pane of messages that might get opened before being deleted or ignored.

Ensuring that your critical component is in that preview pane will increase the likelihood of your message being communicated.  It will be refreshing for your recipient to not have to read a big long explanation while searching for your point.  Make your point first, and provide whatever background information or explanation you feel is necessary below.

3.  Be brief.  Use bullets.

When providing background information for your main point, strive to make your points in bullet form, rather than long sentences.  If you must use a lot of language, and email is your only true option, then write as briefly as possible and incorporate plenty of breaks so it looks like you are sending less.  White space (breaks between paragraphs) make it easier to read and less intimidating.  If your message is too long, it might get “saved” for that elusive “later”.

For example:

  • Use bullets.

  • Long sentences are too much work for reader.

  • Write brief sentences.

  • Break up text to create white space.

4.  Consider your recipient.

There are, (gasp!), other forms of communication available to you.  You may prefer email, but be aware that everyone doesn’t share your affinity.  Your goal is to get your message heard.  If the recipient is known for not reading and responding to email, then why send an email?  Find out what they prefer, and contact them that way.

5.  Develop your Reputation

Become known as someone who:

  • Is responsive to email messages that you receive.

  • Adds value to the conversation.

  • Is respectful of people’s time and doesn’t send unnecessary or hard-to-read messages.

People respond more quickly to others who respond to them. If you are known for never reading or responding to your email, why should someone take the time to read yours?

 

Do What You Say. Say What You Mean.

When you work with others primarily through email (or text or IM), instead of eye to eye, saying ‘no’ becomes easier.  Saying ‘yes’ becomes easier, too.  Tapping out excuses on your keyboard is exponentially easier than making the same excuse in person (right?!)

Most people aren’t even aware of the promises they are making and breaking countless times each day.

So, Stop!

Right now.

Make the decision to be more thoughtful in your electronic communications.

Pause before saying no.

Pause before saying yes — don’t commit to something unless you are certain you can follow through.

Do what you say you’re going to do.  Every single time.

Let others know as quickly as you can to renegotiate deadlines when you can’t.

Whether you notice how easily you make and break promises or not, it is guaranteed that others do.  Your reputation is being shaped and refined each time, and reputation is everything to continued success when working from home.

Keep your promises (even the ones you make to yourself).

Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. — Abraham Lincoln

Does more email mean you are MORE important?

“Were you copied on Steve’s email?”

“Did you see what she wrote?”

“I have over 100 emails just from this morning!”

These are the informal conversations that take place in the central locations — the true power hubs of any organization — where the corporate culture is defined and reinforced.

We’ve worked with many companies for the specific purpose of reducing email volume only to discover that their corporate culture, subliminally, uses email as an indicator of a person’s value.  The more email you have and generate, the more valuable you are viewed within the organization.

We worked with one leader and her team to reduce the overall email volume between her, her team, and external team contacts.  As her team learned exactly what her expectations were regarding email, she was copied on fewer messages.  Without so much email to wade through, she got more work done and responded quicker to her team’s needs.  She contacted her boss and other external contacts to establish similar expectations.  Most people responded positively, and thanked her for her consideration.

Come performance review time, her boss criticized her for not communicating enough with her team and with external contacts, despite the fact that she and her team reached, and often, exceeded, goals.  Somehow, the conversation regarding email expectations had been forgotten and she received a poor performance review.

Ultimately, her review was redone after she shared the positive feedback from her team and from external contacts regarding her communication process.

It takes one team at a time to change a corporate culture.  Given the tools and opportunity, people will choose to create an environment they can thrive in by giving one another permission to change their email habits.

As you go through your work week, consider how you view email.  Is a lot of email a badge of honor, of importance?  Do you view others as more or less important, based partially, on how many times their name pops up in your inbox?  What conversations about email “load” do you hear around the proverbial water cooler and what do these conversations mean to your corporate culture?  Do you really want less email?

"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!

Save Our InBoxes!

Email overload.  It’s getting out of hand.  We spend an alarming amount of time each and every day simply responding to email messages.

Why?  And, more importantly, What can we EACH do to reduce this problem?

For years, we have been coaching people, teams, and organizations on the importance of managing email.  We have helped countless groups establish protocols that have helped to increase productivity and to unchain people from their ever-growing inboxes.

But it’s not enough.  Current research has shown that the average amount of time that each person spends during their workday on email is growing.

We need to get the word out, and here’s an excellent resource that can help you today.

It’s called the Email Charter.

The core principle in action is that every single one of us has to take responsibility for reducing the amount of time spent on email by our colleagues.  Here’s problem, as viewed through this lens:

For each email that you write, you are creating “work” for others.  Our instincts tell us it takes longer to write than to read, so reading an email should take less time than it did to write it, right?  Wrong. It takes longer to respond to an email than it does to write.  Here’s why:

When you “check your mail”, your process is more apt to be like:  scan your inbox; decide what to open; open it; read it; think about whether you need to respond or not; compose the response; edit your response; send your response.

Every time you engage in this process, you are removing yourself from your flow of work, you are diverting your attention and it takes time to regain that rhythm.

Now, think about this — every time you compose an email message, you are creating the same interruption of work for someone else.  Here are some very common email “habits” that add to the overloading of our inboxes and unnecessary consumption of our collective time:

  • Open-ended questions that are time-consuming to answer.  For example, “What are your thoughts on this?”, “How do you think we should proceed?”  Quick to ask, not-so-quick to answer.
  • “CC” – so easy to click and add multiple recipients, but each additional recipient exponentially increases the amount of time your email is consuming.
  • “FW” – forwarding and/or cutting and pasting text from other resources creates an increasing burden of time as your recipient scrolls, reads, and sorts through to find the salient points.
  • Links and videos – easy to add, but each link and video can take minutes to view.

We love the internet.  We love our email.  It takes an iron will not to linger and peruse all the wonderful, distracting nuances of the world wide web, and to share our discoveries with others, and they with us.  “Just copy a link, paste, and send … and boom, the world’s cognitive capacity takes another hit!”

All of these things contribute to the massive consumption of our work week.  We need to get it under control and we need to do so now.  I don’t recall any of my job descriptions (ever) including “checking email” as a line item, and yet, when I’m not careful, it can consume my day.