Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email

A few days ago I wrote about some less than obvious ways that culture can impact your meetings (Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings). Since that was so popular here are three equally unexpected ways in which cultural differences can derail an email exchange.

RISKY REMINDERS. Depending on where you come from you might think that sending reminders is a sensible, practical idea, but this is far from universal. In some cultures you would be expected to send a message about something long in advance of the deadline and then to send a reminder later. If you don't send the reminder people might assume that you have changed their mind and that you no longer need what you asked for. In other cultures you should send a single message with your request and then wait. If you send a reminder it might be perceived as rudeness. How do you know what to do? One way is to look at what the other person usually does. Do they send reminders or just a single message? If in doubt ask someone. Remember it is always OK to ask questions.

AWKWARD ATTACHMENTS. Be especially careful when you send emails with attachments to cultures where people are indirect speakers -- most of the world actually. The reason is that if they cannot open the file they will not say anything to avoid embarrassing you. And if you ask if the file is ok you might get a polite yes. I have seen this happen where someone sent PC files to people with UNIX workstations and the responses were odd because the recipients read only the message and not the attachment yet could not say that they had a problem. You can workaround this by asking open questions rather than ones where the answer is yes/no. For example, instead of saying "Can you open .xyz files" you can ask "What software would you use to open ".xyz" files.

DANGEROUS DISTRIBUTION LISTS. You can seriously upset people just by putting their boss or your boss in copy on a message. In strongly hierarchical cultures this is the norm, and to send a message without copying the management would be considered sneaky and somehow not correct. In cultures where hierarchy is less emphasized it is normal to send messages to a single person without copying their boss. In this case when you do copy the boss it will be perceived as an escalation and/or offensive. Again this is an easy one to get right. Just look what the other people do in their messages and do the same.


Related posts about intercultural issues:

Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching on intercultural issues.

All of these articles are based on lectures, workshops and webinars on intercultural communication and management created by the author. For more information about these visit contact me by mail at or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.


Kristen Sukalac said…
When working at a global trade association, we had e-mail issues with a president from a highly hierarchical culture. We (senior management) thought we had things covered by sending e-mails that copied our boss. But he still interpreted this as something that had not gone through the Director General. So for the duration of his presidency, we had to prepare all his e-mails to be sent by the DG's assistant in his name.
Andrew Hennigan said…
Thanks for the nice example Kristen. People from less hierarchical cultures often have problems understanding this kind of issue.

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