E-mail Across Borders: Three and a Half Secrets of International Email

Anyone who has worked with other people in other cultures is aware that emails across borders sometimes have unexpected results or even no result. To address this issue people sometimes focus on visible details, like how to begin and end messages, but the real problems are deeper. This means they are less evident but let you predict how people will react in many different situations. The good news is that most problems are all caused by just three basic differences. Understand these concepts and you can make your international email communications more effective.

1. DIFFERENT ATTITUDES TO HIERARCHY: in some cultures hierarchy is very strong, so there tends to be a greater distance between managers and employees. In these cultures you must remember to keep bosses in the loop by copying them on mails and you should not address mails to people in other departments without going through the hierarchy. Breaking these rules can cause offense and maybe low level people will be afraid to answer you. This type of hierarchical organization is common in Asia and the Middle East. In other cultures the hierarchy is much flatter, so direct mails are acceptable and the boss does not expect to be copied. This is the style favored in north European countries and the USA. When sending mails upwards in a hierarchical society you also need to be careful with the tone; even a suggestion to do something can be offensive coming from someone low in the organization. For this reason sometimes it is better to hint indirectly at something.

2. DIRECTNESS IN COMMUNICATION: In a few cultures -- mainly the US and some European countries -- people are very direct in all communications, saying almost what they mean explicitly in words. In the rest of the world people are all less direct and typically hint at meanings or leave things unsaid that they believe will be understood from the context. The problem in international email is that a direct message can be perceived as rude by an indirect person, while an indirect message might not be understood. In practice this means that if you are direct you need to be alert for "hidden" messages in mails from indirect people; if you are indirect be aware that the apparent rudeness of mails from direct people is not intended. Sometimes, though, the problem is not with the way you ask for something but the thing itself.

3. ATTITUDES TO RULES & SCHEDULES: Some cultures prioritize written rules and schedules, while others prioritize relationships with other people. In practice this means that if you are asking a rule/schedule person to do something it makes sense to send a list of deadlines and ask them to follow it. If you are working with someone who prioritizes relationships it is more effective to get to know the other person then ask them -- preferably by phone -- to do it for you. This personal request will resonate more than an appeal to a written schedule. North America and northern Europe tends to be more on the side of written rules and schedules, while the rest of the world is mostly the other way.

3.5 READING WITH CULTURE GOGGLES: the one concept to rule the others is the idea that you should read incoming emails very calmly, taking the time to understand what is meant. Look at everything through the eyes of someone from the other culture and interpret it in that light. If you see something that looks wrong or offensive ask for a clarification instead of getting angry, because maybe no offense was meant.

With just these three and a half concepts your email can become much more effective and much less stressful, but to master the art even more fully consider training or coaching in intercultural communications. For people working in multicultural businesses one day spent mastering the basics of intercultural communication is an investment that pays in productivity and efficiency.

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 andrewhennigan.com contact me by mail at conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.


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