The internet, and the rise of global electronic communication, has allowed us to build bridges in business and collaborate with top talent around the world. Yet with this opportunity comes the potential for cross-cultural confusion, especially when it comes to written communication via email.
Culture is made up partly of language and behavioural norms. For example, the expectations of conversation and use of language patterns are very different in Japan than in America. How does the international business community find common ground, and how can individuals adapt to the cultural diversity of their colleagues?
Here we explore cultural differences in email communication, and offer advice for both native and non-native English writers.
English as the International Business Language
When it comes to business communications, whether face-to-face or digital, English is generally considered the international language. This makes life easier for native English speakers, though even this group needs to be aware of cross-cultural nuances, and make use of globally accepted English when emailing non-native speakers.
Yet, of the approximately 800 million English speakers across the globe, only around half use English as a first language. For the rest, English is a second or third language, or it has been learnt specifically for the purpose of conducting business.
Non-natives are faced with a greater challenge. To conduct international business effectively, it’s pretty much essential to learn English and to be able to use it in written communication. This requires a lot of skill and practice, though thankfully there are tools and software programs that can reduce the risk of error.
Cultural Differences In Email
Whether you are a native or non-native English speaker, it’s still important to be aware of cultural differences among colleagues and clients. Though you will never understand the complex cultural norms of every society, a general attitude of cultural acceptance and diversity will go a long way. It’s all about respect.
When it comes to email, there are definite trends and norms across different countries, despite the use of a mutual language. For example:
- In Germany, it is normal to be forward and get straight to the point.
- In Africa and South Africa, a personal touch goes a long way.
- In some European countries, a more informal sign off like “Yours” is common.
- In China, detail is very important and nothing should be left vague.
- In Japan and Germany (among others), titles like San and Frau are important.
If you work with clients or colleagues from certain backgrounds, you may notice differences in how they communicate and be able to respond appropriately. For example, if your colleague from South America always includes a personal message in their emails, you can be sure to add the same touch of pleasantries even if it is not normal for you.
Low and High Context
One of the main ways in which you can adapt to different cultures, is by being aware of the differences between low context and high context business cultures. This concept refers to how much context and information is typically required in written communication.
In low context cultures, such as the USA, England, Germany and Israel, written communication tends to be task-based. Email is seen as a quick and easy way to convey an idea or update a project, and has little to do with building relationships. The core values at work here are time, productivity and directness. Emails are expected to get right down to business.
In high context cultures, such as China, India, Japan, the Middle East and Spain, emails tend to be about making a connection and building favourable business relationships. Typically, business people from these countries use more pleasantries and detail, and personal touches are valued.
This means that:
- People from low context cultures may be overwhelmed by the detail and occasional informalities of those from high context cultures, and may need to read between the lines to pick out the key information that they are used to seeing.
- People from high context cultures may find low context emails rude and frustrating. They will need to remember that this directness is not meant to be offensive, and may need to be more explicit and direct themselves when messaging back.
For example, a person from a low context culture may find directly asking for a signed contract perfectly acceptable. However, a person from a high context culture receiving this message could perceive it as lacking respect, and thus a relationship risks being damaged. Being aware of this key difference in written communication will allow you to sidestep many of the problems that can arise during cross-cultural messaging.
Strategies For A Global English
Back to the common business language. With poor email writing leading to a toxic workplace, how can both non-native and native English speakers improve their written communication with colleagues and clients around the world? Here are a few tips:
- Use a global version of English that is practical and purposeful. Make use of general business and commercial terms, whilst avoiding slang and technical jargon. If you are a native speaker, avoid references and attitudes that are specific to English or North American life.
- Don’t use phrases and idioms when other people might not understand them. “Letting the cat out of the bag” might make sense in the UK, but to other cultures it could be taken too literally. Sarcasm and humour are also too risky and open to interpretation.
- Make an effort to keep emails simple and clear to avoid misunderstanding.
- Be aware of international formatting standards. The date 10/2/18 means October 2nd in the USA, and 10th February elsewhere in the world. To avoid confusion, write out the full word for months and dates.
- Observe time zones and culturally-specific holidays. If your colleagues or clients are half a day ahead or behind, then prompt response on your behalf is needed. Otherwise, there could be a working day between each correspondence. Acknowledge emails out of respect to prevent serious time delays. When scheduling meetings, use international time formats such as UTC +2.
Adapting to English as the global business language is harder work for non-natives, but no matter where you come from you need to be aware of the subtle differences between cultures.
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