5 Major Pitfalls Of International Email Communication

International Email Communication shrinks the distance that global work brings. However, intercultural differences can amplify the risk and the impact of misunderstandings. Let's look at five major pitfalls when communicating across cultures by email.
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1 – What Comes First?

Cultures differ in their approaches to structuring arguments and using logic to persuade. Always consider whether you should have the main idea at the top of your email text or put it later after giving supporting background details. The headline-first approach used in the USA or Germany may not work in cultures that want to know the why before the what and how. Depending on your recipient’s culture, your email structure may need to change.

If you are not sure what to do, try writing your major points at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of your email. So everyone will find them where they expect them to be. Use lots of transitional phrases, such as “Let me start with a quick overview of my main points”, “Let me summarise my main points once more”, “Again, I would like to stress that”

2 – How Does “Urgent” Look?

If something is considered urgent, people from cultures with a direct communication style might write more explicitly than usual. They will express the urgency and importance of their email verbally. An email is often declared as high-priority, or the subject line is written in capital letters. In addition, emails marked as urgent or important suggest a very high level of commitment on the sender’s and the receiver’s sides. A prompt reply is expected.

In other cultures, however, business people will express the urgency of a matter through multiple repetitions. On the one hand, the essential points are repeated several times within the text of the email. On the other hand, several emails with a similar content are sent one after the other. Repetition equals urgency or importance.

And then there are cultures who write very vague emails or do not answer them at all. Don’t they have a sense of urgency? Yes, they do. But they might consider email as the wrong way to communicate after all. Especially in strongly relationship-oriented cultures, emails are relatively unimportant. Urgent information is therefore never sent by email. If something is urgent or important, you should pick up the phone and have a personal conversation.

Furthermore, only if you are considered a close contact, and only if there is an excellent personal relationship, will someone make the effort to respond to your urgent or important matters. On the other hand, if the personal relationship is not good, matters related to you are never considered as important. So, the closer your personal relationship, the higher is the likelihood and the speed of response in business communication.

Work on building up a good relationship first. Then explain yourself, and you will be heard. If you have a deadline to meet, tell why a quick response is vital to you. People will then be happy to do you the personal favour and reply as quickly as possible.

Last but not least, there are cultures where the communication works better face-to-face or over video because body language and non-verbal communications carry a great weight. In that case, it also may not be advisable to send your urgent points via email. The written word can never sufficiently express the urgency. 

3 – Pay Attention To Directness

When it comes to disagreement in international email communication, cultures vary in how directly or indirectly they write. An email reply that sounds angry or abrupt may be typical of colleagues with a more direct communication style. If that is not your communication style, consider how your counterpart might have intended the message and give them the benefit of the doubt. You may come across similar to a colleague from another culture where disagreement is even less open.

Always take into consideration your cultural norms regarding directness in your international email communication. To be on the safe side, always refrain from using very critical words in emails. Friendly remarks have a better chance of success in all cultures around the world.

4 – Who To Include?

In cultures with a strong sense of hierarchy, you have to be careful whom to send your email to. Is this the right leve of hierarchy to write to about this specific matter? If not, you will not get an answer. In many countries, it is not common to forward emails to other people and certainly not higher up in the hierarchy.

In some cases, it can be helpful to CC higher-ups so that your contact will devote more time to your email and answer it. On the other hand, leaving off someone part of a reporting chain may be seen as a slight against them. So make sure to include everyone. This is particularily important in consensus-oriented cultures where many players are involved in any decision-making process – meaning the list who gets cc’ed will be long and their response time too!

5 – No Answer Is An Answer too

Whether a business contact does or does not reply to an email in due course could have many other reasons too. For example, if your business partner or colleague does not respond at all, consider that your interpersonal relationship has suffered.

Maybe the receiver of your email does not want to do what you are asking. The lack of response is a means of indirect communication: Writing “no” would be rude, not answering means “no”.

Or your counterpart does not yet know the answer and will respond once the facts are more evident. The silence is a means of communication on the factual level: Without accurate information, I cannot and will not reply. Therefore, it would be a waste of time to write to you that I don’t know yet.

The key to effective international email communication is to think from the perspective of the other party. Learn about the recipient’s culture and how they communicate. Identify what is similar to how you communicate in your culture and what is different to avoid potential landmines when sending and reading emails.

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