Without the ease and speed of email, it’s hard to say whether business would have become as global as it is today. Global virtual teams would have trouble getting by without it. Sending an email is so quick and easy that it all but eliminates the time zone and geographic barriers faced when conducting international business. It’s no wonder email is among the most common forms of business communication around the world!
But consider this: that also means emails are among the most common form of intercultural communication for global virtual teams. And unfortunately, emails can be easy to misinterpret—especially because we don’t always take the time to perfect email messages as we would with a more formal document or presentation. They’re often sent in a hurry, leaving little time to consider how they’ll be interpreted by the recipient. Intercultural communication can be hard in the best of circumstances, so whether you’re “selling” to an international business prospect or working on a project with your global virtual team, it’s important to know how to bridge cultural differences to effectively convey your messages.
A German businessperson, for example, may respond better to a succinct and formal email that only pertains to the task at hand. However, a professional in Africa or Latin America might find the same email rudely brief, preferring to share some personal messages before getting down to business.
As you can see, emails may be easy to send but it’s not always easy for global virtual team members to convey their messages effectively across cultures. Here are four tips to improve your cross-cultural email skills.
Err On the Side of Formality
People from different cultures tend to have different expectations about how they prefer to be addressed. With this in mind, try to stay on the formal side during an initial email exchange with someone you don’t know—especially if you’re unsure of the recipient’s gender. To avoid making a potentially embarrassing mistake, simply use the greeting “Dear …” with their first name and last names to avoid having to use Mr., Ms., Frau, Herr, etc. That way, you can address your counterpart with respect while avoiding the risk of using the wrong title.
Keep it Simple
If you’re emailing someone who speaks your native language as a second language, be sure to prevent confusion by using simple sentences and avoiding unnecessary jargon and acronyms. Refrain from using sports metaphors or other cultural colloquialisms that they may struggle to understand, too. If an American tells the Chinese colleagues on her global team that they really “hit it out of the park” with their assignment last week, they may feel more confused than complimented.
Be as Specific as Necessary
Individuals from Asian cultures, like China or Japan, tend to be high-context communicators. This means that they’re more likely to expect emails to be very detailed. Remember this when you compose your messages and your exchanges should go much more smoothly, since recipients will be less likely to follow up with questions. Of course, your global team may include members from cultures more used to low-context communication, too. But even if you have some Scandinavian folks on your team who don’t need as much context, providing too much information can be better than not enough.
Mind Your Time Zones
One of the most powerful characteristics of email is what experts call “asynchronous communication”—meaning your recipients aren’t reading it at the same time you’re sending it. They could read it a minute, a day, or a week later. That’s how email makes it possible to communicate with anyone, anywhere. It’s easy to forget, but important to remember, that when you communicate with someone on the opposite side of the world your message often won’t be seen until the next day. Depending on where your international business partners or global virtual team members are located, working hours might differ by a full business day—or more! If something is urgent, make sure you send a request with ample time and tell them specifically when you need a reply, including the date and time zone.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to an intercultural email exchange. But by remembering a few key considerations, you can successfully communicate across cultures whether you’re on a global virtual team or doing business with foreign contacts.