Babel: Perfecting the art of your international emails

woman reading email

In these days of email and instant messaging, writing well-structured messages to inform, guide and influence readers can be a minefield. Furthermore, email etiquette across countries can vary widely. Read Babel's blog for pointers to take into consideration when writing an email to a non-native recipient.

Babel writes:

In certain countries, email correspondence is expected to be highly formal, whilst in other countries it is expected to be a friendly conversation. It can be difficult to know how to address your international colleagues so here’s our guide for perfecting your international email etiquette.

Firstly, is your recipient reading your email on a smartphone or PC? According to the IBM Watson Marketing 2018 Marketing Benchmark Report nearly half (49.1%) of all emails are read on mobile devices throughout the world. The UK continues to have the highest mobile readership at 62.9%, almost double that of Latin America & Caribbean at 31.4%.

Desktop usage remains the highest in North America, with Canada at 30.5% and the US at 19.0%. Americans love to multitask with email. They check email while watching TV or a movie (69%), in bed (57%), and on vacation (79%). A quarter of Americans report checking email regularly right up until they go to bed, with 3% actually getting up in the middle of the night to check messages. Given Americans use email so much, they keep their messages very short and to the point when related to business. Americans see this as being efficient or productive, yet these types of emails can be perceived by others as rude and thoughtless. For example, Italians like to share personal situations, feelings, references to family etc in a work communication. They also love to start (mostly informal) emails with something funny, like “Here I am again!” or something similar.

China, India, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia top the world’s rankings for number of smartphone users. Here, the recipients are more likely to be reading your email on a smartphone. Be sure to structure your text with a concise introduction, main point, conclusion and recommendation. Maintain a simple layout, with clear paragraphs, using bullet points for lists, which can be read more easily on the small screen.

This brings us on to how formal or informal should you be in work emails? In France, you don't tend to start emails with Hi [first name] unless you are very familiar with the person. A business email starts with just 'Bonjour' and ends with 'Cordialement'. You use the formal 'vous' for 'you', you don't use emoticons or any other informal manner. The email should be short and to the point.

In The Netherlands, they like the informal American style. Use Hello [first name] or Good morning [first name] to open an email, unless you send an email to someone that you do not know and who might appreciate a more formal approach. The email itself can be to-the-point as the Dutch like to be open and direct. Clearly state what your objectives are, what you expect, what you will do etc. in active sentences. They don't want to be distracted by a long story before the email gets to the key message.

In China, people state their names with their surname first, followed by their given name. It would be rude to call someone only by their last name, so remember to switch the order before adding a title (Mr, Ms, etc). (However, Chinese people will sometimes pre-emptively use the Western format when emailing Western companies, which leads to confusion – so when in doubt about someone’s name, politely enquire). While many British or Americans see emoticons as unprofessional, younger Chinese generally don’t. Internal and external emails might include these to come across more friendly.

Moving on, consider how you frame your requests, proposals or objections. This is a particular issue when it comes to giving instructions, eg from a boss to someone in their team. British bosses tend to use polite requests language like “It would be a great help if you could…” and “If at all possible…”, whereas Americans use language that more clearly means “You have to…”, even if the language is much more polite (“Would you…?”, “I’d like you to…”, etc).

Elsewhere, politeness, modesty and humility are key for saving face. For example, if you're asking an Asian partner a question or a favour, you should thoroughly acknowledge the effort it will require for them to help you, and apologise accordingly. Use phrases like "Sorry to interrupt you while you are busy" or "I'm terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but thank you.”

Filipinos will often show respect to someone of an equal or superior business rank by speaking or writing in the passive voice, as in "The rest of the information will be sent tomorrow" versus "I will send you the rest of the information tomorrow". Generally, people only use the active voice when communicating with those of lower rank.

India is also a country that is less direct in terms of language and communication. This comes across as a lack of assertiveness or not being willing to respond in a concise way. Whilst it may not be a problem to say “Your report is wrong” in some cultures, Indians typically adopt a less confrontational approach, by saying “We may have to do this again” or “We should find a better way of doing this”. Equally, you are unlikely to receive any direct declines from Indians. People may include a "maybe" or "yes, but" to imply "no" without actually saying it. This allows both parties to "save face" an important cultural concept where both parties avoid an embarrassment that could come from a refusal. For your Indian colleagues, we recommend framing your request by using the right questions to avoid yes/no answers. Do not ask "Can you do that?” rather ask "How would you do that?"

Emails have become so omnipresent that they’re often sent off quickly, without thought for how they might be received at the other end. Whenever communication crosses cultural boundaries, even small gestures of respect to norms can be important. It’s too easy for emails to be misinterpreted, so if time permits, set up a video chat or a one-on-one meeting to check understanding and build relationships. In these days of multi-cultural team-working remember the moment you lose trust it’s very difficult to get it back.

Inspired?  Request sample course outlines for our Business & General English language course and Writing Skills for Business Personal Impact course.  You may also wish to read our Case Study Business English: Accent Modification & Writing Skills.

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Babel delivers language training in all major world languages, coaches delegates to be culturally competent in their global roles, briefs expats for starting new jobs overseas and helps create high-performing remote teams.