What are cultural differences in email communication?

Culture is such a tapestry of different pieces being brought together to create a beautiful photo. This super awesome tapestry is not exempt from working environments or even emails! In all professional settings and workplaces, sending an email professionally is a key element to communicating effectively with colleagues.
Often you will be sending an email to someone with a diverse background and communicative culture, so you should be aware of the essentials to avoid regrettable misunderstandings.

by Montanna Owens
Young businesswoman working at laptop with pleased expression
Don’t let cultural differences lead to email misunderstandings!

What are cultural differences in email communication?

Cultural differences arise all of the time, especially if you work in a diverse team or conduct business internationally. Someone can even be from the same country as you but have a completely different cultural background. This can influence the workplace because communication styles, language, words, phrases, and gestures all differ depending on the cultural background of a person. Understanding the impact of cultural differences in the workplace will help you improve your etiquette of communication in email to different colleagues. This can also bring a sense of inclusion and belonging within working teams.
  1. Address: In many cultures it is a sign of respect to acknowledge the hierarchy and address those above you with ‘Miss,’ ‘Mrs.,’ ‘Mr.,’ or ‘Dr.’ and their last name. This does differ across cultures and working cultures and is influenced by social culture as well. For example in some German companies you can call your boss and bosses by their first name only – even in writing an email professionally – while in others you can only address them formally, like in many Asian countries.
  2. Direct vs. Indirect: As you will notice in our email exercise later one, directness is valued in correspondences, in meetings, and especially in emails. Some cultures value when a message is straightforward and to the point. On the other hand, indirect communication by way of subtle and tactful messages are more appropriate in some cultures.
  3. Polite vs. Blunt: The use of polite expressions and formal language is a sign of respect for your email recipient while some cultures do not see the use of adding polite expressions and would prefer to be blunt.
  4. Context vs. Content: Tone and how something is mentioned or talked about (context) is more important than the content of the communication itself in some cultures. This is also the other way around with the content being at the forefront instead of the context and tone.
  5. Time sensitivity: Depending on the culture, responding to emails promptly could be expected of you. However, some cultures won’t place such an emphasis on the return time of your email responses.

Are cultural differences important?

There are many scenarios in which you will email with people from a different culture. Imagine you are a student and you’ve just created your professional email with mail.com. You’re writing to an international colleague, and you state the exam deadline is on 05/10/2023. Depending on the cultural background of your recipient, they can interpret your email to reference October 5, 2023 when you really meant May 10, 2023.

Let’s say you’re looking for a change and you’re sending out job applications via email. In this scenario you are from the Netherlands and the company you are applying to is in the US. The boss has responded to your application requesting an interview. You respond, “Hi John, I am available for the interview at that time. Best regards, Julian.” This brief response might shock your possible employer and you yourself might also feel a bit taken aback by how indirect the hiring manager was.

You’re fundraising for a good cause and asking for donations internationally. Knowing the cultural difference of your target audience will make sure your message is received in which it was intended which is especially important if you are writing an email in English. For example, with an American audience, it is important to express your appreciation strongly. Excessive appreciation can be shown with the use of “thank you” many times in one email. On the other side of the coin, in Scandinavian countries, the constant expression of appreciation can seem unnecessary and excessive.

Understand and empathize with the point of view of your intercultural colleague

If you prefer blunt communications but your email recipient communicates in what you consider to be an overly formal and polite manner, don’t be quick to be impatient with them. Just as their polite and indirect emails might appear as a waste of time or a bit complicated, your blunt emails might appear as rude and dismissive to them. It is important to be aware of these cultural differences in email writing in English to be able to adapt our email etiquette in communication. When emailing with people from different cultural backgrounds, you can adapt your communication style to ensure your email is culturally acceptable and appropriate.

How to write culturally acceptable emails

You might be feeling a bit overwhelmed after reading all of the ways communication preferences can differ and how they influence your relationship with your email recipient. Fret not! We have some tips for you to write culturally acceptable emails. There are some ways to make it more convenient for yourself while remaining inclusive and aware of your culturally diverse colleagues, clients, or businesses.
  1. Get to know cultural norms: Be mindful before sending an email to someone from a different cultural background. You can take a few minutes to research their cultural norms and preferred communication styles. Doing your own research will help you avoid misinterpretations or misunderstandings.
  2. Choose language wisely: Avoid using slang or informal phrases that could possibly not translate properly. Use appropriate professional language and formal language when necessary. When applicable, sprinkle in polite terms such as: “please” and “thank you.”
  3. Keep it precise and succinct: Steer clear of using lengthy and excessively complex sentences. Even though some cultures prefer indirect communication, keeping your email precise and clear limits the possibilities of misunderstandings.
  4. Notice the tone: Depending on the cultural context, the tone of your email may be viewed differently than intended. Consider how others might interpret your tone and you should be mindful of the use of jokes, humor, and sarcasm. Due to cultural differences between you and your email recipient, you cannot be certain that your message will be received in the way you intended it to be.
  5. Make no assumptions: Never assume anything about someone’s cultural background or preferred communication style. When in doubt, ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand.
Two more factors to consider are:
  1. Cultures that value hierarchies: Some societies place a high importance on hierarchies, and it is therefore crucial to be respectful of those in higher positions. Respect is shown by addressing them with formal language and using their proper titles.
  2. Cultures that value prompt responses: Punctuality is highly valued across cultures. If possible, it is a good rule of thumb to respond to emails promptly.

Let’s practice! Can you spot the cultural differences in these two emails?

Email example 1:

From: Tony
Subject: Reschedule Meeting

Dear John,

I must inform you that we have to reschedule our meeting that was planned for tomorrow. Due to some unexpected circumstances, I won't be able to attend. I suggest postponing the meeting to next week. How is Wednesday at 10 a.m. Eastern time? Let me know if this time works for you.

Best regards,

Example 1: Tony starts the email by informing John that they “have to” reschedule the meeting due to unexpected circumstances, and then suggests an alternative time for the meeting. Apologies or concern for the inconvenience cause by rescheduling are not recognized or acknowledged by Tony.
Email example 2:

From: Ryan
Subject: Meeting reschedule

Dear John,

I hope this email finds you well. I am writing to suggest that we postpone our meeting that was scheduled for tomorrow. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will no longer be able to attend. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. I would like to suggest that we reschedule for next week Wednesday 11th at 10 a.m. Eastern time. Does that work for you? Please let me know when you have a free moment.

Thank you for understanding.

Kind regards,

Example 2: Ryan begins the email with well wishes and “suggests” postponing the meeting due to unforeseen circumstances. Ryan acknowledges and apologizes for any inconveniences giving a specific reschedule request and subsequently asking if that works for John. Lastly, the email ends with “thank you for understanding. Kind regards…” The extra attention to thanking the John is very polite. Across many cultures it is a valued etiquette of communication in the workplace especially when email writing in English.

As you probably noticed, the first email is quite direct and does not have many of the pleasantries like in the second email example. The differences in these emails appear in the level of directness and politeness which is determined by culture. For example, in the US if you were to send the first email example to a fellow American colleague, they might think you were rude and possibly offensive. However, if you were to send the same email to a German colleague, they would find your email to be suitable and straightforward. Indirectness is also an aspect of cultural differences in the workplace. When sending an email to your American colleague, it is more valuable to be indirect, polite, but also stating your reason for the communication. These differences in communication styles reflect cultural values where some cultures value directness and efficiency in communication, while others value politeness, respectfulness, and indirectness.

We hope we were able to give you a bit of insight into the cultural aspect of email writing. Can you guess my cultural background by the way I write this article?

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