Email across cultures: the do’s and dont’s

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We cannot imagine a work environment without email anymore. When in a reflective mood, I often ask myself: “How did people do this before, when there was no email?” Talk?

In today’s work environment, ‘email’ is equivalent to ‘conversation’. The medium is not of relevance, as long as we can reach out to others to get things done. In trainings about cross-cultural communication, the issue of email often comes up. The advantage of email is you can reach everybody instantly (although the often-heard advice is: check your mail only twice a day, but we all reality is different), and email forces you to communicate clearly and directly, stripping messages of the unspoken part of conversation that so often leads to disruptions. There’s disadvantages as well. Doing business is synonym to ‘pumping around emails’, and professional email managers spend their workday in the race they can never win: the finish is an empty inbox.

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I want to share 12 tips that I often go through with participants in my trainings. I’ve organized these by the fields in the mail that they correspond to.

The ‘To:’-field

  1. You can’t just send a mail to anyone

In egalitarian cultures like the US and The Netherlands, it’s ok to use email to invade the lives of almost anyone. As long as you take proper measures to avoid too obvious ‘level-skipping’, you can send a message to the CEO. Realize that in hierarchical cultures like Germany, China and Brazil, you are expected to follow the hierarchical lines. A message to a person 2 levels above you should properly go through your manager. Skipping your manager without cc-ing him will not be appreciated by the next level, and your mail likely won’t get answered. Maybe it won’t even be read.

  1. Limit the amount of people in this field

Remember most people filter their constant stream of emails. One way is to direct anything that they are cc-ed on to a separate mail folder, that will be read if you are lucky in the last hour of the day. Big chance it won’t be read at all. This is not to say you should put all relevant people in the ‘to:’-field. In this field, you only put people that you have a direct request to. If you want to share your message because you find it important the other person knows (‘FYI’), copy the person. Not all information will be read, and that’s ok.

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The ‘Cc:’-field

  1. Use the hierarchy to reach your goals

In hierarchical cultures, the cc-field is more than ‘FYI’. Using the hierarchy to your advantage sounds ‘manipulative’ when from an egalitarian culture like the Swedes and the Dutch, but in 85% of more of the world cultures you are expected to get things done through the hierarchy. Get accustomed to this. In trainings, I spend a lot of time on this aspect of doing business: if you don’t address the right hierarchical level with your message (‘if you come in too low’), your message will not have effect and remain unanswered. When addressing your counterpart in India, ask yourself at which level your message should come in: quite often, this is 1-2 levels higher than you would come in in your culture.

  1. Never change the cc-list

In consensus-cultures where groups need to align their view before answering on behalf of their group, the cc-field is used to inform relevant people of your message. The Western reaction often is to delete the people from the list that are ‘not relevant’. This is a mistake. From this side of your pc, you cannot judge who is ‘relevant’ in some other part of the world. Trust your counterpart, they know what they are doing by copying others on your message. Do not disturb this important consensus-seeking process by deleting the names of people you don’t know: it’s counterproductive, and sometimes perceived as disrespectful.

The ‘Subject:’-field

  1. What do I want the other person to do with this mail?

This is the key question that should be answered before even typing the first word of your mail. Do you want the other person to give you advice, do something concrete for you, just take note of your message, or do you want her to forward it to her team? We often assume the other person will understand what to do with the mail, but my scans of thousands of mails have revealed that more than often people are left to guess. Be very explicit in this field about the purpose of your mail. The subject line “Please forward to your team: birthday cake at 15!” will be much more effective than the line “Birthday cake at 15!”, if you want to reach the entire team.

  1. Make a call

Another key question to ask yourself before furiously hammering keys on your keyboard: “Wouldn’t it be better to call?” When dealing with conflict, disagreement, but also for generating ideas or getting buy-in, a call will be more effective than a mail. Certainly when emotions are involved – more often than not – take up the phone. Remember that an email would most likely be forwarded. Remember that CTRL-C and CTRL-V will ensure that parts of your message will be cited out-of-context. And certainly in relationship cultures like Spain, Latin-America, the Middle East (for most parts) and Asia (for most parts), hearing your voice will make things personal. Know that in most world cultures, everything in business is personal, and people will want to connect with you. Personally.


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