Time and budget constraints mean it’s increasingly common to conduct international business over email. But with the medium open to awkward misinterpretations and misunderstandings even when all correspondents share the same first language, it’s sensible to follow a few simple guidelines when sending email to foreign contacts.
Follow their lead
When it comes to emails, writing style can differ greatly from the very formal (which is, for example, adopted by the Germans), to approaches so relaxed they read more like a text message between friends. Asking after your associate’s family may be commonplace in South America and Africa, but wholly inappropriate in Japan, so in general it’s best to play it safe with your initial emails and then follow the lead of your foreign counterparts.
Keep it simple
When communicating with those with a different native tongue it’s best to keep sentences simple and clear of jargon, metaphors and colloquialisms to avoid confusion. Jokes should also be avoided unless you are certain that they will be fully understood and well received.
Know who you are dealing with
As well as ensuring you address people with the correct titles, such as using san in Japan and Frau in Germany and accounting for the fact that the Chinese often put their surnames first, researching the status and background of those you are corresponding with is also key. Making sure you know a little about those you are dealing with can help you avoid making cultural mistakes and find the right approach when it comes to negotiations.
Don’t take things personally
Emails from associates in countries where the culture is very strictly business-orientated, such as France and Germany, can seem curt in comparison to those from counterparts in Southern or Eastern Europe, which tend to have a more friendly tone. It’s important to maintain a polite and professional attitude, even if you feel they are being blunt.
Think about your response time
When emailing those in countries such as the USA, where email is generally used to discuss small practical matters, rather than to build business relationships or conduct detailed negotiations, you may find you receive email responses almost immediately after your message is sent. In these cases, attempt to respond with similar speed where possible.
Consider the medium
Be aware that in some areas, including parts of Africa, the most common way to read email is on smartphones, rather than computers. If you know you foreign business associates are likely to be reading your emails on a small screen, attempt to keep things as brief as possible.
Check the timezone
To avoid sending emails at inappropriate hours and to limit confusion over when decisions will be made, always be aware of the current timezone in the country your associate is emailing from and include references to your own timezone and your schedule where needed.