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Exploring Cultures
August 28, 2021

Cross-cultural communication and emails: a quick guide

Saif Cheval
Saif Cheval
Marketing Lead
min read

There are certain things that are universal when meeting someone new. A greeting is shared. Contact, either verbal or physical, is made. And often, names are exchanged. After all, have you really met someone if you don’t know their name?

That’s why we say that names are the first thing we learn about each other. They’re a pivotal part of who we are, and who we define ourselves as to the rest of the world.

There’s so much that goes into meeting a new person, from handshakes and hugs to smiles and salutations. It’s a delicate dance that plays out in different ways across the globe. But you don’t always meet someone in person the first time you speak to them.

We’ve talked a lot about cold calling on the NameShouts blog, and that certainly is one way to meet someone new without actually meeting them. In that instance, learning to pronounce their name beforehand (if you know their name of course) is a great way to show them you care.

But what if you aren’t actually talking when you meet someone for the first time? In fact, what if, when you first spoke to them, they weren’t even there?

Today, we’re diving into emails, and how pronouncing names right can help you— just kidding. We’re going to talk about email etiquette in cross-cultural communication, and how you can start a relationship off on the right foot without ever actually talking to the person you’re meeting.

What’s in an email?

Email and messaging has become so ubiquitous now that it’s hard to really think about a time before. But we haven’t always been able to communicate so instantaneously, and certainly not as asynchronously as we can now.

When you send an email or message, there’s no promise the other person is reading it right away. The person could be busy or away from their device, and waiting for a response is built-in to the concept. Sometimes, you might even get an auto-response informing you that they aren’t reading it for a while, which means you won’t be getting a response any time soon.

Because emails and messages operate so differently from a face-to-face conversation, or even one on the phone, things can get lost in translation.

Tone can easily be misconstrued, brevity can be mistaken for callousness, and jokes can fall completely flat. Text is a messy medium, and no one should be expected to write emails as if they were a literary genius.

That being said, there are norms when it comes to email. From the customary salutations, to the etiquette of sign-offs, much of what makes a good impression when it comes to emails is, well, unwritten.These are often things that mirror our own social norms in the real world.

So what happens when the person you’re speaking to follows different social norms than your own?

Cross-cultural communication through email

In a 2015 study comparing Chinese and US employees, it was found that Chinese employees felt a greater desire to do business with senders that included relationship building statements (like “Hope all is well”) as well as message structures where reasoning for a request preceded the request.

This is just one example of the myriad ways cross-cultural communication is colored by social norms and expectations.

Meanwhile in Germany, emails are expected to be short and to the point, according to this BBC article. And if you’re emailing someone in South America, you would be remiss if you didn’t include a personal note to spark a stronger connection with the person you’re speaking to.

Sometimes, this can go beyond just what’s in the email, but the circumstances surrounding the email too. Emails with companies based in Japan might require more CC’s, as this Forbes article suggests. Countries outside of North America also have different approaches to timing of emails, which means expecting an immediate response might be a bit unrealistic.

And with that being said, there’s also the obvious cross-cultural issue that plagues all global communication: time zones! It’s not an unfamiliar concept to anyone who has travelled to a new place, but time zones can have a serious impact on communication, even within a country like the United States.

You can’t possibly know all of the different norms and rules to emailing in every single country. In fact, for some countries, email isn’t even the normal form of business communication: businesses in Africa and Asia continue to do much of their work over WhatsApp and other social messaging services instead.

Ultimately, it comes down to being mindful, something we preach with names as well. Being empathetic, and understanding the differences that might exist between us, can go a long way in helping you build stronger relationships.

That all sounds good in theory, but what are the tangible benefits of being mindful? Well, let’s take a look.

What’s the bottom line?

Just like mispronouncing a name, miscommunication via email can be extremely costly.

When it comes to cold reach outs, you want to start things off on the best terms possible. Offending the person you’re speaking to is a surefire way to not do that.

Because you aren’t physically present when the receiver reads your email, and you have no idea what is going on in their lives when they do, you should definitely try and do your best to set things off right.

Taking some time to learn about the person you’re emailing is critical. If they are in a different part of the world, be mindful of the difference in communication as well as the difference in time. Keep in mind that English isn’t everyone’s first language. Do your best to provide the highest possible context to make sure nothing is lost in translation.

Mispronouncing a name is the number one reason prospects hang up on agents — that’s something we’ve mentioned time and time again. Larger companies can find email miscommunication costs to rise as high as $62.4 million!

Just as it is with lost phone calls, wasted time is wasted money. Taking a couple minutes to empathize with the person you’re reaching out to, and perhaps learn a little about them too, is far more rewarding than potentially losing them due to a simple miscommunication.

Being mindful is critical, on and off-line.

So many interactions begin with a name. When we first speak with someone, knowing their name is a key component of the interaction.

On the Internet, so many interactions begin with an email or direct message. Knowing how people expect to be interacted with on the Internet, what is acceptable in their cultures and how they wish to be addressed are all critical when reaching out.

Even if you don’t know, or don’t have the time, to figure out exactly where a person is from, or how they might do business, following some of the above rules and maintaining a mindful approach will help you when reaching out.

You likely wouldn’t be rude to someone in person for no reason, and so the same should go with online interactions. We all follow certain social norms, and we expect certain things from interactions. The same goes on the Internet.

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