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Master the art of global email etiquette

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Before you hit send

The rules around polite email can vary hugely between cultures. (Thinkstock)

Moving from Finland to China, Sara Jaaksola had a lot to learn. One of the biggest surprises? Few people asked for her email address.

Instead, new acquaintances asked for her instant messaging account information. When Jaaksola did receive emails, she was surprised by how ‘chatty’ they were, complete with smiley faces and friendly greetings.

Jaaksola, a 25-year-old student at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, figured out soon enough that if she wanted to make friends or build up her contacts, she needed to start sending messages like the Chinese. 

Professionals around the world would do well to internalise the same lesson. Sending emails to foreign contacts just like you might to those back home may sink a partnership before it begins. Instead, successfully emailing with people in other countries is more about adjusting to their norms.

Emails have become so ubiquitous that they’re often sent off quickly, without regard for how they might be received on the other end, said Elizabeth Powell, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. But in some countries, emails are structured like a formal letter. Elsewhere, they may sound more like a text message to a friend.

Sometimes, getting to the point of exactly what an email is asking you to do can seem like a scavenger hunt when flowery, friendly paragraphs are the norm. Overlook the social cues, or come off rude by being too direct, and you risk offending or missing the point of the email.

“Whenever communication crosses cultural boundaries, even small gestures of respect to norms can be important,” said Powell. “The dos and don’ts we rely on here don’t always apply.”

Cultural differences

Emails in Germany, for instance, are generally formal, to the point and without personal messages. Elsewhere in Europe, emails may take on a more friendly tone with salutations of “dear” and sign-offs like “yours.”  

In Africa and South America, emails are often expected to include personal notes, said Tim Flood, associate professor of management and corporate communications at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. If you met the wife of a business associate the last time you were in Brazil, it’s customary to ask how she’s doing before, say, inquiring about the status of a shipment.

In the US, emails generally are seen as a quick form of communication, rather than a way to build relationships. That lack of a personal approach can sometimes seem rude to recipients elsewhere.

“In some cultures, it’s incredibly rude to come right out with what you want them to do,” Flood said. “Back when the Western world controlled 99% of all the capital in the world, we didn’t try to conform to other cultures. Now we must.”

Regardless of culture, though, the most effective emails begin with the point, studies have shown. Otherwise recipients, who first scan an email for the conclusion, miss many of the details. In countries where a personal connection is important, start an email with the question you want answered and then add a paragraph with something that personally connects you to the recipient.

More important, it helps to think of email as the opening to a better form of communication, said Mike Song, chief executive officer of getcontrol.net and a consultant who helps businesses build relationships overseas. It’s too easy for emails to be misinterpreted, so instead, use it to set up a video chat or a one-on-one meeting. In the US and parts of Europe, it’s often seen as a waste of time to ask about someone’s family in an email, but skipping that sentence in other locales and you might come across as cold and uncaring.

“Our professional image is really created by electronic messages these days, and the moment you lose trust it’s very difficult to get it back,” Song said from his home in Connecticut. “It’s folks who organise and manage the chaos best who win.”

How to email overseas

It’s easy to be misinterpreted when emailing with people at foreign companies, but not if you follow these seven rules.

1. Know your titles. In Japan and Germany, titles like san and frau are expected when emailing. Mr or Ms are appropriate in other countries.

2. The problem with surnames. Most people know that surnames come first in China. But sometimes the Chinese will put their surnames second when emailing with Western companies. If you don’t know which is the surname, ask.

3. Time zone tango. Work and sleep hours are flip-flopped on opposite sides of the world, so emails you send today from Europe won’t be seen until tomorrow in Australia. Add details – think day and time zone – about when you’d like to receive a reply.

4. The American dilemma. North Americans don’t have general rules about how emails ought to be written. But Americans tend to send and receive emails faster than in some countries and expect others to do the same.

5. Consider the medium. In Africa, PCs are still relatively rare, while mobile phones are everywhere. If the recipient of your email is reading it on a smartphone, be sure to keep your message short.

6. Keep it simple. When communicating with someone who speaks your native tongue as a second language, keep sentences simple. Avoid jargon, sports metaphors and colloquialisms that could be misunderstood. For Americans, using the exclamation “holy cow” in an international email probably won’t have the desired effect.

7. Then, make it complicated. In Japan and China, sometimes emails will be expected to be loaded down with every detail of a business arrangement. This isn’t always a bad thing – sometimes that specificity will assure the deal goes down smoothly.

What challenges have you faced when emailing others abroad? Share your experience and your tips on BBC Capital’s Facebook page.