Email communications – common challenges and best practices

Though working in Israel as a professional lawyer before relocating to Silicone Valley, it took me two years to fully understand the different cultural nuances when communicating with my U.S. clients. (Israeli attorney)

Email is the most widely used communication method in the business landscape, but it can often lead to major problems if the underlying tone of the email message is misinterpreted at one end and specifically, if the email lands in the inbox of someone who does not come from our culture

As English is the dominant language spoken and written in today’s global business world, we often believe that it is enough to know how to write English in order for our communication to transcend smoothly into another culture and what we meant to say is understood on the other side.

When we correspond via email we do so from our “cultural space” a space where communication patterns are familiar to us and where our message is received by a person sharing the same cultural values. But what happens when our email lands in the cultural space that is different from ours, where communication pattern or context is translated differently?

Email communication has no visual loop, so we have no way of knowing if our words were understood or if our tone of writing may have been misinterpreted.

Mastering the art of writing emails is essential in today’s business world. The following tips will improve your email communication with your stakeholders from other cultures:

Firstly, you need to be mindful of the cultural context of the person you are writing to. When writing to your colleagues in Boston, beyond the customary ”I hope this email finds you well” line, you will likely get right down to the purpose of the mail which translates to being clear, concise and ending with action items. If you do the same with your Brazilian colleagues, they might be insulted by the “tone” of your email. The reason for the above lies in the fundamental differences in our communication patterns. The U.S. is a task and result-oriented culture whereby relationships are secondary to business transactions, but Brazil is a relationship-oriented culture and relationships are a means to closing business transactions. Therefore, in Latin America, your email will be interpreted according to context, meaning the relationship between the two of you. In practical terms, you will need to adhere to a much more “small talk” way of introducing your subject content. You will do well to inquire about your colleague’s family, the weather etc. before you get down to the subject matter of the intended mail.

To that end, we will need to adapt our email communication according to the culture of the person we are corresponding with. Americans are content in getting their messages across as clearly and as concisely as possible, while in relationship-oriented cultures such as Latin America, your colleagues will be inclined to do business with someone who is likable, caring and accessible, meaning takes the time to establish a relationship and knows how to maintain said relationship.

Secondly, don’t underestimate writing a cohesive and orderly email that will not be misunderstood regardless of the culture of the individual you are writing to:

  • Always spell-check and proofread your business e-mail. Informality is not acceptable simply because you are corresponding online.
  • Choose a clear subject line that reflects the content of the email.
  • If the goal of your correspondence is to get a response, make that clear in your written communication and compose your message with that goal in mind.
  • Avoid using exclamation points (!). A tone is hard to interpret in an e-mail. Keep a neutral tone by using periods instead of exclamations.
  • Be wary of attachment overload. That said, most people prefer documents to be sent as attachments rather than copied and pasted into the body of the e-mail.
  • Remember the power of the “cc” and the “bcc” when e-mailing for business. Your e-mail could be read by someone who has been “blind carbon copied” at any time so it is important to remain professional.
  • Remember politeness beginning to end.
  • Design a signature line that is always constant. It should have your name, title, telephone contact information, website address and the above should not exceed three lines.

And always remember, you are what you email.



About the Author
Arona Maskil is a Cross-cultural consultant. She has over 20 years of experience and has presented nationally and internationally on inter-culturally related subjects. Based in Israel, she is a leading expert on both U.S. and Israeli business culture and as such, facilitates workshops and lectures on cross-cultural understanding of working and living cross-border. Arona has spearheaded in Israel a "Cultural Intelligence" (CQ) training model whereby she provides strategically focused training for individuals and organizations to enable effective communications to navigate successfully in global business settings. Arona Maskil has a Bachelors (B.A.) degree in Communications and Public Relations from State University of New York and a Master’s (M.A.) with honors from the College of Management, Academic Studies, the Department of Behavioral Sciences with a concentration in Family Studies. She is also an Adler Institute certified coach and a group coach facilitator.
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