Strategies for Emailing Across Cultures
International participants often tease me in global learning sessions about communication: “Americans like to smile.” Or, “Americans expect a lot of smiling.”
As the facilitator in these sessions—and as an American—it always makes me laugh. And thus: I smile, right there in class, right there in front of everybody.
Cultures vary in the ways they express positivity and build trust in their relationships. What feels friendly in one culture might seem over-eager in another. Or what seems polite and respectful to one person might feel cold and distant to another.
Our behaviors, body language, spoken language, and written language all have the potential to be interpreted differently than intended—often due to cultural differences.
Writing emails without a global mindset to people living among cultures different than our own, misinterpretations get even more serious. Now our accidental cultural missteps are written down. And, they’re part of the record.
Interpretation differences means we need to write emails carefully
Writing emails with cultural awareness, we use strategies to reduce the likelihood of confusion resulting from differences in interpretation. Misinterpretation doesn’t mean someone’s wrong: It just means people are looking at the information from different angles, based on expectations and assumptions set by their culture.
By considering cultural expectations ahead of time, we can communicate more productively with readers from cultures different than our own. As you learned in “Write Emails with Cultural Awareness Part 1” by Valerie Bath, we can create productive written exchanges with a little reflection up front.
We should consider a few potential cultural differences specifically, and develop strategies for writing emails across cultural difference. This article will provide actionable writing strategies you can use to consider and manage:
- How formal your writing should be in your email
- How direct or indirect to be when emailing across cultures
- Whether to get straight to the point or spend time relationship-building when emailing across cultures
- How to best convey a point of view with evidence/examples in your emails
Adjusting Your Email’s Formality Level
Readers from different cultures expect different levels of formality from emails. If you are writing your email for someone in a culture that values a higher level of formality than yours does, consider using some of these strategies:
- Use a greeting like “Hello, [name],” instead of using “Hi” or “Hey.”
- Discussing the reader’s interests or needs before your own.
On the other hand, sometimes you may be writing to someone with a more informal style and set of expectations than yours. In these situations, consider doing some of the following:
- Using simpler, more familiar vocabulary in place of more formal or decorative words.
- Opening with an “empathy statement” that briefly creates connection—something like “I hope you enjoyed the long weekend!”
Managing the Level of Directness in Your Writing
Since different cultures are often comfortable with different levels of directness, you’ll want to manage how direct your writing sounds when emailing across cultures. We can adjust our level of directness intentionally by using some of the strategies below.
Making Your Business Writing More Direct
Readers from various regional cultures, and from a variety of industry cultures, expect more directness and clarity in emails than others. These readers will therefore prefer writing that:
- Uses Active Voice
- Clarifies “The Ask”
To use Active Voice, make sure your sentences begin with WHO took action and then add WHAT they did. From a grammatical standpoint, this means starting sentences with your subject and verb. Research has shown Active Voice is easier to read in many languages, and it more directly informs your reader while also providing accountability. This clarity around who is responsible for what often works well with audiences who prefer direct communication.
The following sentences are written in the Active Voice:
- Please submit your edits by Friday.
- Hector made an error on the spreadsheet.
- We would like to invite you to learn about our new benefits packages.
To clarify “The Ask”—or to clarify what you’re asking for in your email—make sure you include a Call to Action. A Call to Action sentence helps your reader know what they need to do on their end. To write a strong Call to Action sentence when emailing across cultures, write a sentence that includes two things:
- A “command verb”—a verb, or action, presented in the form that suggests “Do this.” For example, the italicized words in these Calls to Action are command verbs:
- Submit your application by Friday.
- Respond by next week for best consideration.
- Provide your edits on this page.
- After the command verb, you’ll need to give your reader the other information they need in order to act. For example, do they need to know the deadline? Or the location or website where something will take place? The second part of the example Calls to Action above include information like this—right after the command verb.
Making Your Business Writing More Indirect
However, you may work with other readers who prefer a more indirect approach. In some cultures, very direct communication can feel aggressive. Writers can adjust their writing when emailing across cultures by using strategies like:
- Choosing to write in Passive Voice in certain situations
- Presenting “The Ask” with more “cushion” and care
Although we typically want to use Active Voice in business writing (because it is more clear), sometimes Passive Voice is a smart choice. Passive Voice can help you “soften” the feel of your writing when necessary. Passive Voice can reduce the feeling of responsibility (or blame) in writing. To use Passive Voice, begin with WHAT happened and then add WHO did it. For example, you could write “New classes are made available…” and then add “…by Human Resources.”
The following sentences are written in the Passive Voice:
- Edits should be submitted by Friday.
- An error was made on the spreadsheet.
- You are invited to learn about our new benefits packages.
To present “The Ask” more indirectly and softly, change your phrasing around the question or request. Instead of leading with a command verb as you would do when writing to someone who prefers direct communication, consider “softening” this by:
- Using more “we” language than “you” language. For example, instead of saying “Reply with your thoughts,” write “We would appreciate hearing your thoughts.”
- Instead of using a command verb, provide one sentence of context about what’s needed. For example, “We are revising this contract,” could be a way to open a conversation about updating your contract with a client.
- Focus on what needs to be done, rather than who needs to do it. For example, instead of “Your metrics are needed for this update,” lead with “All our information needs to be updated this year.”
Getting to the Point vs. Relationship-Building
While readers from more individualistic cultures likely appreciate hearing a clear main point right away, readers from more collectivist cultures may prefer to spend some time building trust before getting to the main point or work at hand. Some cultures prioritize getting down to business, while others prioritize building trusting relationships first.
Your writing can reflect these different priorities. When writing within more individualistic cultures, get to the point more quickly. Consider using a Main Point Sentence—a sentence that clearly states your central point. A strong Main Point Sentence typically includes most or all of the “5 Ws”:
To clearly communicate with cultures who prefer hearing the bottom line or central point first, create a sentence out of the 5 Ws and offer that early in your email. For example, a Main Point Sentence including many of the Ws might sound like any of these:
- You’re invited to join our session Thursday at noon on Zoom.
- We have a few questions on the contract and would like to discuss this week if possible.
- Due to weather predictions, we’re postponing the session until next week.
- We hope to sign an agreement with you by the end of Q2.
Sharing Your Point of View and Writing Persuasively
Some communications require sharing your point of view, or working to convince your readers through data, analysis, and/or anecdotal evidence. However, not all readers learn from, or respond to, persuasive or argumentative writing the same way.
Depending on your reader’s cultural background, they may more easily respond to persuasive discussions of two different organizational structure:
- Some readers learn most easily when told (a) a statement of fact or a theory, and (b) evidence and examples to both support and illustrate this statement or theory.
- Other readers learn more easily when first shown (a) examples and evidence, and then (b) work backward to realize or discover the theory or statement behind these examples.
When writing emails with a global mindset, try offering a new idea, or convince readers to consider a new idea, be intentional with the order of ideas. Leading with theory and then moving to examples, or leading with examples and then moving to theory can have a big impact on how well your message is received.
For example, when writing to suggest an upgrade to equipment or technology, we might write our information in a different order, depending on the reader.
For readers who learn best from theory before examples:
“Studies show leaders who connect with their teams using Emotional Intelligence often succeed at building community in their teams. For example, asking team members how their weekend went on a Monday, can help show them their leaders care.”
For readers who learn best from examples before theory:
“How do you feel when your supervisor asks how your weekend went? Or when they don’t? Studies show leaders who connect with their teams using Emotional Intelligence often succeed at building community in their teams.”
Emailing Across Cultures Can Be Successful
Next time you’re emailing someone of a different cultural background—whether that’s regional culture, industry culture, or even generational culture—consider trying out the strategies discussed above.
By intentionally managing our levels of directness and formality, and considering how quickly to get down to business in an email, we can write emails that work for our readers.
Writing choices always depend on who will be reading our writing. There’s no one “right” way to write; instead, it’s always situational. When the situation is intercultural, pay extra attention to the choices you make in your emails. By being thoughtful up front, we can often reduce or even prevent misunderstandings down the road. Writing emails with a global mindset is the key.
Erin Lebacqz helps leaders and teams write strategically to meet business goals and build productive relationships. Her on-demand courses and book, all based on her High-Value Writing curriculum, help you learn at your pace, on your schedule.