The modern business world demands that people from all corners of the earth communicate with one another. A manager in the USA may have staff in Germany, India and China; the importer in France may have associates in Turkey, Italy and Japan. More and more people are now communicating across intercultural lines.
As anyone who works internationally can tell you, intercultural communication is not always a smooth ride. Intercultural communication in this context refers to people, primarily but not exclusively from the business world, working with others from different nationalities, religions, faiths and cultures. When different cultures come together in a business setting their differences can often cause confusion, misunderstandings, mistakes and the like. These intercultural differences can be anything from contrasting approaches to communication, etiquette, meeting styles or body language.
One area of intercultural communication that is common to most people working internationally is that of the email. The internet allows us to send documents, requests and information to colleagues, customers and clients across the globe. However, despite the unquestionable benefits communicating by email gives us there is a down side, especially in the context of intercultural business communication.
When looking at the intercultural issues of email we need to look at it from two angles: 1) the issue of language and 2) the issue of culture.
English is without doubt the lingua franca of the modern business world. Whether we are in Berlin or Bangkok most business emails will be in English. Although most people accept it as the international language, most do not have native language speaker proficiency. This creates communication problems and misunderstandings.
Those that have English as a second language will of course have a tendency to misspell words, invent new words, use poor grammar and generally not make themselves clear. Reading such an email can be a struggle and if one word is out of place the whole meaning can be misunderstood.
It is important for those communicating across cultures to bear in mind that this is to be expected. The best way to approach such emails is to look beyond the form to the intent. If that is not possible then a simple email should be sent back asking for clarification on points or even sending back closed-ended questions which can only have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
Intercultural communication can be tricky in a face-to-face environment. However, instinctively people muddle through situations by reacting to body language, gestures, facial expressions, etc. With email communication people do not have this luxury. As a result emails have lots of potential to get lost in translation across cultural lines.
The actual format of an email may differ across cultures. In some formal cultures it is expected that one starts by addressing someone with their name (and possibly surname) followed by their email. Others may not really care and will jump straight to the email content. Either way, one person may find the email too formal while the other sees it as too informal or even blunt.
The contents of an email are also culturally dependent. Some cultures may accept the use of slang, idioms, puns, joke-phrases or swear words in an email, while in others it is a real no-no. Some may deem it acceptable to reply to a question with a simple “no” or “yes” while others would expect a more detailed response.
The meaning of an email will also be impacted by culture. What a sentence means in Dublin may not mean the same thing in Delhi. If emailing a culture that is indirect in its communication style (such as India or Japan) it is possible to get replies to requests that say neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’. If one does not appreciate the fact that the writer is actually hiding their true sentiments between the lines there may be come confusion.
Email is becoming more and more prevalent as a way of communicating in business. However, as we have seen, when this takes place within an intercultural context there is a lot of room for misunderstanding both from a linguistic and cultural point of view. Individuals should take the necessary steps to investigate these areas and to always keep an open mind so as to minimise the chances of intercultural mis-communication. Companies with large numbers of international staff should seek to implement codes of conduct around emails as well as investing in intercultural training for their staff.