Avoid Email In Cross-Cultural Conversations


When you just begin to develop your international business, you will probably be tempted to do as much as possible by email.

Reasons We Give To Use Email

There are some very good reasons to choose email.

  • It is quick and easy
  • There is less worry about time differences
  • You are less intimidated than with direct contact
  • You can contact more people
  • You think it is cheaper
  • And you may kid yourself into saying that it is “just” preliminary research and does not merit a personal phone call

But there are also some very good reasons why it is often better to take the time to use the phone.

When Emails Become A Skill

Email communication can be tricky within a common culture.

Some people know how to use good email etiquette and some people do not.  For example, how many subject lines do you still get in your inbox that are misleading and end up wasting your time?

There are also issues of:

  • Current email best practices to avoid spam filters and ensure deliverability.

And what about:

  • Who you should email and who you should put on copy.
  • When and where you need to give critical information.

It is easy to understand why email conversations are not always easy.

Now let’s add another factor…

Cross-Cultural Conversations

When you first start contacting people in new international markets you are starting cross-cultural conversations.

In ordinary, face-to-face encounters, the confrontation of two different cultures can easily lead to communication barriers, and misunderstandings.

Now imagine the added friction of email conversations.  There are even more factors that can go wrong.

I can think of two recent examples that happened to me.

The first example was with a fellow Bahamian.  So a culture I belong to and understand.  There was a series of emails where the person in question clearly sought a business opportunity.  But there were three problems with the email exchange:

  1. The email address was from a man, and the person signed as a woman saying she was the most senior person there.  Now, I know this was not spam.  It came from a very reputable company.  But it killed the credibility for me.  Who was I in communication with?
  2. She was asking me to drop clients into her lap without giving me any information at all to go on.  She kept sending me to a website that was very poorly written, and incomprehensible to anyone outside of her office.
  3. I was busy and did not want to spend the time and money to call her back.  Maybe when business lulls.

The problems here were more to do with a lack of good email practices.  Yes, certain Bahamian traits of pride did come into play, but bad email practices stopped the conversation.The second example was from a Chinese reader, with a similar vague request for me to solve her companies economic problems.  Again this was not spam and clearly a sincere request.  This time the cultural differences were obvious.  Email do not work well in cultures where indirect communication styles prevail.  How can you possibly get anything out of an email when you cannot give clear indication of what you want or need?

Twenty years ago, management often discussed whether you needed a face-to-face meeting or a phone call.  In today’s economy, the choice of email or phone calls is just as valid.

Phone calls can give you much more information than an email.

During a phone conversation you can usually get a good understanding about the limits of what can be done by phone and what needs a person to person meeting.

It is best to avoid emails in cross-cultural communication when you can.  And more importantly, make sure you learn when to call when it is needed.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Photos from Shutterstock.

  Filed under: Cross-Cultural Communication

Cindy King

  • Sam Adams

    Funny, you can't even expect people that speak your own language to take an email the right way. More than once I was told that someone didn't like my tone of voice in an email. Tone of voice… In something written… How can I expect someone in another country to think any better than the dolts in my office?

  • http://cindyking.biz Cindy

    Hi Sam,

    Thank you for dropping by – I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond to you – I’ve had problems with my comment plugin here on this blog.

    Yes, emails appear to be an easy form of communication, and you can get very comfortable in sending them. But they are not really such an easy form of communication, are they?

    I’ve found that emails are a great way to confirm what has been said in a phone conversation, and used as reminders when it is hard to get the person on the phone and there is a time line.

    And tone… well we all use email differently don’t we? Some people like chatty emails, others don’t. And many people do not know how to use emails in a business setting… so it is not easy to connect on the same level with others.

    It will be interesting to watch the evolution of video conferencing. Will this make it easier? Or will it highlight differences even more?