I could tell our Japanese exchange student was uncomfortable as my Turkish family hugged her and kissed her on each cheek, welcoming her to our home. Their intention was sweet, but I could see her eyes bulge a bit as she cringed at the gesture. Language barriers are just the beginning of cultural communication differences.
I have encountered my fair share of cultural blunders while working and living in 4 different countries, both online and offline. Committing cultural faux pas in writing is easy to do when you don’t know someone well. And even when you are acquainted with someone, you can still quickly embarrass yourself if you don’t choose your words carefully.
Levels of Formality in Business Emails Around the World
Because German and Japanese have many rules dictating the formalities of the language itself, writing emails to people from these countries is formal and somewhat formulaic. There are strict conventions how to begin, structure, and end emails, so including personal messages and informal language is seen as strange and impolite. Anything outside the box, such as saying “Best regards from California” instead of “Mit freundlichen Grüßen” (“with friendly greetings”) at the end of every cold email is considered very rude in a business email.
When emailing with Germans, the first sentence in the email after the salutation is not capitalized. Here’s an example of this capitalization rule:
“Dear Ms. Morgan,
in regards to your previous email…”
If you think that’s hard to remember, Japanese has a special language for extreme humbleness called “keigo.” When using keigo, verbs and other common phrases change dramatically to their “honorific” form, which has different levels of formality based on the occasion and level of seniority of the person you are addressing. At least you don’t have to worry about writing your next business email in keigo.
Conversely, when sending emails in many parts of Africa and South America, personal anecdotes are almost expected. If you’ve met a Brazilian business contact’s wife, it’s considered polite to ask how she’s doing in the email before you inquire about business matters like price. It’s also not uncommon for Brazilians to send hugs or kisses( “beijos”) instead of using “regards,” even for some mass emails.
What’s In a Name: When Titles Matter in Business Emails
Unlike the more informal addresses you see in America or Brazil, when addressing business contacts in the Emirates, status is crucial. You must know if they’re a “highness” or “excellency,”and if they are, you must address them as “your highness” or “your excellency” throughout the email.
Other countries such as Japan, Turkey, and Germany have specific formal titles you must use for addressing people. In Japan, you must address the reader by their last name using the title “san,” so Takeshi Yamada becomes “Yamada-san.” In German people are addressed by writing “Sehr geehrter Herr” (Dear honored Sir) for men and “Sehr geehrter Frau” for women (Dear honored Madam). In Turkey you must use “Bey” (Mr) or “Hanim” (Ms) after the first name, like “Mustafa Bey” or “Reyhan Hanim.”
Choosing Direct or Indirect Communication Styles
When writing emails to Europeans, avoid using flowery excessive language and get straight to the point. Where Americans might say that someone is “uniquely qualified” for a project, or a product is “great,” Europeans get annoyed by excessive statements. Germans are especially known for their directness.
Other cultures prefer much less direct communications because they are much more relationship oriented. This is true for much of Asia and France. While it is okay to be blunt in the United States, it is rude to ask for something too quickly in Asia or France without building a relationship with a person.
As was the case in the Clinton Global Initiative, smart Western firms often hire copywriters to modify US documents to be softer and more indirect when addressing Asian audiences. To be effective, you must use a “soft opening” and supply some background information leading to the outcome you desire from the written correspondence. Successful business development in Asia requires long-term relationship building, so if your first attempts don’t work, you must be patient and careful not to burn your bridges.
Cultural Time Differences Aren’t Just About Timezones
Email response time varies country to country. Whereas Americans expect quick turnarounds for email, Europeans often take much longer to respond to emails. Instead of next day response, they might not get back to you for a week or two. Those who have worked in emerging markets and have experienced phenomenons such as “Egyptian” or “Brazilian” time understand that much of the world doesn’t operate as fast as the US.
Paying Attention to Sensitive Cultural Issues
You should always do some research when communicating with someone from a cultural that’s unfamiliar to you to avoid faux pas. Where it’s common to list “4 points” in the United States, the number 4 (“shi”) sounds very close to the word “shin,” which means death in Japan and most of Asia (which have similar root words), and is considered an “unlucky number,” much like “13” in the West. So make sure you don’t give presents to your Japanese colleague or exchange student in sets of 4, as it may be taken as a bad omen.