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Master international email etiquette with these 5 tips

Nov 132020

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The world as we know it has grown increasingly smaller as we integrate technology into every interaction that we have.

Whether it be collaborating with team members, project management, or even how we exercise. The email has been one of the main technologies perpetuating this change. It makes international business and collaboration more convenient than we ever thought possible.

Doesn't matter if you are negotiating with a product supplier in Asia, setting up a meeting with your partner offices in South America, or scheduling updates with clients in Europe. Email is the glue that holds this all together and makes the process easy and efficient. Think about if we actually had to call each other! Email streamlines the process and allows us to remain connected anytime, anywhere. 

As the lingua franca of today’s business world, English is widely spoken among all business settings and most international business emails are conducted in English. That being said, you might be communicating with people for whom English is a second or third language. Mix this with different cultural nuances and that means that there’s no one size fits all approach to sending international emails. However, we’ve compiled these top 5 international email etiquette tips on how to make a good impression with all of your clients and colleagues across the globe. 

Err on the side of formality 

One of the most important things to keep in mind when maintaining international email etiquette is that formality is expected, if not required. Obviously, your emails to international clients will be much more formal than your emails to your family asking them to join your next dinner party. That goes without saying!

If you’re emailing someone who you don’t know or haven’t met in person or virtually. It’s better to sound more formal than casual. Generally speaking, business communication tends to be more formal, and you should continue this trend until you’ve cultivated a relationship with the person. Once you feel comfortable with your clients and colleagues, you can cultivate a level of formality that works best for you. 

A lot of things also depend on your brand voice. If your company is more "modern" or consistently creates more casual content, it's important to match it in your emails as well. It doesn't mean that you can write "sup fellas" but it allows you to be more casually friendly. Think of it as meeting someone through your friend. You don't do with a strictly formal approach. One of the things that might help you navigate what aspect is creating Customer Personas. By figuring out your recipient age group you can match the tone of your voice in emails accordingly.

Structure your emails 

Structuring your emails using the guidelines below makes them easier to understand and follow. Especially when you are speaking to someone who might not have a native level of English. Follow these rules when writing international business emails: 

Subject line. Make sure that your best email subject line is specific and relevant to the email you are sending. If necessary, you may add ‘follow up needed’ or ‘action required’ to make it even clearer that secondary actions are necessary. 

Introductions. They set the tone for the rest of the email. When addressing the subject of your email, feel free to use ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning/afternoon/evening’ depending on where the person reading it is located.  Save ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ for emails where you can use a less formal tone. 

When should you use someone’s first name in an email? This is a potentially tricky question. Some cultures and individuals prefer to be addressed as Mr. or Ms. - you might run the risk of misgendering someone, especially if you are not familiar with the name. 

In many companies, people are okay with being called by their first name, but some cultures might disapprove and view this as taking premature liberties in a business relationship. Use your best judgment on this issue. Generally speaking - it's always better to use a high level of courtesy when addressing someone who you do not know. 

Email Body. Be as specific and organized as possible in the body of your email. If you’re asking for an update or are following up on something - specify this! You should also explain any attachments to the email.  Feel free to incorporate numbered lists, bullets, or other organization methods, especially if the email is long. This makes it easier to read and respond to your requests. 

Salutations. You want to end your emails with something friendly and positive. Some examples could be: 

Thank you, 

Sincerely, 

Best Regards, 

Cheers,

Keep it simple

Remember, you might be interacting with someone who speaks English as a second or third language. It’s best to keep your emails as simple and direct as possible. Not using any abbreviations or metaphors that might not be understood by your recipient. Additionally, it's worth looking into the used titles and formalities based on the country. If the majority of your recipients are from Japan, maybe look into the typical way to address a person in this specific sector? Don't overthink it though! Making email too country-oriented might make people from other countries feel excluded or even offended. The best way to approach this is to personalize your emails and use merge fields to adjust the email accordingly without putting too much work.

Watch your tone

The tone of your email is incredibly important. It can be difficult to properly convey sentiment over email or text, and you run the risk of being misunderstood if the reader cannot pick up on subtle signals of emotion. Keep a neutral but friendly tone when figuring out how you should approach international email etiquette. Remember not to use all caps - this is an internationally recognized signal of yelling and is generally not appropriate. 

Also, refrain from being humorous if you do not know the person and their sense of humor. It can be hard to interpret over email, and what’s funny to one person might not register with another depending on cultural context. We circle back to the Customer Persona. Checking the average age of your recipients can be helpful in establishing how you should approach jokes or more lighthearted content,

Format timezones & dates correctly 

The last thing to keep in mind when writing international emails is the formatting time zones and dates. Dates are written differently worldwide - this list should help you when planning your next meeting.

  • ISO8601 International Standard: year-month-day, 2020-04-30
  • Asia Pacific: year-month-day, 2020.04.30
  • Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada: day-month-year, 30/04/2020
  • The U.S.: month-day-year, 04-30-2020

Make sure you are also considering time zones when sending international communications. If you’re sending something from New York and need an immediate reply from someone in London, make sure to send it in the morning, while that person is presumably still in the office. Having a basic understanding of timezones is incredibly helpful when scheduling meetings or knowing when to expect a response. You can find many sites online that will convert your current timezone into local time around the world.  

These five essential tips will improve your business communications regardless of where you are based and who you are doing business with. Again, there’s no one size fits all method of communication - different places have different norms, and you’ll grow more accustomed to these with more frequent communication. 

Now that we’ve established an international email etiquette baseline, try these tips out next time to develop stronger relationships with clients and colleagues. 

 

About the author

Michelle is a New Yorker living in Spain and traversing the international business world. She operates at the intersection of human resources, technology, and self-development.

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