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Email etiquette and best practice: local or global?
In many ways things were simpler when everyone wrote letters rather than emails. Letters have clear conventions and rules, some of which are similar across cultures and, as long as you followed the rules, you could be confident that your letter would be well received by your reader.
When we consider email, it becomes a little more complex. Although email conventions do exist, they are vague at best and email etiquette can vary greatly across companies, industries and cultures. So, when it comes to email, it’s more a case of ‘best practice’ rather than rules.
So, what is email best practice and how can it differ across borders?
For day to day internal emails, the best advice is to follow what other people in your company do or find out if you have organisational guidelines. But what about external emails, particularly if your recipient is from another country? What if you never meet them face to face?
Here are six key considerations when writing international emails.
1. Have a clear subject line
Everyone has a lot of email to read and it’s harder to process when English is not your first language. Help your reader to process your email before they even open it by making the content of the email clear in the subject line.
2. Develop the relationship
If you don’t see someone often, your relationship is formed through your emails. Particularly with contacts from more relationship-focused cultures make sure you start your email with a personal question like ‘did you have a good weekend?’ and don’t be afraid to include personal information about yourself like ‘I’m well thank you, going on holiday next week.’ This can be strange for people from more task-focused cultures but imagine meeting someone face to face and never having a personal conversation? Email should be the same.
3. Have a clear beginning, middle and end
If you don’t know what you want to say, why are you even sending an email? Use this three point structure to ensure your reader doesn’t have to spend hours decoding your message:
· Say what you need
· Say why you need it
· Say when you need it
Bear in mind that in some cultures the preference is to say what’s important first while in others more detail and background information is required.
4. Use short, simple sentences
Emails may never win awards for literary writing but they’re not designed to. Use direct language and short, clear sentences so that your international readers can understand exactly what you need immediately. If your sentences are longer than ten to twelve words, they’re too long. Rewrite the information in two sentences.
5. Use simple vocabulary and never use jargon
Unless you know your recipient will understand the words you use, don’t use them. Keep your words simple and stay within the language you would expect people in your industry to know. A good guide is if you wouldn’t say something in conversation don’t put it in an email.
6. Use an appropriate sign off
And how should you close your email? ‘Yours sincerely’, ‘Best regards’, ‘Kind regards’ or ‘Cheers’. Consider the level of formality of your relationship with your recipient as well as how formal their culture is and then reflect this in the way you open and close your email.
So, if you make sure you consider the specific context of your reader combined with some universal best practice you should find your email is appreciated and actioned by your audience, wherever they are in the world.