Think before You “Send”

Email is a great tool for international transactions of all kinds. There are no telephone or postage charges, and you can send a message at any hour without worrying about time differences. But there can be pitfalls, especially when you are communicating with people from different countries and cultures. There are many opportunities for misunderstandings and unintentional slights.

Here are a few tips for avoiding problems in your use of email for international business transactions.

Use a Formal, Respectful Tone

Not everyone responds well to American informality. As Business Netiquette International puts it, “[P]eople in many countries find the friendly nature of Americans over-bearing at first encounter.” Friendly chit-chat that you might think would break the ice with an American customer, may hit the wrong note with a foreign customer. It may also be difficult to understand, because it often involves idiomatic expressions. It is easier to progress from formal to friendly as a relationship progresses than to start out with an informal tone that may weaken your position in a business relationship. In many cultures, it is particularly important to be formal when the message is addressed to a person of authority or an older person. They will expect a certain amount of deference.

This does not mean not to be courteous. Some niceties are welcome. In fact, international consultant Becky Lash has found that, “When you think you’re falling all over yourself in an email, you’ve probably set the appropriate tone for most speakers of English as a second language.” In most cases, though, you shouldn’t overdo it. It’s also important to keep your emails relatively short and direct so that you don’t waste your reader’s time – they are also busy people.

Use Short, Simple Sentences

Even if someone knows English, that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be able to follow complicated sentence structure. There will be more room for misunderstanding if your ideas are expressed in a complex manner. Try to use subject – verb – object sentence order whenever possible. Eliminate adverbs and adjectives where possible, since these especially likely to be misunderstood.

In particular, avoid the following:

  • Abbreviations or acronyms
  • Contractions
  • Possessives
  • Parenthetical expressions
  • Idioms, slang, or jargon
  • Compound verbs, progressive tenses (just use past and present and future)
  • Verb + preposition forms (use “start” rather than “boot up”)

Avoid Humor

For the most part, avoid trying to use humor. As The Claris Guide to Email Etiquette points out, “Different countries and cultures have different perceptions of what is funny or appropriate. Many points have been missed and international contacts lost due to misunderstanding of humor.” Avoid sarcasm at all costs. It is most likely to get you in trouble.

Use a Predictable Message Structure

If you’re engaged in a series of email communications with the same correspondent, try to keep your message format similar for each message to ease understanding. In all your messages overseas, keep in mind things like time, measurement and currency differences. If you reference a date and/or time, make sure that you specify the actual date (not tomorrow or yesterday) and make it clear what time zone you are referencing (theirs, yours or Greenwich Mean Time [GMT]). (Becky Lash recommends making your relation to GMT part of your email signature.)

Make sure you provide proper international dialing telephone codes and mailing information. When using currency figures, be sure to use either both countries’ monetary systems or the terminology used in the country in which the financial dealings take place. Convert English to metric measures where appropriate if they are important to your message.

Bulk email

If Americans are annoyed by bulk emails, foreigners may have an even more extreme reaction. “In North America, freedom is your highest ideal: in most other parts of the world privacy is held in higher regard!,” Business Netiquette International explains.

It is, therefore, not a good idea to spam foreign businesses, since it is likely to get a totally negative reaction; however, there may be times when you do want to send out an email to numerous businesses to test interest in your product or service. In that case, you should:

  • keep your solicitation very brief (Business Netiquette International believes that you can always get it down to one sentence);
  • use a mass mailing software or service that suppresses the recipient list or put the recipient list in as bcc’s; and
  • give your full name and a short signature line at the bottom of the message.

Be Patient

Email is a speedy means of communication, but remember that an international email may very well arrive during your recipient’s off-work hours or when there is a holiday that you don’t know about. Wait a few days before re-sending a message.

And time delays are not the only things you will need to be patient about. No matter how careful you are, misunderstandings will sometimes occur in email communications and will have to be worked through carefully in order to maintain the business relationship. It is important to try to keep your tone cheerful and positive and avoid expressing anger or frustration. If there are misunderstandings, just apologize and try to move past them quickly. Becky Lash’s advice: “Don’t explain yourself in detail, or you will appear to be justifying your past offense.” If there is a problem that must be hashed out, focus on finding a solution rather than assigning blame.


Email is a great, but it is very easy to shoot off a note without thinking carefully about its contents. Recipients can also easily misinterpret words without the voice inflections and body language that aid understanding in personal and telephone encounters. Emailing across cultures increases the chances for miscommunications. If you exercise some care, however, you can realize email’s full potential for facilitating your international business transactions.

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