Generally, email culture varies widely around the world, from the response times you can expect to the phrasing and tone used. So, if you plan to communicate with colleagues, new clients, or sources from other countries, we’ve rounded up some examples of email etiquette and other quirks to remember to help ensure smooth communication.
You won’t find many direct declines peppering emails from Indians. People will throw out a “maybe” or “yes, but” to imply “no” without actually saying it. This allows both parties to “save face,” an important cultural concept where both parties avoid an embarrassment that could come from a refusal. For example, if you ask an India-based colleague to Skype at what would be 7 p.m. their time, they may reply with “yes” but then mention that they will push back their dinner plans as a way to signal that the time isn’t actually convenient—that’s your cue to suggest an earlier time.
When you send over a suggestion or a business plan and an Indian colleague responds that they have some “doubts” on the issue, they could very well just mean that they have questions. There are Hindi and Tamil words that effectively mean both, so someone may inadvertently write the former, which comes across as much more negative, when they really mean the latter.
In China, people state their names with their surname first, followed by their given name. It would be rude to call someone only by his or her last name, so a Westerner would have to make sure to switch the order before adding a title (Mr., Ms, etc). However, Chinese people will sometimes preemptively use the Western format when emailing Western companies, which would lead to confusion if the recipient tries to swap the names. When in doubt about someone’s name, ask.
While many Americans see emoticons as unprofessional, the Chinese generally don’t. Porter Erisman, who worked at the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba for many years and wrote the book Alibaba’s World about his experience, says that even senior managers would include “all sorts of cute smiley faces and animations” in their emails. “At first it seemed a little strange to me, but by the time I left the company, even I was peppering my internal emails with little emoticons everywhere,” he tells mental_floss. “It got to the point that when new Western colleagues would enter the company, I would encourage them to ‘cutify’ their emails a little bit to come across more human and friendly.”
An email from a Korean associate might begin with what seems like a completely unrelated message. For example, a Korean-style email might go something like, “Dear Ms. Smith. This is Joe Schmo. The rainy season in Korea is now upon us. I hope you have a good umbrella. I’m contacting you because … ” as one Reddit user explains it.
It is routine for a Korean to conclude an email with the equivalent of “the end” without it meaning that communication should stop, according to Steven Bammel, a consultant on Korean business practices. Koreans may also close an email with “work hard” or “suffer a lot,” which are as much a standard, conversational closer as “take it easy” might be for an American (but it shows the Korean emphasis on the importance of hard work and competitiveness).
In Germany, it’s customary to begin emails with a greeting that is equivalent to “Dear Sir / Madam” even within the same office. Other little quirks: Germans start the sentence after their greeting with a lowercase letter and frequently don’t use a comma between their sign-offs and signature.