Cultural differences in emailing
Summary: Cultural differences in email communication, including differences between British, American, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Norwegian emails.
Among the many difficulties of writing emails, perhaps the greatest is cultural differences between countries (including between different English-speaking countries). These are also the kinds of things that automatic translation tends to miss, and that are difficult to find, notice and copy from other people’s emails.
Every part of emails varies from culture to culture, including:
- Subject lines
- Opening greetings
- Body of the email
- Closing lines
- Closing greetings
- Name at the end
- If and when emails are sent
- How personal/ specific or fixed emails are
- Formality and politeness
This article will go through some major differences, possible misunderstandings and common errors related to each of those topics. There is also a more detailed article on this site on differences between US and UK emails. For over 300 pages of English emailing practice, see Teaching Emailing: Interactive Classroom Activities at https://www.usingenglish.com/e-books/teaching-emailing/
Cultural differences in email subject lines
Tips for an effective subject line like giving enough but not too much information and not sounding like spam are probably good for doing business in any culture. However, people in some countries follow these modern international business norms less often, including commonly using subject lines which might be considered too vague or even sound like phishing scams like “The latest matter” or “A business proposal”. I’ve also occasionally received emails where the subject line avoids the main subject completely and instead says something like “The rainy season is approaching” or “Thank you for meeting me yesterday”, perhaps to not seem too direct. Cultures which value work efficiency above small talk would not appreciate this!
At the opposite extreme, I’ve also received emails with words I’d probably leave until the actual body of the email like “Problems with the venue” and “Request for your help with my urgent project”.
Most non-native English speakers, along with most younger native English speakers, have only come across “Re:…” as part of a reply email and so are convinced that it is short for “Reply”. It actually means “Regarding” and so could be used in the subject line of a first message, as it often was in faxes. However, as this would confuse most recipients, first messages should use “About…”, “Regarding…”, etc instead of “Re;…”
Cultural differences in email opening greetings
The English opening words “Dear…” and “Hi…” don’t always translate well into other language. Other options which are not commonly used in English include:
- To… (only used in cards and group emails in English)
- Very honoured…
- Good morning/ Good afternoon
- nothing (just the name, perhaps in a polite form)
After such first words, in many languages it is common to use a description of the person in phrases like “Dear CEO” and “Dear Engineer Jones”. These are not common in English, with “Dear Dr…”, “Dear Professor…” and “Dear customer” being the only common ones with one person, and the last of those not as good as using their name.
The parts of the name that are used in email opening greetings also vary, with “Dear title + full name” being rare and “Dear title + first name” being wrong in English, but both being common in some other places. This means that in English there is a big gap in formality between “Dear Mr Smith” and “Dear John”, so I often recommend using titles from your own or the recipient’s language that can be used that way, as in “Dear Akira-san”.
A small difference between British and American emails is the use of points with titles, being “Mr.”, “Ms.”, “Dr.” and “Mrs.” in American English but “Mr”, “Ms”, etc with no point in British English.
Female titles that show marital status are rarely used in modern English emails, with “Mrs/ Mrs.” only used if that person uses it themselves, e.g. if it was on the business card that they gave you. Similar changes have happened in other languages such as French and German, but there are differences in some places such as in how quickly such changes have actually been taken up in formal business communication.
If and when you switch what part of the name you include in emails can vary a lot. English speakers are quick to switch from “Dear Mr Smith” to “Dear John” and then “Hi John”, perhaps even with people you have never met but have emailed a lot, and continuing with “Dear Mr Smith” after the other person has switched to “Dear Jose” is considered very unfriendly. In contrast, German and Japanese business emails almost always use family names, even with colleagues and long-term customers.
When you don’t know someone’s name, the standard English phrases are “Dear Sir/ Madam” and “Dear Sir or Madam”, with Americans being slightly more likely to still use the old forms “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs”. As with the use of descriptions of people more generally, English speakers don’t write “Dear sales department” or “Dear head of marketing” in such situations, but this is standard in some other places. In some places it is considered more formal to use expressions like these even when you know someone’s name, but in English names are always preferable. Perhaps the biggest potential confusion is that the equivalent to “Dear Sir or Madam” in languages such as Spanish looks similar to “To whom is may concern”. However, “To whom it may concerns” is only used in English when you have no idea when the email may be read and who might read it, meaning that this expression is rare and much less common than “Dear Sir or Madam”.
Standard English opening greetings to groups of people include “To: All…”, “Dear all”, “Hi everyone”, “Hi!” and possibly “Hi guys”. Too formal a choice can sound unfriendly or even that bad news is coming in English. I haven’t found any other languages that have as many options and in which you have to think so carefully about exactly the right level of formality or informality.
Cultural differences in email opening lines
English emails almost never start with the sender’s name, and “My name is…” in this position make the email seem like a phishing scam. Instead, English speakers would generally start with the reason for writing and then leave the personal introduction until the body.
If you already know the other person, in some cultures such as Korea it is still considered polite to start with something like “This is Alex”, as you would in a phone call. In English it is considered enough that they can work out who you are from your email address and/ or your name at the bottom of the email. In fact, I’ve only used “This is Alex” once, when I had to use my wife’s mobile and so it might look like the email was coming from her rather than from me.
When to get down to business in an email can also vary, with English emails generally getting down the point as quickly as possible, and a few other languages being even less likely to have “How’s it going?” etc first. In contrast, other places tend to use equivalents of “I hope this email finds you well” in almost every email. Although I have received fewer examples than I had come to expect, many people who deal with people in East Asian comment on poetic-sounding first lines like “The cherry blossom is already falling from the trees and summer is approaching”.
Other opening lines which are used but not in the UK or US include:
- Thank you for your support always (Japanese, needing to be something more specific like “Thank you for your quick reply” in English)
- Nice to meet you (Japanese, not used in English because our first contact is emailing, so we haven’t actually met)
- I have taken the liberty of writing you to… (French, and like many French phrases theoretically possible in English but almost always too over-the-top)
- Sorry to interrupt you when you are busy (Japanese, needing to be something that I know for sure to be true like “Sorry for writing at what I know is an especially busy time of year” in English)
Cultural differences in the body of emails
As almost any function is possible in the body of an email, writing that part can bring up problems of cultural differences in thanking, apologising, negotiating, etc, etc. I have found the most common and biggest problems to be in requests, giving reasons, deadlines, positive and negative answers, apologising, and highlighting important information.
The language of requests does not translate well from place to place. Most commonly, language which is only used for commands/ orders/ instructions in English like “Please send me…” or “I’d like you to send me…” are perfectly fine for requests in other languages such as Japanese and Spanish. In addition, Americans dislike using “Can I…?” for requests and use “May I…?” to be more polite than “Could I…?” In contrast, in British English “Can I…?” is quite standard and “May I…?” has the slightly different function of asking for permission, with phrases like “Could I possibly…?” being used to be more polite when requesting.
There are also variations in the use of reasons. English speakers tend to give detailed reasons in all negative situations, but in Japan a detailed reason for a problem could be considered avoiding taking the blame, so just more apologising is often better.
Being detailed and specific is also generally better when giving deadlines in English, for example writing “Sorry but I really need this by close of business on Thursday because…” instead of the vague and probably ineffective “as soon as you can”, which might well be taken to have as little meaning as the “soon” in “I look forward to hearing from you soon”. In other cultures, something like “as soon as possible” or “as soon as you can” is more common.
Positive and negative answers are a famous reason for misunderstandings between Americans and Brits, with many stories about the British politely but clearly no with “That may be a problem” and the other side saying “Let’s find a solution”. In international communication, perhaps the best approach is to use lots of apologetic language like “I’m really sorry but…” and then to clearly say “that’s not possible because….”
The American tendency to reply to complaints with sympathetic language like “We are sorry to hear that” rather than actual apologies may have the practical reason of avoiding accepting responsibility and so avoiding being sued. This is also becoming more common in UK business, despite this practice annoying Brits, who traditionally expect and use apologies as much as possible.
Although some English speakers do use underlining, bold, exclamation marks, all caps and even multiple exclamation marks (“Any claims after this date WILL NOT BE PAID!!”), it’s generally best to avoid all of these and just use language like “Please note that…” and “NB…” In other places it might be acceptable to use formatting, capital letters or punctuation to do that job. This can also include other punctuation, such as the Japanese use of triangle brackets in <Important>.
Cultural differences in paragraphing in emails
Good English email paragraphs follow the same rules as paragraphs in other kinds of writing such as reports, with rules like:
- Leave a blank line (or possibly indent) between paragraphs
- Avoid one-sentence paragraphs
- A new paragraph is a new topic, and a new topic should mean a new paragraph
- Sometimes start a new paragraph because the previous one reached four or five sentences, but try to make it when there is at least a small change in topic
- Within the paragraphs, start each sentence just after the last one, so that it looks like an essay, article, etc
These are good tips in most languages, but in some places the length of the paragraph is more important than the one topic per paragraph rule. The biggest difference I’ve come across is that Japanese employees are told to start a new line with each sentence within the paragraph, making it look like a poem or song lyrics. This is wrong in English. It is also often confusing, as it makes the email look like a list rather than a paragraph.
On the topic of lists, in some cultures bullet points and numbers in emails can seem scary, rude and/ or lazy, meaning phrases like “Your second question was…” are needed instead.
There can also be differences in the structure of the whole email, with typical English organisation for responses to complaints (apology or sounding sympathetic, reason, then future action), job applications (how you heard about it, why you are interested, why you are the best person, your availability), not the same or not as fixed in some other cultures.
Cultural differences in ending emails
Cultural differences in email closing lines
About 90% of English business emails end with something like “I look forward to hearing from you soon”, “If you need any more information, please contact me”, and “Thank you in advance”, with the main variations just being in formality. Some other languages have other common variations. These include things which you would put in the body of an English email like “I really need this information by Friday”, “We will contact you as soon as possible” and “Please let me know”, while my Korean students ended almost every English email with “Thank you for your cooperation”.
In English, “Thank you for your cooperation” is only used for commands/ orders/ instructions, usually in group emails, and even “Thank you in advance” can be a bit heavy. Therefore British senders often use the more casual and therefore lighter “Cheers”, something which some Americans also find useful but is far from standard there.
Social closing lines like “Have a good weekend” are optional in English and maybe limited to when other more transactional lines don’t seem to fit, but in other languages such as Korean phrases like “Please take care of your health in the muggy weather” are standard.
Closing lines from other languages which are not common in English include:
- Accept an abundance of respect and appreciation (Arabic)
- I am at your disposal for anything you need (Spanish)
- I’m waiting for your news (Spanish)
- Thanks for your time (Spanish)
- This is the end of the email (Japanese and Korean)
- We are at your disposal for any questions. (French)
- We hope that we were able to provide you with all the necessary information. (French)
- We will contact you as soon as possible. (French – used in the body in English, probably with something more fixed and standard like “Thank you for your patience” or “Speak to you soon” as the closing line)
Cultural differences in email closing greetings
In English there are a huge range of options which can be approximately ranked by formality from “Sincerely yours” to “XOXO”. Even in business, overusing formal ones like “Best regards” can seem unfriendly in English. You also have to make sure that the closing greeting matches the opening greeting by level of formality, for example not putting “Hi John” with “Yours” or “Regards”. In contrast, in some other places all business emails end with one or two fixed phrases, perhaps not even varying by if the email is internal or external.
There are also some which have different levels of formality than the closest English equivalent. For example, the German equivalent of the informal English closing greeting “Best wishes” is formal and “Hugs” is used even in business in Portuguese.
Closing greetings which are used elsewhere but not in English include:
- A greeting (Spanish)
- A thousand kisses (French)
- Attentively (Spanish)
- Cordial greetings (Italian)
- Distinguished salutations (French)
- Sent by… (Korean)
- With friendly greetings (Sweden, Norway and Germany)
Cultural differences in using your name as the end of emails
Due to problems like family names being given first in Chinese and Hungarian and names whose gender might not be clear, it’s probably best to sign off international emails with your family name in capitals and your title in brackets afterwards, as in “Alex CASE (Mr)” or “OKAMOTO, Taro (Mr)”, as this will make it easy for the receiver to write back in the correct way. However, in English this is too formal for many situations, so this should go in your automatic email signature, then you should write “Alex” etc at the right level of formality each time before that. Using just my first name in this way can also be a useful sign that you can address me with just my first name in the next email. Signing off with just your family name (“Okamoto”) is not standard in modern English, but is common in many other places.
Cultural differences in punctuation in emails
As well as the differences between “Mr” and “Mr.”, another US and UK difference is Americans sometimes using a colon in “Dear Mr Jones:”, something which is rare in the UK. Other languages may use a colon, a comma (as in more old-fashioned English emails), nothing (in the most common modern English style), or something else.
There are also differences in use of capital letters, such as Germans not writing a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence after the opening greeting, presumably because they use a comma after “Dear Mr Director Schmidt,”
Cultural differences in when and if emails are sent
My Japanese contacts often send one more email saying something like “That is understood” or “Thank you for agreeing to my final suggestion for a meeting time”. For me this seems to serve no more purpose than to cram up my email inbox, but this is presumably considered polite in Japan.
Cultural differences in how fixed or variable emails are
As in other interactions like shopping language, English emails tend to be fairly fixed in starting and ending, but with some personal touches like “How was your trip to Paris?” common for social language, and with many possible levels of formality. Other languages such as Japanese may be so fixed that a computer can easily and usefully finish most of your business email phrases for you once you have written the first word or two. In contrast my Greek teacher told me that shopping interactions vary so much that there was no point trying to present and practice suitable language, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to remember enough Greek to work out if the same is true of emailing.
Cultural differences in formality in emails
Emailing formality differences across cultures include:
- Use of names (family name, full name, first name, initials, etc) and titles
- If social opening and/ or closing lines are considered necessary in formal emails or not
- When opening and/ or closing lines are considered necessary (including when just an automatic email signature is okay)
- In what situations you can switch from formal to more informal language
- How similar or different formal and informal business emails are
- How similar or different business emails and letters are
- How similar or different personal and business emails are
- Use of abbreviations
- Use of emoticons (and punctuation that make similar shapes to emojis)
- How similar or different emails and SMS texts, social media messages and instant messaging app messages are
- When it’s better to send an email, and when it’s better to communicate in different ways (instant messaging, letter, etc)
There are also many more general differences between languages that tend to come up also in emailing, such as:
- If you should use “you” or not, and if so what form
- How much the passive voice should be used
Some of these things vary as much from company to company, industry to industry and (especially) generation to generation as much as by country.
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