MIND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES WHEN YOU EMAIL

There are the obvious barriers: the poorly written subject lines, suspicious email addresses and spam. Then there is the cultural divide between sender and receiver.

Not so long ago we were dreaming of a paperless office. Well, thanks to technology it is now following us everywhere. Yes, even in the comfort room, you can hear the ping of incoming emails. And they are everywhere: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Outlook, Gmail …

Adding to the load is COVID-19. It has changed our homes into workplaces and is drowning us with a deluge of emails. Surveys by email service providers have shown that in some industries email traffic volumes have jumped with as much as 500%.

So how do you sift through your swamped inbox? Which emails do you open? And to which emails are you going to reply?

There are the obvious barriers: the poorly written subject lines, suspicious email addresses and spam.

Then there is the cultural divide between sender and receiver.

A pleasantry to end an email is stock standard, isn’t it?  But what’s pleasant to the writer, may raise red flags to the recipient.

An article in the Daily Trust News illustrates how cultural perceptions and uniquely Nigerian expressions in an email can trigger scam alarms.  And we all know how we deal with “419 English” expressions: Delete!

The article tells the story of a Nigerian professor’s shock when a US professor read his email and decided to withdraw her offer of introducing him to people in environmental education because his written English was “suspect.” 

The Nigerian asked the US professor to send an example of something he expressed incorrectly. 

The first example she gave, was his last sentence, “I hope to read from you soon.” 

 

The correct expression aka native American English speakers is “I hope to hear from you soon.”

The Nigerian said he cleared his throat and told her “It was not a face-to-face communication and that I thought the word to hear did not fit into a totally text-based communication.”

Needless to say, the American did not sound impressed and till date never returned his calls. 

 “Should I change my communication style and let orality creep into my text? Does anyone know the rules about such things?”  asked the perplexed Nigerian.

I would certainly also have run for the hills, receiving an email with “I hope to read from you soon.” Not only is it unconventional among native English speakers, but it is also a core phrase associated with 419 emails from Nigeria.

Of course, it is unfair, because it’s part of the lexical and expressive repertoire of Nigerian English.  But the professor’s experience compels us to reflect on the role of cross-linguistic and inter-dialectal differences in tone perception.

Anthropologist Edward Hall believes some cultural groups are more direct in their communication. 


Germans, Scandinavians, Americans, and English mother tongue speakers, which fall in Hall’s “low culture” category, tend to be very direct in their communication. 


Emails from this grouping are clear, simple, direct, and straight to the point. The “low culture” family can also be categorised as writer-responsible, according to linguist John Hinds theory.

They believe it is the writer’s responsibility to ensure that the reader understands what he or she writes.

On the other side of the spectrum are Hall’s high cultural groups (Spanish, Mexican, Greek, Arab, African, and Chinese).  Emails from these groups are more likely to be wordy, flowery, indirect, and implicit. 

 

Based on Hinds’ theory they fall in the reader-responsible category. In their minds the onus falls squarely on the reader to figure out what the writer is trying to say.

If writer and recipient are at cross purposes, someone from a reader-responsible cultural group might frown at your “bluntness” or think you are patronising if you wrote to the point. 

“I am not six years old. Do you think I am stupid?!”

A recipient of an email from a reader-responsible cultural group might think the author of a long wordy email wrote terrible English, or don’t know how to think clearly. 

“Really? Get to the point!”

A recipient of an email from a reader-responsible cultural group might think the author of a long wordy email wrote terrible English, or don’t know how to think clearly. “Really? Get to the point!”

Who is right? 

Each style of writing has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Getting through the murky waters of cultural differences

Be mindful of your recipient and observe the different communication standards of cultural groups.

Know your recipient’s background.

Be clear about your own purpose of writing that email.

Observe individual differences

  • Stay clear of stereotyping.
  • Try to understand the receiver’s level of English.
  • Use simplified English, stripped of words that might have duplicate meanings when communicating with other cultural groups.

Something all cultural groups appreciate, is the power of punctuality

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Acknowledging receipt of an important email communicates professionalism and commitment. All recipients hope to “hear” or “read from you soon.”