Avoiding Confusion when
Communicating Internationally by Email

See also: Intercultural Awareness

Did you know that in France there was recently a ban on employees checking work emails after 6pm?

Whether we realise it or not, different countries and cultures approach emails in different ways. This can lead to serious communication issues.

The way in which we communicate with each other has reached levels that are like scenes from a futuristic science fiction film made in the 1980s. The ability to attach this article to an email and send it to an Editor around the world has fundamentally changed the way in which we all work.

With all this technology our lives have without doubt become a lot easier, however it has also caused problems that need to be overcome especially when it comes to working globally, cross-culturally and virtually. 

We all tend to use emails when we work, however how many of us really appreciate the traps involved in communicating in this way? This is especially true when working internationally - language and cultural differences have a big impact on how we write, read, interpret and use emails. If left ignored, it can lead to poor communication, misunderstandings, lost time, inefficiencies and lost business.

Just as different countries and cultures have different approaches to meetings or gift giving, they also approach emails differently. Consider these potential differences and what impact they can have on communication.

Ask yourself

  • What is the purpose of an email?
  • How should it be formatted?
  • When should one be sent?
  • What is the time frame in which a response is expected?
  • Do you ask personal details or keep it strictly business?
  • Is an email to inform, to instruct or to engage?
  • What is not acceptable to put into an email?
  • What tone or level of formality should you expect?

As you might research business card etiquette when travelling to Japan, one should similarly look at how they should adapt their emails when writing to someone in Japan, or wherever it is.

In this short article, we will look at two important issues that have to be considered when sending emails for work on an international scale: language and culture.


The English language continues to be the lingua franca of the modern business world even if more and more people are actually speaking other languages.

It’s not the easiest of languages to become proficient in so those who aren’t comfortable with it can easily make mistakes that lead to confusion and misunderstanding and that’s not exactly going to make business transactions any easier despite the swiftness of the communication.

If English is your second language this can lead to spelling mistakes, poor grammar and as a result a total lack of clarity. The person sending the message may well have had problems in writing it but those receiving it now have the problem of working out exactly what it all means.

Think about ambiguity. Look at these sentences below. Even a native English speaker will have a tough time deciphering the exact meaning or emphasis; so imagine if you are from India or Brazil?

  • The lady hit the man with an umbrella.
  • He gave her cat food.
  • The man saw the boy with the binoculars.
  • They are hunting dogs.
  • I saw her duck.

See what I mean?

So how can you overcome a problem of this nature? It’s important to look beyond the form to the intent and if there is still confusion then reply to the email asking for clarification on the points that you’re not sure about.  Another good suggestion is to send closed-ended questions that simply require ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.

If English is your native language, it’s key that you start to adapt your writing style to a more ‘international English’. Remember not everyone will read your emails and understand the first time; it could take some people a long time to digest and de-code a complex email in English.

Keep emails simple – simple grammar, simple vocabulary and simple messages.
You should also avoid using slang, idioms or sayings that could stump the reader at the other end resulting in them wasting valuable minutes to research an obscure English phrase.

Remember, we may all speak and write English, but we all speak and write slightly differently so bear this in mind next time you read or pen an email to someone abroad.


When you hold a face-to-face meeting with someone from another culture it’s not always easy. However, with the benefit of common sense and having your counterpart across a table from you can make it easier. With emails, nobody has this luxury – it can be faceless, voiceless and toneless in every way. 

Different cultures use varying formats for emails and you need to learn about this. Some cultures adopt a formal culture starting an email by addressing someone with their name and sometimes even their surname. Other cultures may not do this at all and simply head straight into the business in hand. Research is needed because if you send an informal email to someone who’s used to continually receiving formal emails it may appear blunt.

Cultures will also approach emails in different ways. For some the email is the formal expression of a business interest – it’s serious. Others see them as “for information purposes” and will not apportion the same sense of gravitas to it.

For example, an American may email a supplier with a long list of needs, deadlines and questions expecting a prompt response. The receiver in Pakistan might however receive the email on a Friday (a holy day) and on top of this, they see the email as briefing them on things they need to get back to the sender on ‘at some point’.

The approach to time and priority is completely different. As a result of the differences, the American sees the Pakistani as lazy or incompetent and complains, which leads the Pakistani to see the American as rude, pushy and arrogant. In reality, neither of them are any of those things.

See our page on Intercultural Communication for more.

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Emailing is such an important part of conducting business that these issues cannot be disregarded. It is vital to reduce the chances of misunderstandings that can take business dealings in a totally wrong direction.

People should keep an open mind so as to reduce these miscommunications and make extra efforts to try and understand where the other person is coming from.

About the Author

Neil Payne is Marketing Director at Training South West, a UK training company specialising in business training courses.