Writing International Correspondence in a Professional Manner

Be aware of the culture and the relationship

If you are corresponding with someone in another country, your company has probably established a relationship with their company. If possible, meet with an individual in your company who can tell you about the relationship between the two companies and perhaps something about the business culture, as well. Having this background information will help you establish an appropriate relationship with the individual(s) with whom you’ll correspond.

Find out how to address the recipient

Because business relationships in other countries are often more formal than in the United States, address your recipient by his or her last name until invited to do otherwise. Even if you are on a first- name basis when you speak, it’s best to use last names in written correspondence. Also include in their address any honorary titles or advanced degrees they might hold (Ph.D., etc.). One way to avoid offending colleagues from another country is to follow their lead: Mimic the way they address you.

Choose an appropriate tone

Finding out about the conventions of the other culture will help you choose the appropriate tone. If you’re in doubt, err on the side of formality, as informality is sometimes considered rude in other countries. Avoid words that could be considered demanding (such as must). Do not attempt to be funny; humor usually does not translate well between cultures and is often considered inappropriate. Be unfailingly courteous and respectful.

Avoid slang, jargon, idioms, figures of speech, and emotions

When composing a business document that will be read by natives of another country, avoid slang, jargon, idioms, figures of speech, and any other words or phrases that could be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Emoticons are inappropriate in any business correspondence.

Be particularly conscious of spelling

The correct spelling is extremely important in international correspondence: If a word is spelled incorrectly but is still a word, recipients may find an unintended meaning when they look it up in the dictionary.

Consider approaching your topic indirectly

In some cultures, it is considered rude to bring up business right away. Soften your approach with personal greetings or the written equivalent of small talk before addressing the subject at hand. Even when discussing the meat of your document, consider using a more indirect approach than you might normally use. In some cultures, subtlety and reading between the lines are the norms.

Don’t assume all cultures are alike

Do your research on the customs of individual countries, even if they are in similar regions or located close to one another.

Keep in mind that date formats differ

Many countries other than the United States express dates as follows: 4 September 1973. Keep this in mind when writing and reading numerical forms for dates (9/4/73) so that months and days are not confused. Unless you are filling out forms where the date field is limited to six or eight digits, write out the complete date to avoid any chance of misunderstanding.

Offer alternatives to written correspondence

To establish a comfort level and reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding, suggest a phone call or video conference to discuss your topic – but only if you and your correspondent can converse in the same language fluently. Follow up any phone calls with written confirmation of their content, especially any decisions that were made.

Be mindful of time zone differences

Your contact in another country could be many hours behind or ahead of you, depending on which of the world’s 24 time zones he or she lives in. Find out early in your project the time difference between your two locations, and keep this difference in mind when you correspond. (Ask about “time changes,” too; other countries have their own versions of Daylight Saving Time, and their changes may take effect on different dates.) If you are using email, don’t expect instant responses. Check your contact’s time before placing a phone call.

Confirm format before sending attachments

If you email attachments, ask your contact what format to use. If your contact cannot access or read the documents you send (and vice versa), discontinue sending attachments and use a mail service (U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, etc.).

Remember you are representing your company – not yourself

The impression your contact has of your company may depend almost entirely on his or her impression of you. As sparkling and fun-loving as your personality may be, presenting yourself as a competent, professional business person is what matters in this relationship. Represent your company in the way you know your company wants to be represented.


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