Avoiding cultural mishaps in your business writing

This advice can help you compose and interpret professional correspondence.
 Avoiding cultural mishaps in your business writing

Many of us today work in a cross-cultural environment. In such a setting, meaning may differ greatly when a writer comes from a culture different from that of the reader, whether the communication is between colleagues or those doing business with one another.

We work with people whose assumptions, values, and beliefs may differ greatly from our own. The potential for misunderstandings, therefore, is huge.

In his book The Silent Language, anthropologist Edward T. Hall defined cultures as being “high-context” or “low-context”. A high-context culture relies on implicit communication. Loyalty is to people, not to written words, and co-operation and group identity are important to productivity. A low-context culture relies on explicit communication. Loyalty is to written words, not to the people who write them, and individuality and speed are more highly valued. One can encounter both in the course of a workday.

Here are some tips on how to take these differences into account in the workplace, for those on both the giving and receiving end of communications.

Managing language

Use words and structures that everyone can understand easily to avoid the potential for miscommunication. In this simple style of writing, called plain English, every word is known to every reader and retains its original meaning. Plain English does not use idioms, for example. “She’s got a lot on her plate” is not about plates. “Let’s touch base on Friday morning” is not about touching anything. Both are expressions not used outside of the West.

Plain English does not use trendy language, such as “circle back”, “perfect storm”, or “crunch time”. As a rule, if you are using a trendy phrase because you feel it will impress your readers, stop yourself.

Also, limit each sentence to just two ideas. Put the main idea first. Link each idea to an idea before it so that readers can easily follow your logic.

Managing information

Consider how much contextual information a reader expects and how much you need to work on your rapport with your reader.

Readers from a low-context culture expect to receive only the most essential details — the details they need in order to complete the task that you’ve set for them. If you give these readers more than only the most essential details, they may feel that you are not task-oriented or that you are unclear about their needs.

Readers from a high-context culture expect to receive the full context behind the task that you’ve set for them, and these readers also expect you to develop a stronger rapport with them. If you do not give them the context or if you do not develop the rapport, they may feel that you are unhelpful, abrupt, or even rude.

Managing tasks

Whatever culture you are working in, state tasks explicitly and put those tasks near the beginning of your email.

The universal principle is that readers can only process finer details if they already know what to do with them. Putting the task first aligns with this principle. The challenge in a high-context culture is that few readers expect to see a task at the beginning of an email. You may need to explain to these readers why you are writing so directly.

Managing deadlines

Deadlines need to be stated explicitly, too, in any culture you are working in. If you are writing in a high-context culture, you may need to put more effort into encouraging readers to adhere to those deadlines.

In a high-context culture, the strength of your relationship with the reader has more impact on whether the reader commits to a deadline. In a low-context culture, however, the strength of your message dictates this. To strengthen your message, immediately state the explicit benefits of adhering to a deadline, or the negative consequences of not doing so.

Managing hierarchy and conflict

Make yourself aware of the level of deference to authority in the culture you are working in. In a high-context culture you may need to respect authority by using phrases that feel excessively polite, formal, or tentative, such as “Please kindly …”, “It would be much appreciated if …”, or “I hope you don’t mind me asking …”. The importance of personal reputation in a high-context culture means you should also avoid disagreeing with or criticising someone directly in writing, especially if you copy others in on the email.

If you are working in a low-context culture you might notice that people disagree and criticise more openly than you are used to. Remember that they are disagreeing with the opinion, not with you. They are criticising an action, not you.

Simon Miles, Ph.D., is a founding partner of My Writing Coach, a Hong Kong-based business writing consultancy. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at