Writers without borders: three rules for international emails

Given the nature of business today, it’s very likely that at some point you’ll have to write to someone from another country – or someone whose first language isn’t English. (We are making a bit of an assumption – that, since you’re here, you tend to write in English.)

English has been called ‘the language of global business’. Many international organisations set English as their working language even when it’s a minority language for most of the member countries.

But your message could be lost in translation if you don’t adapt the way you write in these situations. If you’re not careful, you could confuse or irritate these readers with unfamiliar words, concepts or references.

So here are three simple rules for effective emailing across borders.
 

Rule 1: Use simple, concrete language

OK, you might know that this is a rule we recommend for any business communication. But it’s especially relevant when you’re writing to second-language speakers of English.

English can be a bit quirky. It’s stuffed full of word clusters that native speakers use naturally, but which can cause your international readers problems.

For example, we use short, informal phrases that stand in for certain verbs (doing or being words) – but which don’t literally describe them. These are called phrasal verbs: things like ‘put up with’, ‘look up to’ or ‘top up’. Together, these clusters have specific meaning for native speakers. However, while your reader may understand each separate word, a literal translation of the cluster will make no sense.

So swap the phrase for a straightforward one-word alternative, such as:

  • ‘tolerate’ for ‘put up with’
  • ‘admire’ for ‘look up to’
  • ‘fill’ for ‘top up’.

Be on the lookout too for individual words that might confuse. A word like ‘firm’ has more than one meaning. If you mean ‘company’, say that instead. (Though do be aware that from a legal standpoint a ‘firm’ does differ from a ‘company’.)

Stick to short, simple sentences. And favour verbs over nouns, and concrete terms rather than waffly generalities or abstract terms.

This might include abstract nouns: words that refer to an event, state, quality, concept or feeling. These are things that don’t exist physically, such as meeting, consideration, anger, freedom, research, problem.

You don’t have to ban them completely, but try not to have too many in each sentence. Quite often you will be able to transform heavy noun phrases into verbs, which will have the added bonus of making your sentences shorter and simpler.

 

Before:

 

After:

 

Rule 2: Avoid abbreviations and acronyms

Any collection of letters may have a very different meaning in other countries. So, while a UK reader would immediately understand the letters BBC to mean the British Broadcasting Corporation, to someone somewhere else it may stand for the Bat-lovers of British Columbia. Or the Boy Buglers of Canberra. (OK, those might not be real organisations. But you never know.)

Even an abbreviation as familiar to a first-language English speaker as ASAP could bemuse a non-native speaker.

So, with a global audience, only use abbreviations or acronyms when absolutely necessary. And always explain them in full the first time you use them.
 

Rule 3: Take care with colloquial expressions and popular culture

You can’t ever assume your reader will be familiar with your country’s culture or sayings.

Look out particularly for expressions like ‘see the light’, ‘think outside the box’ or ‘put the project to bed’ – and avoid them completely. These are known as idioms, and – like phrasal verbs – they make no sense when translated literally. Many readers will have no idea what to do if you ask them to keep their eye on the ball, give you the nod or push the envelope – and a dictionary probably won’t help them. (Not that we’d recommend using those expressions among an exclusively UK-English speaking group either.)

Non-native English speakers are also unlikely to be familiar with the concepts of ‘sacred cows’, ‘piggy banks’ and ‘being in the black’. So cut these sort of terms too.
 

Beyond language barriers

It might sound obvious, but the key here (as it so often is) is awareness. The most important thing when you’re emailing people from other cultures or with other native languages is just to keep that fact in mind when you write, and make all your language decisions from that awareness.

And, for particularly important correspondents, that might extend to doing a bit of research. Showing knowledge and understanding of your reader’s culture goes an extra step beyond simply avoiding misunderstandings.

Your effort is likely to be greatly appreciated – and that could make a world of difference.

 

This is an extract from a lesson in our online-training programme Emphasis 360, which improves your writing in practical, bite-sized weekly lessons. The full version of this lesson has an extra two rules and an exercise to check your knowledge. You can find out more about Emphasis 360 and preview more lessons for free here.

Image credit: BestPhotoPlus / Shutterstock

 

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