In 2017, France enacted a new labor law that gave anyone who works at a company with 50 or more employees the "right to disconnect" from their email. That means employers actually have to establish policies discouraging people from sending or responding to messages outside of typical business hours. In February 2022, Belgium gave its government workers that same right.
While that ruling may sound like a utopian pipe dream to the many Americans for whom work communication infiltrates early mornings, late nights, and even weekends—especially as more people began working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic—it wasn’t such a big leap for the French, who have long valued work-life balance.
Generally, email culture varies widely around the world, from the response times you can expect to the phrasing and tone used. So, if you plan to chat with colleagues, new clients, or sources from other countries, read these examples of email etiquette and other quirks to smooth communication.
1. In India or other "high-context" cultures like Japan or China, people are less likely to say "no."
You won’t find many direct declines peppering emails from Indians. People will throw out a "maybe" or "yes, but" to imply "no" without actually saying it. This allows both parties to "save face," an important cultural concept where both parties avoid an embarrassment that could come from a refusal. For example, if you ask an India-based colleague to Skype at what would be 7 p.m. their time, they may reply with "yes" but then mention that they will push back their dinner plans as a way to signal that the time isn’t actually convenient—that's your cue to suggest an earlier time.
2. If an Indian writer has some "doubts," fear not.
When you send over a suggestion or a business plan and an Indian colleague responds that they have some "doubts" on the issue, they could very well just mean that they have questions. There are Hindi and Tamil words that effectively mean both, so someone may inadvertently write the former, which comes across as much more negative, when they really mean the latter.
3. Be careful how you address someone who emails from China.
In China, people state their names with their surname first, followed by their given name. It would be rude to call someone only by his or her last name, so a Westerner would have to make sure to switch the order before adding a title (Mr., Ms, etc). However, Chinese people will sometimes preemptively use the Western format when emailing Western companies, which would lead to confusion if the recipient tries to swap the names. When in doubt about someone’s name, ask.
4. In China, even business emails may be "cute."
While many Americans see emoticons as unprofessional, the Chinese generally don’t. Porter Erisman, who worked at the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba for many years and wrote the book Alibaba’s World about his experience, says that even senior managers would include "all sorts of cute smiley faces and animations" in their emails. "At first it seemed a little strange to me, but by the time I left the company, even I was peppering my internal emails with little emoticons everywhere," he told Mental Floss in 2017. "It got to the point that when new Western colleagues would enter the company, I would encourage them to 'cutify' their emails a little bit to come across more human and friendly."
5. Koreans typically begin an email with a general observation as a form of politeness.
An email from a Korean associate might begin with what seems like a completely unrelated message or pleasantry. For example, a Korean-style email might go something like, "Dear Ms. Smith. This is Joe Schmo. The rainy season in Korea is now upon us. I hope you have a good umbrella. I’m contacting you because ... " as one Reddit user explains it.
6. Koreans will sometimes end an email with "the end."
It's routine for a Korean to conclude an email with the equivalent of "the end" without it meaning that communication should stop, according to Steven Bammel, a consultant on Korean business practices. Koreans may also close an email with "work hard" or "suffer a lot," which are as much a standard, conversational closer as "take it easy" might be for an American (but it shows the Korean emphasis on the importance of hard work and competitiveness).
7. Germans keep their emails formal.
In Germany, it's customary to begin emails with a greeting that is equivalent to "Dear Sir/Madame" even within the same office. Other little quirks: Germans start the sentence after their greeting with a lowercase letter and frequently don't use a comma between their sign-offs and signature.
8. You should never address a Russian by just their name, unless explicitly invited to do so.
The formality is seen as a necessary sign of respect. You should also expect any business negotiation to move very slowly, particularly because many Russians see compromise as a sign of weakness.
9. The Japanese skew apologetic when making requests.
If you're asking a Japanese collaborator a question or for a favor, you should make sure to thoroughly acknowledge the effort it will require for them to help you and apologize accordingly. For example, use phrases like, "Sorry to interrupt you while you are busy" or "I'm terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but thank you …"
10. Most countries write the date in a way that would confuse Americans.
In most European and South American countries, as well as Australia and various African and Asian countries, people will use a "day/month/year" format instead of the "month/day/year" format that Americans are used to. While the difference can be easy to spot if someone requests a deadline of "14/4/17," an email referencing "9/4/17" could have you thinking that you have to wait several months for something to be decided or delivered. When in doubt, always clarify!
11. Italians may call you "Dottore," regarldess of whether you have a medical degree.
The word dottore or medico can be used to refer to a doctor in Italian, but the former takes on a different meaning when used in correspondence. Italians will use Dottore or Dottoressa as a respectful way to address people. "To deserve the title of 'Dottore,' you need only to have a university education—nothing to do with a degree in medicine," Italian businesswoman Daniela Roggero, who works in global training and HR development, explained to Mental Floss in 2017.
She also advises that you should be open to including details about your life in an email with Italian colleagues.
"We like to share personal situations, feelings, references to our family and so on even in work communication," Roggero said. “Also we love to start (mostly informal) emails with something funny, like 'You thought I had disappeared but here I am again!' or things like that."
12. Pay attention to whether you're using active or passive voice when emailing associates in the Philippines.
Filipinos will often show respect to someone of an equal or superior business rank by speaking or writing in the passive voice, as in "The rest of the information will be sent tomorrow" versus "I will send you the rest of the information tomorrow." Generally, people only use the active voice when communicating with those of lower rank. You can score points by adhering to the appropriate structure.
13. Do your research to know when to expect a response.
While Americans generally expect a fast turn-around time when communicating through email, other cultures have a much longer acceptable window for responses. Get used to several days or a week between messages when you're operating on Brazilian time, for example.
Similarly, people in most countries don't use "out of office" automated responses as much as Americans do, since immediate responses aren't expected. If you're doing a lot of international communicating and set a vacation autoresponse for the Monday and Friday that you're taking off for a long weekend, you will likely come across as a workaholic.
This story originally ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.