The success of any business depends on effective communication, and letter writing constitutes an integral and indispensable part of business communications. When writing international business letters, make sure to understand the established conventions in the recipient's land, what a word or phrase means in the recipient's culture, the importance of considering time zone differences, and addressing the letter properly.
Effective business letters always comply with the recipient’s cultural sensitivities. For example,
- Some cultures stress the need for very formal business letters, a stark contrast to the often casual and conversational tone of some business letters in America. For instance, applying for a license to do business or open a bank account in India requires a formal introductory letter that does not digress from the accepted style and pattern. Very often, the powers-that-be expect a standard letter in the recommended template, with only the names and figures changed.
- In many bureaucratic cultures such as the government in India, people higher up in the echelons of power consider a letter starting with “Dear Mr. XYZ “ as an insult and expect a salutation of “Sir” instead!
- The recommended approach for marketing pitches in America involves listing out potential uses of the product for the customer. Japanese culture, however, considers one person suggesting what another person should do inappropriate.
- It is also polite to wish the recipient success at a local festival underway. Although not a mandatory requirement, it may make the recipient more responsive.
Grammar and Language
Use standard and consistent grammar that employs simple words with clear-cut meanings. Similarly, avoid using slang and phrases that international recipients would remain clueless in deciphering.
A major manifestation of problems related to grammar and word usage is the different meaning or connotation of some words and phrases in British English and American English. British English is in vogue in most of the commonwealth countries.
Consider the following examples that illustrate the dangers of not understanding what a word means in the recipient's country:
- While the United States requires people to drive a car on the "pavement,” Britain makes it illegal to do so! The reason is that “pavement” means the “surface of the road” in American English, but means “a path with a hard surface beside the road” in British English.
- A "moot" point in traditional British English is the "point to discuss." In American English, "moot" means "null and void." Thus, an Englishman writing a business letter to an American stating, "The moot point is shipping the goods over the Atlantic," is stressing the need to discuss shipping logistics that are an important part of the deal. His American partner will interpret this term to mean, "the issue of shipping has no consequence to the deal."
- An Englishman once messaged his American girlfriend, "I'll give you a ring tomorrow." All he meant was that he would call her by telephone the next day. The American women, however, understood this phrase to mean the boyfriend had offered his betrothal. The lack of understanding of the subtle difference in word meaning led to the relationship breaking off!
Even when the word meaning is the same, the local context can make a world of difference. There is a famous story of a former minister from India on a visit to the U.S. wanting a modest bite to eat. He requested some sandwiches from a New York hotel. "How many do you want?" the room service asked. The foreign minister, imagining small triangles of thinly sliced bread that he associated with sandwiches replied, "Half-a-dozen." Six sandwiches arrived soon enough, each measuring a foot (30 centimeters) long and four inches high!
Another critical issue relates to translations. Many countries with English as a second language may interpret words differently from what the sender intends. For instance, an English movie where a cop commands a motor cyclist to “pull over from the road” once had Italian sub-titles that read "the cop asking the driver for his sweater!" Web based translation software may help in a big way, but it does have limitations. The better approach is to use simple words and sentences that leave no room for dual interpretations.
Time Zone Issues
Most people underestimate the importance of considering time zone differences when writing international business letters. Considering time zone differences becomes relevant in instances such as:
- Greeting a person “Good Morning” when it is evening or night there in real time communication, such as e-mail.
- Ending with the phrase “Waiting for your immediate response” when the recipient’s local time is 2 a.m. Make sure the email or other mode of communication reaches the recipient preferably in the morning or well before close of business hours in the recipient’s local time.
- Proposing voice chat, video-conferencing, or any other mode of real time engagement. For instance, proposing a daily review meeting at 5 p.m. EST in a business letter would require an Indian associate to tune in at 3.30 a.m. in the dead on the night.
Considering the recipient's time zone is a sure way to impress and increase responsiveness.
Another concern is use of the correct postage stamp and address. The basic address requirements in most parts of the world are the recipient’s name, building number or name, street, city, and zip code or its equivalent. However, never assume this is always the case. For instance, United Arab Emirates postal service does not offer door delivery service and the only way to reach out to a person there by government mail service is through a Post Box number.
When in doubt, crosscheck. The United States Postal Service has a wealth of information on postal rates, standard postal article sizes, and other information for all international destinations. Not adhering to such specifications will result in delayed delivery, or worse, no delivery at all!
No one can anticipate every potential miscommunication problem, but it is still a good idea to brush up on your international business letter etiquette from time to time. If nothing else, the recipient may notice your efforts and appreciate the time and courtesy — that alone can result in a more favorable response to your letter.
References and Resources
Tharoor, Shasi. "Meanwhile:British English versus American English." https://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/14/opinion/14iht-edtharoor.html. Retrieved May 05, 2011.