This fictitious example is illustrative of what can happen when
using virtual communication tools in an intercultural context.
It suggests the need to sensitize your team members to cross-cultural
differences, train them in intercultural communication, and
to provide a best practices guide when using modern technology
as a virtual office.
This article addresses some basic principles to
keep in mind when using email as a resource in virtual team
communications and management.
It will come as no surprise that email was developed
in the US. It vehiculates that culture's attributes.
Email is a monochonic form of communication which
allows senders and receivers to control when exchanges are initiated
and accepted in a culture which prefers to do one thing at a
time. An informal means of dialogue suited to a low-distance
hierarchical culture, email is void of those typical symbols
which suggest a person's status or power. The ease and spontaneity
attached to email is perfectly suited to the American straightforward
and low-context culture; messages are typically succinct, conveying
or requesting specific information, and void of 'soft' attributes
preferred by high-context cultures.
If a Japanese, for example, receives an email
from an American colleague he has never met and does not know
much about, he is probably going to feel a bit ill at ease in
reading the message and be somewhat at a loss as to how to respond
to it. Why is this the case? There are several key factors.
First, Japan's culture is collectivist. This means
that before email can be successfully used as a vehicle for
information exchange, it is best for participants to have had
the opportunity to get acquainted and to develop mutual trust.
Second, as a high power-distance culture, it is
important for Japanese to know "who they are dealing with"
- title, rank, power, appropriate form of address and level
of politeness, relationships to others in the organization.
Email does not provide those dimensions.
Finally, if the email in question requested a
decisional response, chances are our Japanese correspondent
will need to confer with colleagues prior to being able to reply.
This time lag will be incomprehensible to our American sender
unless he is already highly sensitized to typical Japanese decision-making
Best practice recommendations in using email for
remote team communication and management:
on appropriate forms of address - first name basis v. more formal
means of address
auto-reply messaging - out of office, on leave, on vacation,
who to contact if needed
that each country's national holidays or other office closings
are known to all team members
maximum time delay to respond to an email (do not forget to
include the impact of time differences)
must respond to all emails specifically addressed to them by:
acknowledging receipt of information sent
that information requested will be sent when available
responding with the information requested
information overload - use cc's and list serves wisely
transparency and trust within your team - ban blind copy recipients
not use email to handle or discuss misunderstandings or conflicts
- prefer a more personal form of dialogue
precise - what (are you asking for or conveying),
where (is this to be found or sent), why
(is this important) and most importantly when (is
advantage of email to prepare telephone and videoconferences
so that all participants are ready and on the same page
include a descriptive title in the subject line
the "one subject only" per email rule
use of your software's automatic signature features - always
sign off courteously and provide your contact information
suggestions? Email us!