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June 20, 2018

Things to Avoid in E-mails With U.S. Clients

Dos and Don'ts of Emailing with US Clients
Last week, I kicked off the series “What NOT to say to American Clients.” In this second part of the series we will focus on mannerisms or language to avoid when it comes to e-mail. 

1. [Over]Use of Punctuation in E-mail 
In the original article, Gops mentions: 
In email communications, use proper punctuation. To explain something, without breaking your flow, use semicolons, hyphens or parenthesis. 

As an example: You have entered a new bug (the popup not showing up) in the defect tracking system; we could not reproduce it - although, a screenshot would help.

Notice that a reference to the actual bug is added in parenthesis so that the sentence flow is not broken. Break a long sentence using such punctuation.

Do not forget to use punctuation. Maybe the lack of punctuation could be an outcome of Mother Tongue Influence (MTI), especially if the mother tongue doesn’t use punctuation, or doesn’t use this kind of complex punctuation. While I don’t necessarily endorse this use of complex punctuation, I do want to remind every one to make sure they are using punctuation at the end of statements or questions. I have corrected many emails that are void of punctuation at the end of a statement, or has the wrong punctuation (the use of a full stop where a question mark should be or a space between the last letter and the punctuation mark). To learn more, read about how to use the full stop or the question mark.

What to do instead: 
Rather than focus on complex punctuation, as in the example given in the original post, I actually suggest to break up the sentence into smaller sentences for easier reading and comprehension. This will improve the American’s understanding of your English in both writing and speaking. Let’s see how we can change the above sentence:

Suggested sentence from original post: You have entered a new bug (the popup not showing up) in the defect tracking system; we could not reproduce it - although, a screenshot would help.

Jennifer’s suggested changes: I saw the most current bug report in the defect tracking system about the popup not showing up. We are unable to reproduce the same error. Is it possible to send us a screenshot of the bug on your system? Thank you in advance.

What differences do you see in my suggested change that was not in the original suggested edit? I have changed one sentence into two sentences and one question, adding a fourth statement of thanks.

Keep in mind that when requesting a US client or colleague to do anything, the most polite way is to ask it in the form of a question with a question mark.

Follow up any request with a “thank you,” both in the original request AND as a response after the answer has been sent to you. Do not forget to send acknowledgment emails as soon as you can (do not wait until their office hours to send it, but send it as soon as you read their email).

The other change I had made to this request was to change the subject of the first sentence to ‘I.’ In English if ‘you’ is the main subject, it can come off as too direct and can cause some defensiveness in the other person. Not only in written English, but spoken English as well. And, when requesting someone else to do something that could be taken as a mistake, we should be even more careful to remove ‘you,’ using either ‘I,’ ‘we’ or no pronoun at all. This will make it indirect, which creates a politer tone.

Doing this will save their face, build rapport and create a very customer service friendly environment.

2. Use of the word “mail”
In American English, a mail is a posted letter. An email is electronic mail. When you say “I mailed the information to you”, it means you sent an actual letter or package through the postal system. The correct usage is: “I emailed the information to you” [sic]

[As I have copied this from the site without editing, I used the word [sic] here to denote that I have not edited their mistakes, including the fact that there is no full stop at the end of the last sentence.]

Do not use the word ‘mail’ for e-mail
What Gops said is true here. Americans do get confused if they hear the word ‘mail’ used in place of ‘email.’ It seems so simple and that by the context of the sentence the American would ‘get it,’ but I have indeed talked to quite a few Americans who have worked with Indians who say this confuses them every time they hear it. Of course, if there are any Americans out there reading this who do work with colleagues from India, now you know! In fact, after living in India for as long as I have, I use the word ‘mail’ for ‘e-mail’ and can see other Americans get confused all the time.

What to do instead
Of course, use the word “e-mail” instead of “mail.” It is easy to forget. If one uses the word “mail” by accident, the U.S. client may respond with, “Won’t that be expensive?” In such cases, just say, “Oops, I meant e-mail.” However, if another form of electronic communication is being referred to, it’s completely acceptable to say, “ping me,” “message me,” “text me,” or “SMS me.”

Avoid Jargon and Alphabet Soup without Context
It is usual convention in initial emails (particularly technical) to expand abbreviations, this way: We are planning to use the Java API For Registry (JAXR). After mentioning the expanded form once, subsequently you can use the abbreviation.

Don’t forget to expand abbreviations or define jargon at the first use
The alphabet soup of corporate speak.
Depending on your U.S. colleague’s affiliation to your team or company, they may not know the words or abbreviations being used. Even if it is a colleague that works in your company in the same building in India, this can be the case. A good example comes from EY in Kochi. In a training program I delivered there I asked the 30 or so participants to break into groups based on their working groups. The participants broke into about 6 groups. I asked them to write all the abbreviations their team used on the white board, without writing the expansion. They then went to see all the other lists written by all the other groups. There were many duplications of abbreviations, many of which had different expansions. This random mix of letters that can have multiple meanings is what we call ‘alphabet soup’ in the U.S.

In addition, we need to assure who we are writing to understands our jargon and technical terms. If unsure, it’s always a good practice to write the definition in parenthesis the first time it is used to assure they know the meaning. Sometimes this can happen for the most simple and what we feel to be the most universal abbreviations.

What to do instead
Always give context to any abbreviations, jargon or technical terms the first time they are used.

3. Ineffective Subject Lines
Make sure you always have a subject in your emails and that the subject is relevant. Do not use a subject line such as HI . [sic]

[Sic was used as the original script had a space between the last letter and the full stop.]

Do Not Use Ambiguous Subject Lines
While we all can easily agree ‘Hi’ is a bad subject line, so is ‘Today’s Meeting.’ Why? Let’s think of our audience and how they may browse their inbox. If they are only looking at subject lines, they may not know who the email is from by this subject line alone. They may have 5 meetings today, one of which is with you. If they browse their inbox by name and then subject line, they could think, “Aww by the subject line it’s not too important, so I will wait until the meeting to find out what it is.”

What to do instead:
But what if the email content talks about changing the time of the meeting? Of course then, your client may show up for a meeting and you won’t be there! So in that case, what is a more effective subject line?

Any of these may work:
“Reschedule today’s meeting on XYZ Project”
“Can’t make today’s 3pm meeting”
“Jennifer will attend today’s 3pm meeting in my place”

BONUS: Also DO NOT say "Thank you in advance."
Read this article for the reason why and replacements for this commonly used and polite phrase in Indian English.

For a free online course that walks you through how to organize the content in your email for easier reading by your client, which will reduce the response time, see this. Or, get started in personalized virtual coaching with us. Check out our effective email writing program.

Related Posts: 
Ways to say thank you
Instant Messaging Etiquette 

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.