Academic journal article Multinational Business Review

Did You Get My E-Mail? an Exploratory Look at Intercultural Business Communication by E-Mail

Academic journal article Multinational Business Review

Did You Get My E-Mail? an Exploratory Look at Intercultural Business Communication by E-Mail

Article excerpt


Literature on face-to-face intercultural business communication (IBC) suggests that language, culture, business culture, and interpersonal context variables lead to misunderstandings, but these predictors have not been studied with regard to e-mail communication. This exploratory study identifies variables that cause e-mail miscommunication, reduce work accomplishment, and harm business relationships. We conducted a survey to capture the effect of common predictors and asked respondents to share the most commonly employed strategies when communication problems arose. We offer a multi-dimensional model for further research.


E-mail is a communication genre (Louhiala-Salrninen and Kankaanranta 2005, Orlikowski and Yates 1994) that has leaped from infancy to adulthood in just a few short years (Frederick 1993, Hart 1998). Its facility to share information, transport documents and engage in discourse has been well documented in the literature (Dop 2001; Louhiala-Salminen and Kankaanranta 2005; Rice, D'Ambra, and More 1998). Its usage has grown by some estimates to 80 percent of business communication (Grosse 2002). But e-mail protocol has developed so informally that now issues in intercultural business communication (IBC) which did not exist a decade ago are pressing problems (Yates and Orlikowski 2002). Yet, as important as this genre has become, the problems inherent within intercultural e-mail business communication have not been researched and we must sprint to catch up. This study attempts to sort out the many variables that may contribute to miscommunication. Unlike studies that narrow the field of possible variables, we wished to cast as wide a net as possible across a sample of countries, languages, and business contexts. With this information, we propose a model for further study of this intercultural communication genre.

Do intercultural misunderstandings in e-mail communication result in problems with getting work done? Intuitively it seems likely that misunderstanding will impair working relationships and impede work productivity, yet some authors have suggested that this is not the case. These authors suggest that there is a professional level of discourse in which the correspondents "suspend judgment, tolerate ambiguity, and actively seek new frames" in order to conduct business (Bargiela-Chiappini, BulowMoller, Nickerson, Poncini, and Zhu 2003, 85). This "transactional culture" is a communication context that exists in a presumed culture-free zone (Varner 2000), a working community that is immune to issues of language or culture (Salacuse 1991, Webb and Keene 1999). If this were the case, then there should be no reported miscommunication problems. This is the first study of its kind which attempts to discover whether intercultural misunderstandings in e-mail communication result in reduced productivity.

Additionally, there is a common misconception among managers that if English is the lingua franca for business, then all e-mail communication problems are solved (Bargiela-Chiappini et. al. 2003, Kankaanranta 2005, Koybaeva 2003). However, IBC research suggests that there may be many more variables than simply those of language that degrade communication and lead to misunderstandings. For this reason, intercultural business communication has become a multi-disciplinary field incorporating communication, business, culture, and anthropology, as well as linguistics and language studies. Tb that end, any exploration of e-mail IBC should begin with a comprehensive model of all variables that could lead to misunderstanding (Zhu 2001).

Pulling together the set of potential variables from previous research is somewhat problematic. While some research explores intercultural communication, it does not address the business domain per se (see Macfadyen, Roche, and Doff 2004, for a complete review). Other studies within the business domain have largely ignored e-mail (Macfadyen 2006, Varner 2000). …

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