One of the challenges of localization is knowing how to address your audience.
Many cultures have specific linguistic rules on how you speak to people and whether you can use formal or informal phrasing in different situations. There’s an additional challenge of adapting the opening greeting to reflect the recipient’s gender, status or business title.
In Germany, the norm is to address people by their title and surname, like Herr Schmidt or Frau Weber, until you are considered friends and invited to address them on a first-name basis.
If you’re writing an introductory email, the formal approach is best. In fact, it’s common for German business associates to stay on these formal terms for a relatively long time. Only once your contact has addressed you by your first name should you then attempt to do the same. Although your company’s brand identity may be very breezy and informal, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution and address your audience formally when you’re writing to them.
In Korea, matters are even more complex. A Korean has to choose between one of six verb suffixes to accord with the status of the person addressed. It’s not considered appropriate to address someone by their first name – certainly not in a business context.
For workplace acquaintances, the correct term is to use the person’s last name, followed by his rank or profession. Thus, if you are a manager (bujang) whose last name is Lee, you would be called Lee bujang-nim. This means your data collection process ideally needs to capture the contact’s job title – and keep up to date with it.
Adapting etiquette to language
There’s a school of thought that the language you write an email in dictates the way you structure your opening.
For instance, if you’re writing in Korean then it would be appropriate to jump through the hoops of Korean business etiquette. If you write the email in English, it might be appropriate to use the more informal approach of the UK or US business culture. Where the email recipient is fluent in cultural understanding as well as the language itself, it’s often considered acceptable to proceed this way.
Sticking to the cultural norms associated with the language of communication can help you avoid having to use a cultural mash-up as you try to incorporate the etiquette of the recipient’s culture into an email in a separate language.
You’ll sometimes encounter English speakers using Japanese honorifics such as ‘–san’ in a communication written in English.
It can seem a bit clumsy to try to incorporate cultural norms into another language but often recipients will be pleased by the attempt to meet their cultural expectations. In most cases, it’s best to err on the side of politeness.
Managing mass email communications
There’s plenty to consider even if you’re writing a single email to an individual contact. The challenge gets even harder when you’re writing an email communication to a larger list – particularly if you’re using an email service provider to send to a large marketing list. Adding the extra level of technology between you and your recipients means there’s more opportunity to get it wrong!
When you’re using an email marketing platform, the most important thing is to understand the tool you’re using and how it converts the data from your list to personalize the email to the recipient. For instance, if you’re writing a mass email in German to German-speaking recipients then you’ll need to use the gender of the contact to determine whether they are addressed as ‘Sehr geehrter’ or ‘Sehr geehrte’.
Understanding how to drop the correct salutation into each email requires a good understanding of both cultural expectations and how your email platform works.
You may find it easiest to adapt a field in your data set to become the greeting – this can then be reviewed as a spreadsheet format if you find this easiest. It means you can skim down your list to check the correct salutation is being used for each recipient and ensure they are no mistakes.
It can be helpful to include information on how to address various contacts in your CRM system. This helps ensure company-wider consistency and helps avoid breaches of etiquette. Generally, it’s best if someone from the contact’s own culture updates this information, as they are most likely to grasp the subtleties of communication.
Although the topic of addressing contacts correctly may seem fussy and involved, it’s an important part of managing your relationships with business contacts and customers.
In most parts of the world, forms of address are more complex and more formal than they are in a UK or US working environment. Getting to grips with the way your contacts expect to be addressed is an important part of doing business with them.