How to get texting across cultures right

Although texting is by nature an abbreviated and casual way of communicating, a text to a business contact is nonetheless a business communication, on which you could be judged. Here’s how to get texting across cultures right, wherever you are in the world.

Keep it formal

Avoid using common abbreviations like LOL or OMG. First, you will sound like a teenager, and second, the recipient may not know what you mean. Spell words out in full, while keeping the message as succinct as possible.

Text or call?

In cultures where relationship-building is essential, like the Middle East, do not start texting a contact before you have met and established a rapport. Low-context Western cultures are more amenable to text contact, although it’s still far from ideal with someone you have never met.

Spell it out

Do not use ‘txt spk’ unless you are very familiar with the other person and understand their command of English. There is a strong chance you will be misunderstood.

Imagine it’s a letter

Check your spelling, in case your auto-correct has changed something. Keep the tone neutral and business-like. Do not use capitals; this is perceived in text communication as shouting. Think to yourself: Is this the tone I would use in an email or letter?

Sign off

The recipient may not have your contact in their phone so always sign your name or initials. Receiving a reply from a business contact saying ‘Who are you?’ is embarrassing for all concerned.

Avoid emojis

For a start, you may offend the other person, or simply confuse them. In a developing country, for example, not everybody will have a smartphone and an emoji may simply appear as random figures. Would you draw a smiley face on a business communication? No. Having said this, the Japanese and other high-context Asian cultures, which are more visual, do use a lot of emojis, even in business communication; a recent study concluded that this could be a replacement for vital non-verbal clues that would be missing in a text message.

Respect privacy

By their nature, texts are an immediate way of communicating. Bear in mind that whoever receives your text is most likely to stop what they are doing, read it and possibly feel obliged to respond to it. So do you really need to send it at 10pm? Respect time zones and working hours. Germans, for example, and Scandinavians, separate work time from personal time and may not appreciate an interruption unless it is really urgent.

Keep it positive

Do not deliver bad news by text. It’s too informal. In a high context culture like Japan, or the Middle East, a one-liner telling someone something they don’t particularly want to hear is both callous and insulting. The relationship will be damaged and face will be lost. Impart bad news face-to-face instead, with tact, and work on protecting the relationship.

Understand ‘flashing’, or ‘beeping’

This isn’t a text as such but in parts of India and much of Africa, it’s a way of a person asking you to call them so that you pick up the cost of the call. They will phone you and hang up before you answer, so you can see their number. The correct etiquette here is to phone the person. Beeping is often a hierarchical behaviour; the person with the higher income is the one who should pay for the call, so an employee may beep their boss but not the other way round.

Speak their language

You are not necessarily expected to be fluent but there is no harm in knowing how to sign off like a local; in German, for example, ‘mfg’ is text speak for ‘mit freundlichen gruessen’ (best wishes), or in Italian, ‘grz’ is short for grazie, or thank you. Spanish texters might say ‘a10’ or ‘a2’ for ‘adiós’, or goodbye, or ‘salu2’ for ‘saludos’.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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