In the era of remote work, leading through email has become a defining skill of any modern professional. As we’ve seen through front-facing global leaders like Dr. Fauci, who admirably went through thousands of emails a day during the pandemic, email responsiveness is a pivotal element of leadership presence. However, quick informal messages can have compounding effects when emailing interculturally. The need to be culturally responsive relies on our ability to adapt to universal email styles, revealing that, as leaders, being versatile in the way we write our emails defines our effectiveness as skilled communicators.
When thinking of effective emailing, as leaders we often focus on communicating more than connecting with our words. Essentially, our emails can quickly become limited when we focus on our idea of crafting the perfect message. Instead, we need to follow a new mantra of thinking: creative ways to demand response. In other words, we must repurpose our email approach to how others prefer to receive emails—what we call a reader’s communication style. We can do this by focusing our intentions outward and mirroring back the writing style of those on diverse teams.
To think of this in more practical terms, there are four distinct universal communication styles from the field of behavioral psychology that pave the way for effective interpersonal communication. Having modernized and repurposed these styles for email, we’ve adapted these four personas into an “email style compass” based on years of successful research-based managerial training.
Keep in mind that although each of us is inherently drawn to one preferred style of communication in our emails, our goal is to be able to transition between all four styles as the situation requires it, because each style has its own set of characteristics. The key takeaway: Changing our style to be closer to the styles of others reveals better communication—and ultimately, understanding of others.
As professors at New York University, and language and communications specialists at the United Nations, we have applied this new emailing approach and built upon practices of Social Styles Theory that are rooted in behavioral psychology, which simultaneously accommodates both individual and cultural diversity regardless of gender, age, or nationality. Leaders who are versatile in expressing their ideas and actions using these four modern email communication styles will build more online rapport interpersonally and interculturally, leaving less room for mixed messages.
Use these four practical email communication styles to future-proof your emails and communicate effectively with global teams, clients, and partners:
What is it? This style is people-oriented and captures new ideas in emotional and actionable ways. We can recognize this style when receiving a vivid message with emotive details telling others of actionable outcomes. Being assertive with a passionate tone is likely to get the response you want.
How to use it in response?
- Describe the big picture before going into detail.
- Present ideas creatively using “action” language; focus on dynamic verbs such as transform, upgrade, prioritize.
- Use an enthusiastic tone that is people-oriented; focus on emphasizing the relationship with phrases like, “I greatly value your thoughts.“
- Describe ideas in the five senses by weaving in sensory language that connects topics to sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, such as replacing generic statements like “These tips will enhance your skillset” with more vivid depictions such as “These powerful tips will ignite your inner fire and career.”
What is it? This style is task-oriented, valuing time and efficiency regardless of topic or message, and doesn’t mind conflict. We can recognize this style when receiving a short, efficient, direct email. Writing an email asking for personal details about a weekend trip or digressive small talk is not likely to get you an immediate response. Instead, write succinctly and focus on the task to get a faster reply.
How to use it in response?
- Be direct, use bullet points/lists, and only provide essential details.
- Make definitive statements and state specific actions needed.
- Avoid excessive emotion.
- Focus on results, outcomes, and the bottom line, listing essential facts, clear timeframes and projected deliverables, as in “We will send the full proposal and pricing model by Friday, September 7th.”
What is it? This style is people-oriented and very conscious about team harmony. We can recognize this style when receiving an email with a friendly, easygoing approach that uses conversational language over professional jargon. This style also seeks to minimize the impact of change on others, such as when communicating about a new process or new reporting structure, instead seeking to emphasize stability and gradualist solutions. As the default style when contacting people you don’t know for the first time, this style strikes a personal, warm, and cooperative tone that seeks to get along with everyone. Therefore, an email loaded with talk of problems, disagreement or conflict will likely get a delayed response. Instead, always provide recommended, convenient solutions that prioritize the relationship.
How to use it in response?
- Use “chit-chat” language and colloquialisms when appropriate.
- Write in terms of the team and highlight positive benefits to others.
- Focus on empathy, relationships, and team harmony.
- Avoid conflict language and minimize conflict by providing solutions; forgo words like no, not, never, nothing, as in, “We cannot achieve those results with our current parameters,” and instead use positive language: “The results are possible if we can expand the scope of our project in the following ways…”
What is it? This style is task-oriented and thrives in “jargonland.” We can recognize this style when receiving a careful, rational email couched fully in specialized terms. With a healthy dose of skepticism by nature, this reader style welcomes a web of evidence, logic, and facts to support any claim. In order to elicit an immediate response, use a formal tone and present ideas in an organized way. This style is an appropriate response to messages that present information in a logical and research-driven format, using language that denotes expertise.
How to use it in response?
- Use appropriate specialized/technical terms, such as industry-specific vocabulary that conveys expertise: “We can increase the underlying value proposition of the product with the new brand messaging….”
- Provide explanations, facts, evidence, and data to prove any claim.
- Be methodical and logical in explaining step-by-step processes.
- Contextualize requests with specifics, not generalizations. Instead of writing, “The campaign is going to require a lot of resources to launch,” consider, “The campaign will require a 26 percent funding increase from our annual budget to launch.”
We’ve adapted this approach in modern and relevant ways to effective emailing, integrating research from renowned linguist Richard Lewis as well as the clinical research on face-to-face office interactions from industrial psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid, in order to arrive at a successful intercultural email communications model. Remember, when emailing a diverse range of professionals from all over the world, always recognize the individual within the culture because while all styles exist across all cultures, individual preferences and occupational preferences may vary. The Expressive style dominates in most of Latin America, parts of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Iberian Peninsula, and the majority of sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas the Driver and Analytical styles are common in most English-speaking parts of the world, including the United States, parts of Canada, parts of Northwestern and North-Central Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia/New Zealand. The Amiable style tends to be associated with regions in East Asia and most parts of Central Asia, except the subcontinent of India which is a hybrid of Expressive and Driver styles.
When building a versatile email identity, we must be able to adapt to each of these styles and become more accustomed to connecting over communicating. As leaders, adapting to the communication preferences of readers in our multicultural teams, helps us foster channels of responsive language for connecting with diverse professionals around the globe. When we make the effort to adapt to others, especially through email responsiveness, we not only future-proof our digital communications, but also humanize the digital experience to become true global communicators.
Dan Bullock is a language & communications/trainer at the United Nations & professor at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Raúl Sánchez is a clinical assistant professor of global communication & corporate program coordinator at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. They are co-authors of How to Communicate Effectively with Anyone, Anywhere.