How They Do It


What Germans can teach us about e-mail.

North America and Europe are two continents divided by a common technology: e-mail. Techno-optimists assure us that e-mail—along with the Internet and satellite TV—make the world smaller. That may be true in a technical sense. I can send a message from my home in Miami to a German friend in Berlin and it will arrive almost instantly. But somewhere over the Atlantic, the messages get garbled. In fact, two distinct forms of e-mail have emerged: Euromail and Amerimail.

Amerimail is informal and chatty. It’s likely to begin with a breezy “Hi” and end with a “Bye.” The chances of Amerimail containing a smiley face or an “xoxo” are disturbingly high. We Americans are reluctant to dive into the meat of an e-mail; we feel compelled to first inform hapless recipients about our vacation on the Cape which was really excellent except the jellyfish were biting and the kids caught this nasty bug so we had to skip the whale watching trip but about that investors’ meeting in New York. … Amerimail is a bundle of contradictions: rambling and yet direct; deferential, yet arrogant. In other words, Amerimail is America.

Euromail is stiff and cold, often beginning with a formal “Dear Mr. X” and ending with a brusque “Sincerely.” You won’t find any mention of kids or the weather or jellyfish in Euromail. It’s all business. It’s also slow. Your correspondent might take days, even weeks, to answer a message. Euromail is also less confrontational in tone, rarely filled with the overt nastiness that characterizes American e-mail disagreements. In other words, Euromail is exactly like the Europeans themselves. (I am, of course, generalizing. German e-mail style is not exactly the same as Italian or Greek, but they have more in common with each other than they do with American mail.)

These are more than mere stylistic differences. Communication matters. Which model should the rest of the world adopt: Euromail or Amerimail?

A California-based e-mail consulting firm called People-onthego sheds some light on the e-mail divide. It recently asked about 100 executives on both sides of the Atlantic whether they noticed differences in e-mail styles. Most said yes. Here are a few of their observations:

“Americans tend to write (e-mails) exactly as they speak.”

“Europeans are less obsessive about checking e-mail.”

“In general, Americans are much more responsive to email—they respond faster and provide more information.”

One respondent noted that Europeans tend to segregate their e-mail accounts. Rarely do they send personal messages on their business accounts, or vice versa. These differences can’t be explained merely by differing comfort levels with technology. Other forms of electronic communication, such as SMS text messaging, are more popular in Europe than in the United States.

The fact is, Europeans and Americans approach e-mail in a fundamentally different way. Here is the key point: For Europeans, e-mail has replaced the business letter. For Americans, it has replaced the telephone. That’s why we tend to unleash what e-mail consultant Tim Burress calls a “brain dump”: unloading the content of our cerebral cortex onto the screen and hitting the send button. “It makes Europeans go ballistic,” he says.

Susanne Khawand, a German high-tech executive, has been on the receiving end of American brain dumps, and she says it’s not pretty. “I feel like saying, ‘Why don’t you just call me instead of writing five e-mails back and forth,’ ” she says. Americans are so overwhelmed by their bulging inboxes that “you can’t rely on getting an answer. You don’t even know if they read it.” In Germany, she says, it might take a few days, or even weeks, for an answer, but one always arrives.

Maybe that’s because, on average, Europeans receive fewer e-mails and spend less time tending their inboxes. An international survey of business owners in 24 countries (conducted by the accounting firm Grant Thornton) found that people in Greece and Russia spend the least amount of time dealing with e-mail every day: 48 minutes on average. Americans, by comparison, spend two hours per day, among the highest in the world. (Only Filipinos spend more time on e-mail, 2.1 hours.) The survey also found that European executives are skeptical of e-mail’s ability to boost their bottom line.

It’s not clear why European and American e-mail styles have evolved separately, but I suspect the reasons lie within deep cultural differences. Americans tend to be impulsive and crave instant gratification. So we send e-mails rapid-fire, and get antsy if we don’t receive a reply quickly. Europeans tend to be more methodical and plodding. They send (and reply to) e-mails only after great deliberation.

For all their Continental fastidiousness, Europeans can be remarkably lax about e-mail security, says Bill Young, an executive vice president with the Strickland Group. Europeans are more likely to include trade secrets and business strategies in e-mails, he says, much to the frustration of their American colleagues. This is probably because identity theft—and other types of hacking—are much less of a problem in Europe than in the United States. Privacy laws are much stricter in Europe.

So, which is better: Euromail or Amerimail? Personally, I’m a convert—or a defector, if you prefer—to the former. I realize it’s not popular these days to suggest we have anything to learn from Europeans, but I’m fed up with an inbox cluttered with rambling, barely cogent missives from friends and colleagues. If the alternative is a few stiffly written, politely worded bits of Euromail, then I say … bring it on.

Thanks to Pierre Khawand for research assistance.