Business Without Borders


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Business Without Borders

“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.”

— Paulo Coelho

These days, even small businesses trade internationally. And all businesses need to clearly communicate with people of many different cultural and language backgrounds.

We need to communicate across borders.

How can I write for international audiences?

Follow a set of tips that help not just non-native speakers of English, but all readers.

  1. Use plain language. Express your ideas using few words—and simple words. Avoid arcane words like “arcane.” Write in shorter sentences.
  2. Use single-definition words. Instead of saying “elaborate,” which could be a verb or an adjective, use “explain” for a verb and “complex” for an adjective.
    • explain details
    • complex details
  3. Avoid two-word verbs. Instead of writing “break down,” write “examine.”
    • let’s examine the expenses
  4. Include “optional” words. Don’t drop an optional “that” or “to.”
    • Complete the form that you received.
      (not “Complete the form you received.”)
    • An adviser can help you to complete the form.
      (not “An adviser can help you complete the form.”)
  5. Avoid idioms. Instead of saying, “gilds the lily,” say “exaggerates.”
    • The sales department exaggerates.
  6. Use visuals. Communicate both in text and in images. Provide videos that narrate ideas while showing them.
  7. Write like a 3050 year old teacher. Most non-native speakers have learned English through a teacher, and most teachers are 30–50 years old. So, imagine a favorite English teacher of yours and write like that person.

How can I write for specific readers?

If you have a specific international audience, educate yourself about cultural traditions of expression. Cultures differ in terms of formality, assertiveness, directness, gender roles, religious practices, and beliefs about individuals versus the collective.

For in-person meetings, these differences extend to facial expressions, hand gestures, gift giving, table manners, and even whether anyone sees the bottom of your shoe (or whether you are allowed to wear shoes at all). Make sure you understand these specifics before meeting associates in other parts of the world.

Of course, all groups respond to polite, respectful communication, both spoken and written, so that should always be your baseline. But you should also take note of these communication differences for various cultures. 

  • East-Asian audiences tend to be non-confrontational, seeking to maintain harmony. Overt negative expressions such as complaints or insults can be distressing. Also, they tend to focus on the collective rather than the individual, so singling out a person for praise will probably embarrass that person and the whole team. Provide praise for the group, instead. Avoid self-praise, which seems boastful, and adopt a formal tone.
  • Middle-Eastern audiences tend to value personal honor, trust, and relationships. They prefer to meet face to face rather than through writing, which feels impersonal. Small talk is part of establishing a good working relationship. Decisions can take a long time, so patience is important. Religion also permeates life in this region, so be aware of holy days, dietary restrictions, and religious observances. Different boundaries exist between men and women, so always be discreet and show respect.
  • Hispanic audiences tend to value family, tradition, and the collective. Many Hispanic people are bilingual and shift quite naturally from Spanish to English and back. Correctly using a few Spanish terms, such as buenos días (good day) or gracias (thank you) shows respect for the language.
  • African audiences tend to value family, community, faith, and personal relationships. Respect and trust are key for all people, but especially for elders. Government and corporate voices are not as trusted. Positive communication is valued, and self-control is also important. Avoid showing negative emotions in public.
  • European audiences tend to value individuality, self-expression, and self-esteem. As a result, they can seem alternately reserved or blunt. They tend to be more liberal than Americans—less religious, less patriotic, better educated, and more accepting of varied gender expression—but they also tend to be less politically correct. Europeans often have a deep sense of history and culture, drawing on thousands of years rather than hundreds.

Important note: Cultural generalizations do not apply evenly to all people within such groups. While it is important to be aware of general cultural differences, always approach the people you communicate with as individuals.

Most of all, remember that all people want respect. If you make a gaffe, apologize. Usually the person will realize that no harm was intended.


Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and eTips for more support with showing respect and reaching English language learners.