Not every employee working in a company with international connections, including staff in the import and export departments, has to travel to overseas clients, agents or suppliers to make detailed presentations or negotiate major deals. However, there are few workers nowadays, whether working for major multinational corporations or in small businesses, who do not have some level of written communication with foreign contacts.
When I started working in international logistics and then international finance in chemical manufacture and export in the 80s letters would either be dictated to secretaries skilled in the art of letter-writing, or drafted, re-read and corrected before being signed and sent. Later on, as faxes and then electronic mail (known as ‘email’ or simply referred to as ‘mail’) became the common form of communication both inside the organization and between the company and its external contacts, each member of staff was forced to take responsibility for his own correspondence.
This created a variety of sad mistakes and misunderstandings. I recall a number of years ago seeing an outgoing fax that had sadly already been sent to a customer in Turkey by a manager in an international shipping agency, with whom I was working at that time. She had intended to thank the customer for his earlier message, but had actually written “Thank you for your massage of this morning.”
As well as mastering basic English writing skills, grammar and vocabulary, staff now have to adapt their correspondence to the world of international business. How direct can I be with the client without offending him ? If I am too polite will he not understand the importance of the issue ? What is the formula for giving bad news ? Is there a standard way of requesting their assistance ? Must I remain formal at all times ?
There are basic guidelines for email format and standard procedures (called ‘etiquette’) as well as presenting commonly used expressions at various times in a mail for different purposes and situations.
Although mails are the dominant form of communication, letters are still sent occasionally, normally accompanying some other original item such as a proposal, contract, catalogue or cheque.