Adapting emails to different communication styles

Business email today takes up a lot of employee time – up 2.6 hours a day according to McKinsey. We are also opening more email than ever before on mobile devices, and out of hours. Therefore, it has become even more important that email messages are clear, precise and understandable.

We recently worked with a global team responsible for managing training inside their organisation. The team were facing challenges in dealing with high amounts of queries about information they had already sent via email. They wanted to know how they could communicate the same information to a wide range of readers in order to reduce follow up emails. We decided to help them explore different communication styles and how to adapt their email communications to them. In this post you will learn what the different styles are, why this matters, and get some tips and strategies for adapting your written communication.

What are the different communication styles?

Did you ever notice that some people are more direct or indirect in how they communicate? This often comes from cultural differences. Two researchers, Edward Hall and Erin Meyer, have categorised these differences as high-context/indirect and low-context/direct. As you read the information below, try to think of colleagues you know who tend to communicate in these different ways.

High-Context/Indirect Low-Context/Direct
Expect to interpret a message

Indirect, nuanced

Higher on background details

Use coded language

Prefer oral communications

State the context before the main point

‘Read between the lines’

Don’t expect the reader to interpret

Direct, to the point. precise

Lower on background details

Less able to read between the lines

Prefer written communications

Get to the main point quickly

‘Say what you mean, mean what you say’

Why does this matter?

Look at this phrase, taken from the final line of a real email.

“Therefore, my role in this is questionable.”

What does the writer mean exactly? Is she saying she doesn’t have a role? Is she saying she doesn’t know what her role is? Is she asking the reader to clarify what her role is? In fact, we don’t know the precise meaning because this is a relatively high-context/indirect message. In fact, this kind of coded language can present problems for all types of readers. Low-context/direct readers will be uncertain what the precise meaning is and how to respond. High-context/indirect readers will read a meaning from the phrase, but it could be the wrong one if they do not share the same assumptions/context as the writer.

As we described at the beginning of this post, the high volume of email communication today means that email needs to be clear, precise and understandable at the first reading. Otherwise we will increase the size of our inboxes with clarifications of old messages.

Understanding these different communication styles can really help to cut down on follow up emails by designing your emails for the type of communicators you are writing to. In the next section you will read tips and strategies for how to adjust to the two communication styles we described above.

How you can adapt your emails to the different styles

Here you will find some practical advise for how to adapt your emails to the different styles. These tips will be especially useful if you are working with people who have a different style to you.

How to work with High-Context/Indirect communicators How to work with Low-Context/Direct communicators
Don’t take words at face value

Ask ‘what do they want to say?’

Ask checking questions to make

sure you understand

Expect questions/clarifications

Find ways to communicate

orally where you can

Keep it short and unambiguous

Don’t search for hidden meanings

Avoid coded language

Don’t take blunt answers


Make sure you include the ‘why’

in communications

Is one style better than the other?

We all have preferences for one style or the other and that’s what makes us who we are. What we are really saying is that a ‘one style fits all’ approach to emailing doesn’t necessarily work. A smarter approach to getting your emails read and cutting down on clarifications is to adapt your style to your reader.

To conclude

The global team we worked with on this topic found it eye-opening to explore their own styles and their assumptions about how to write a good email. They are now experimenting with adapting their styles, with some good results. Of course, this is a work in progress!

For more information

More tips and advice for writing effective emails in these posts: