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Email Etiquette: Style, form and convention has gone

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Dear Reader – The other day I read a little piece by Derwent May on email etiquette. This is a subject that has troubled me for a long time. As we make more and more use of emails, both business and personal, the angst of knowing how to lay them out gets greater. Hi, Dear, Yo and others vie for the salutation while we have a wide choice of sign offs, including Regards, Kind Regards, Good Wishes, Speak Later, Yrs, Mxx, luv and a dozen others. There is simply no accepted fixed rule that really would be useful.

The opposite is the case with written correspondence where there are clear rules for salutations—Dear Joe, Dear Sir, Dear Madam—and a dignified close of Yours faithfully (if you are using Sir or Madam) or Yours sincerely (if you are addressing by name). There are variations, depending on your degree of familiarity with the individual, but the rules are pretty clear and well established.

Even these conventions have been eroded in recent years. Little more than 25 years ago business correspondence could be quaintly formal. A letter from an exclusive banking house, for instance, might have routinely followed this convention:

There was a certain charm to this formality and the recipient felt very warm at the thought of all that ostensible subservience. Of course, Grovel & Co were anything but humble and obedient, as ever in banking, especially if they had just bounced a cheque. It was simply a ploy to make you feel you were really in charge. In essence, though, it had form and convention, a comforting sense of everything being in its place.

I don’t suggest we go back to these stuffy days. But standards certainly have fallen off the precipice. One of the curses of modern commerce is overfamiliarity. Complete strangers now foist themselves upon you by first name within seconds. And we have further complications in the multiplicity of genders which have followed in the wake of the dead hand of political correctness—including Ms, Mx and, for all I know, lots of others. All was straightforward in the world of Sirs and Madams. Tread here with caution.

Writing even a business letter has become a minefield for the unwary. In some ways, the old conventions were comforting. You knew where you stood and it was far easier to compose a letter without worry about proprieties. You could remain a very ‘umble and obedient servant with abslutely no sense of irony.

I agree that emails are different. They started as very familiar, informal notes, usually between friends, colleagues or acquaintances. Now, however, they are being used increasingly for more formal business communications. It is thus extremely difficult to know just how to proceed. Part of me says that I would like an email to look very much like a letter, with contact details at the top, a proper salutation and an accepted form of complimentary closing that wouldn’t frighten the horses. After all, no one ever believed that you were faithful or sincere, but is doesn’t harm to pretend.

In years gone by there were clear guides and manuals for writing letters, such as this one. Yet as far as I know there are no accepted instructions to help with writing emails. Derwent May, the author of the reflective piece mentioned at the start of this article, uses a convention which, though a little spartan, is at least neat and easy to understand. 

He starts with Dear X, and follows that with a space, a short dash, and another space. Then comes the message. At the end of it there is another short dash followed by Yrs, Derwent (or whatever form of his name he wants to use).

We could go further, perhaps burying the meaningless “Dear” and simply starting with the name. But I quite like the Yrs abbreviation which somehow seems less prostrate than Yours; and, I suppose, we could have a dash of Rgds, or Gd Wshs to add a bit of variety. Those in doubt could resort to the rather odious “Best” which begs the question, best what? It could be Best Contempt for all we know. As in “Best, Grovel & Co.”

Someone should sit down and think this through. A definitive guide to emailing would be such a boon for frequent scribblers. – Yrs Mike

4 COMMENTS

  1. An interesting and timely piece Mike – thank you.

    In one sense perhaps we already have a convention. Outside of email I would never dream of writing to you "Hi Mike" and nor would I have ever started doing so unless it was already the norm for emails.

    • There is no doubt that emails have led to a reduction in formality. Many will consider this to be a desirable thing and, of course, I am looking at this with the benefit of hindsight, to a time when formality was the norm/

      There’s another aspect to all this which I didn’t touch on: The immense increase of the written language. Up to the advent of the computer and, in particular, the email and social networks such as Facebook, writing was a rapidly declining means of communication. Many assumed that voice calls would eventually take over the world. However, the computer encouraged a younger generation to use a keyboard, something that up to 1980 was restricted to professional secretaries and writers, journalists and so forth. Then came the email and the text and, I suspect, most communication is now in written form.

      While standards have dropped, despite the best efforts of spellcheckers, there is a certain charm to modern shortcuts such as "c u", "4now", "ur". While many find this trend egregious, at least it makes people think and empowers them to communicate in writing.

  2. Dear Mike

    I hope I haven’t started with an ‘error’. I still can’t grapple with ‘Hi’ even though it is no more strange than ‘Dear’ or ‘Hello’. I still use the latter when I answer the phone.

    Your piece reminded of a little ‘Damascene conversion’ which I underwent about 35 years ago. At that stage I had proceeded as far as the middle ranks of the Irish Civil Service. Anyone who has watched ‘Yes Minister’ will be familiar with the practice of using surnames only without a Mr/Mrs/Ms prefix which was common in Civil Service circles at that time. If you wrote to me you would address me as ‘Dear Fagan’ and, if I wrote back to you, I would address you as ‘Dear Evans’. This may have had a public school origin but in Ireland the Civil Service inherited a lot of British customs after independence. Indeed, up to WW II there was still a lot of ‘banter’ between the two Civil Services across the Irish Sea. I am sure that you would recognise that ‘chaps who know chaps who know chaps’ kind of thing.

    My particular conversion happened when I got a letter from a new opposite number at our Department of the Environment (DOE) called Patrick Sirr (yes, two ‘r’s). He wrote to me as ‘Dear Fagan’ and then I started to draft a reply with ‘Dear Sirr’. I immediately said to my self ‘Hmm, that sounds wrong ; must try something else’. I then wrote ‘Dear Mr Sirr’ but I thought ‘ That sounds even worse’. I then said to myself ‘I might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb’ and wrote, shock horror, ‘Dear Patrick’. I need not have worried as Patrick, who was a true gentleman, replied ‘Dear William’ in his next letter. A few years later we dropped the ‘Dear Surname’ altogether and proceeded to first names only in interdepartmental correspondence if we knew the recipient party concerned.

    As for today I still resist using text-speak as I prefer clear communication to speed. I also have not yet learnt to speak or write ‘millenial’.

    As for myself, I left the Civil Service to join a private sector company with US shareholders where communications were extremely direct. I then moved on to a position in an Arabic public service in the Middle East where salutations could be extremely long but that was another culture and another whole other story which would take to long to recite. I can, however, recount that young Arab people have their own ‘slang’ which they use in less formal communications. I imagine it is the same all around the world.

    Can I wish you ‘Best Wishes’?

    William

    • Dear Fagan, you may indeed send me best wishes and they are received in a welcome fashion. I, too, was Evans during my early career; it seems to have been prevalent right up to the end of the 1960s if not later. Then came Mr.Evans and my employees referred to me thus until the mid-eighties. A new upstart director started first-name terms with junior staff and I eventually capitulated, odd as it felt at the time. I still cringe when addressed by my first name by random strangers.

      The situation in Germany and Austria (to a greater extent) is even more extraordinary. Even to this day, I suspect, colleagues are not on first-name terms with one another in many companies. And professional titles are always preceded by Herr. I can remember being in the lift at the headquarters of a large Austrian industrial conglomerate in the company of the deputy managing director, en route to the top-floor dining room. This would have been in the mid-seventies. The lift door opened on the fourth floor and a gaggle of employees spied the great man. As one, they chorused: "Mahlzeit Herr Doktor Doktor Generaldirektor-Stellvertrater Rösler". I could not have made this up, even the double doctor. I hope things have loosened up, although I feel sure the stuffy old gent would have objected to being addressed as Hans. Even Doktor Doktor Hans.

      I have heard Leica bosses using first names but, I suspect, away from more permissive Anglo-Saxon ears, they scurry back to Wetzlar and Herr Doktor Doktor themselves behind closed doors.

      But yes, ‘hi" is rather egregious. I have a hankering for the old days.

      Yrs – Evans

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