Home Features Email Etiquette: Keep on keepin’ on

Email Etiquette: Keep on keepin’ on

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Hi, Y’all,

Email protocol is one of the most vexing aspects of modern communication. Do you follow letter-writing convention with “Dear X” and “yours sincerely”, or do you throw formality to the winds and go all “Hi” and “Best”? In the old days of letter writing all was really dead simple. Different countries in the English-speaking world always had competing conventions, of course, but here in the UK the rule was straightforward: “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” goes with “yours faithfully” while “yours sincerely” was reserved for people addressed by name. It’s a system I still use on the rare occasions when I have to print off a letter and send it by post. 

Even as late as 30 years ago business letter writing was even more formal. Some professional organisations could indeed be ultra formal. I remember receiving letters starting “Sir” (“dear” being far too familiar) and ending “We remain, Sir, your most obedient servants, The Bank”. This wouldn’t go down well these days and no one is obedient (least of all banks) any more in any case. It did have a certain old-fashioned charm, nevertheless. You definitely knew where you stood.

Flipflop

But back to emails. Most of us flip and flop from “Hi” to “hello” or even the formal “Dear X.” None of the myriad alternatives seems appropriate these days. Would it be better to adopt the no-frills approach we use in text messages? Just jump in at the deep end, say your piece and finish. No salutation, no closing nonsense. There’s a lot to be said for this. After all, the traditional opening and closing of a business letter are just that — traditional and fairly pointless. 

The lack direction is exacerbated by over familiarity in general. When I was young work colleagues were addressed as “Mr.” or “Miss”. To use first names would have been a worrisome faux pas. In my first job I was addressed as “Evans” and thought nothing of it. Then, around 30 years ago colleagues started using first names as a matter of course. Now, I suspect, it would be considered very quaint to be addressed as “Mr. Evans” by a colleague. 

Can I call you Mike?

So with our emails (and with letters to a slightly lesser degree) we have to decide whether to use “Dear Winston” or “Dear Mr. Churchill”. Will the recipient be offended if I go all personal or will they be outraged at over familiarity? Perhaps that’s why we default to “Hi”, “Hello”, “Good Morning” and suchlike, simply to avoid making the choice and possibly causing offence. On the basis of one letter or one email we are often now bosom buddies with people we might never meet or, even, correspond with again. And we’ve all had the telephone call from some salesperson who immediately asks “Can I call you Mike.” No, they can try but they may not. Nevertheless, I suspect lots of people love this sort of over familiarity. Perhaps I’m just a little behind the times.

I find it difficult to dispense with formality in case I am thought to be rude or abrupt. I still tend to use “Dear….” as a form of salutation because it seems appropriate and avoids insult or over familiarity. “Hi, “hello” or “what’s up man”, all have their disadvantages. Equally, all have their adherents. But by far the most difficult bit is in the closing. If you find “yours sincerely” or “yours faithfully” too stodgy, then the alternatives are all wanting in in some way: “Regards”, “best wishes”, “bye” and (especially) “best” are all platitudinous to a degree. 

Fortunately, The Muse has provided us with an extensive crib sheet of closing words or phrases to follow. Not that I’ll be following the list any time soon. I might like “The End” but would find “Toodles” a tad infantile. I’m more inclined to follow the advice at Time.com which is quite specific. Kristen Bahler pontificates that this is the ONLY way to sign off an email: With gratitude. Yes, “Thanks” is considered an advanced way of buttering up your correspondent, with “Thanks in advance” getting the most favourable rating. 

It’s probably best to hedge your bets: 

Keep on keepin’ on, and thanks a million,

I remain, Sirs and Mesdames,

your most obedient servant

Mike xxx

______________

8 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Mike
    In the US it’s goes something like this:
    "Hi", or "Hello" followed often by "I hope you are keeping well" (which has problematic downsides if indeed you are really ill) or "I hope your summer (never winter) is going well"
    Usually end with "best" or "best wishes"
    Yours,
    Tony

  2. Dear Mike,
    I think I’ll stay a bit behind the times with you! I still treat e-mails as potential letters rather than as SMS (which I can’t do!) And I like writing letters…..
    With all good wishes,
    Yours ever,
    John.
    !!!

  3. How to address recipients and how to commence and finish Emails can be a headache. To avoid over-familiarity, recipients can be addressed e.g. Dear John Brown instead of Dear John … but there is no easy rule which covers all contingencies. And how do you address a high ranking clergyman? I favour, Dear Bish … 🙂 as distinct from ‘Your Eminence, May I beg to ask your … ‘ Times have changed since I worked in the City of London 40 something years ago and we were expected to ‘dress proper’ and not enter a director’s office or area without wearing a jacket (a suit jacket because sports jackets were a definite NO GO). And ties were obligatory throughout the office; we could be sent out to buy a tie if arriving at work tie-less. However, the ‘Honorables’ (we had several ‘names’ with ‘The Hon.’ prefix … the genuine ‘upper class twit’ brigade employed by my insurance broking firm) got away with wearing unstructured denim suits in the mid-1970s .. because none of the non-titled managers dared to reprimand them for being ‘improperly dressed’. Nowadays we are far less formal; ties are no longer ‘de rigueur’ and it’s acceptable in some offices to arrive for work wearing jeans! I can recall a director of my city firm in 1974 being one of the very few still adorned in a bowler hat … and a colleague being reprimanded by him (in a friendly manner) for addressing him as ‘Jerry old boy …’ and the colleague being reminded to address him as, " ‘Sir’ … or JM! … but never, ever, ‘Jerry’ … or ‘old boy’ !… Alright old chap?" But it just happened that the waxed-moustachioed JM was regularly shagging his secretary in an apartment paid for by the company … and we were all aware of the fact … so he was unaware of what we called him behind his back! I’m thankful that we’re no longer so stuffy and that BBC TV programmes are no introduced by Sylvia Peters and McDonald Hobley in ‘evening dress’. We’ve moved on a bit since the ‘good old days’ … but I’m hopeful that as regards Email and texting etiquette, we all ‘see the light’ and cease over-using all those totally unnecessary too frequently used acronyms. We’ve all been brainwashed into being copycats … but long live originality … so it’s time to say … "Big eats time …. Bye Bye!"

    • Brilliant. The Monty Python crew did a lot to break through those ‘old formalities’ . If you want to hear some of those today in English you have to go to the former British Colonies in South Asia or the Caribbean. Newspaper reports there often read like pre-war novels with references to ‘sleuths’ instead of detectives and ‘miscreants’ instead of criminals. When I lived in the Middle East about 10 years ago a lot of the reporters working on English language newspapers came from South Asia and they used a wonderful old fashioned style of English when filing their reports. I sometimes wonder if the informality of today is all good and I occasionally pine for the ‘BBC English’ that I heard on the radio as a child.

      William

      • If Monty Python was one of the BBC’s greatest triumphs, its contemporaneous introduction of its campaign to "announce" in the strongest, most regional (even least Swedish) accent, continues unabated and is amongst its greatest failures.

        I am sorry, but I have been banned from further embellishment.

        Alvar

  4. Many years ago when I was a civil servant, before moving on to do other things, the tradition was that if you were addressing a letter to a fellow senior civil servant you would use a surname only. Thus if I were writing to Mike Evans I would address him as ‘Dear Evans’ and he would reply to me as ‘Dear Fagan’. My moment of conversion came, however, between 35 and 40 years ago when I had to address a letter to a senior colleague in another Department called Patrick Sirr. I started with ‘Dear Sirr’ and that did not sound right. I then tried ‘Dear Mr Sirr’ but that sounded even worse. I then went to ‘Dear Patrick’ which sounded just right and was a format which I used for many years thereafter.

    As for emails, I address a person in an email if I do not know the recipient well or if it is a significant email. I always attach my name or initial at the end of an email to show that I meant what I said and was not just throwing something out into the ether. Apart from that, it is all about communication and being clear about what you mean. I only use colloquialisms when communicating with other Irish people. I rarely use slang words as I was taught how to avoid those when I became a civil servant in the 1960s.

    That’s about it

    William

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