Email Etiquette: Style, form and convention has gone

Posted on by Mike Evans

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:

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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