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Email Etiquette: Keep on keepin' on

Posted on by Mike Evans

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

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