Saturday, January 22, 2011

Email Etiquette

The etiquette of Email

E-mail has changed the rules of engagement. The language of business is evolving. Our old "dears" are withering away, replaced in the top perch by "hello", "hi" and "hey".

"I'm fed up with people writing 'Hi Jean' when they've never met me," says etiquette guru Jean Broke-Smith. "If you're sending a business e-mail you should begin 'Dear...' - like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential.

"We are losing the art of letter writing. E-mails are becoming like texts. If we don't get a handle on it, future generations won't be able to spell at all."But why are so many of us culling "Dear..." from our e-mails, even in the workplace? The simplest answer for its detractors is that it no longer says what it means, it feels cold and distant.

"The only time I write 'Dear...' is if I'm making a complaint," says Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent smoothies. "If I'm writing to someone I am trying to impress, I would simply say 'hello'. Losing 'Dear...' does not equal rudeness."The word also implies being of a certain age, says Jon King, managing director of the digital marketing agency Story Worldwide, who adds: "I never use 'Dear...' It's old-dearish."

Hello James,

The only time I write "Dear..." is if I'm making a complaint. If I'm writing to someone I am trying to impress, I would simply say "hello". Losing "Dear" does not equal rudeness.

I work at Innocent smoothies, with a bunch of young 'uns. What I get from them in e-mails is "hi" and "hey" and the occasional "yo", but not often. Our smoothie marketing might have a casual tone of voice, but we're still a business.

Yes, we do dumb down the conversation on our packaging to an extent. You've already invited us into your fridge, so let's have a natter. But that for me is different to having a business conversation with an agency or a supplier.

In fact we have a policy about e-mails. "Don't write anything that could be misunderstood." Irony and sarcasm never work. And don't think that adding a smiley and three trillion exclamation marks will help. It just makes people think you're an idiot.

All the best,


Mr King was the frontman in post-punk band the Gang of Four. His clients today include luxury brands like Faberge and Estee Lauder.

So how does he greet them? "Often with no intro line at all. I assume they know who they are, and cut to the chase."It is this race to communicate that leaves old-school etiquette trailing in the wake, according to social behaviour expert Liz Brewer, star of ITV's Ladette to Lady.

"With social networking, we do everything in three seconds - reply, type, send - and often without due consideration," she explains."We have to remember that at the start of an e-mail we are sending a subtle message. If I write 'hi' to a person I don't know, I risk falling into a pit. I shouldn't presume I can be so familiar."

Introducing an e-mail is a lot like arriving at a party, she says. "Better to be overdressed. You can always take off the pearls."As e-mail greetings go, "Hey folks" sure ain't pearls.

"Hey" sounds more like the brash, surfy American cousin of "hi". But is it really Bermuda shorts and bare feet?That all depends on the recipient, says Anna Post, spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute, which is based in Vermont and provides etiquette experts and advice to corporations in the US.

"'Hey' is a funny one. I never used to have a problem with it," she says. "Until I met the CEO of a young, hip company, who said she hated it. She said it sounds like a sharp jab. 'Hey!' Whereas to me, 'hey' sounds jaunty and uplifting."

And since we have no control over our e-mail recipient's perception, greetings like "hey" are not worth the risk in business, she adds.

Katie Craig English teacher



It absolutely isn't weird to write "Dear..." at the start of an e-mail if that e-mail has replaced the function of letter-writing. So, my students' parents get a "Dear..." in the first couple of responses. Once we get to know each other, I take my lead from them.

The rule is, address your reader as you would in the context with which you are replacing the e-mail.

I find good friends often get no sort of greeting at all. Similar to the way, in life, we'd simply smile and resume the previous night's conversation.

With someone I haven't spoken to in a while, but am glad to, it tends to be their name and an exclamation mark, or, disgustingly, several (never let my pupils know this).

I think this makes sense - it's the lexical equivalent of running up to someone on the street and giving them a hug.

Let's meet soon,

Katie x

"I would use 'Dear...' with people I don't know particularly well, because it corresponds to respect. I disagree with people who say 'Dear...' means 'you are particularly dear to me'. To convey that kind of 'Dear...' you need to write 'my dearest'."

But if introductions are a dilemma, sign-offs are a social networking minefield.

"Yours faithfully" can't be trusted. "Sincerely" feels insincere. And your "kindest regards" sound like anything but.

Liz Brewer believes you can never go wrong with 'best wishes'. "People put 'XX' all the time - and that's fine, but only if you would kiss the person in the street."

The trouble with sign-offs is you have so many options, says Anna Post. "It's the hottest question I get asked at my business comms classes. If it's business, I would stick to 'regards', 'kind regards' or 'best'.
"'Cheers' is too warm for some industries. But the one I really don't like is 'BR'. How could they be your 'best regards' if you couldn't even be bothered to type them out?"

The trick with sign-offs is to choose a phrase that's almost invisible, she says, because if the phrase looks odd "then people are no longer thinking about the content of your message," says Anna Post.

So maybe the solution to what's right to write is just to keep it simple.

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