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Dear Reader: Email Etiquette

2014-02-05

By Christer Larsson

Email is an extremely common means of communication in professional life. However, linguistic conventions for email communication have been difficult to establish, and it probably did not help that early email messages, due to technological necessities, were economically short and abrupt. Many feel that an email is less formal than a “real” letter and more like a phone call, only without the extra information you get from somebody’s tone of voice. Some users tend to see email writing as a slower form of chatting, but still essentially a “fast” medium. I am certainly not alone in getting many emails that are “Sent from my iPhone” and quite clearly written without a great deal of thought, which brings us to the topic of this blog: dos and don’ts in email communication in English.

Obviously, if you are writing to your mother or your best friend, you can do whatever you like and whatever they will put up with. They know you and will take the time to sort out any misunderstanding. However, if you are communicating in a professional context, no one takes that time-nor should anyone have to. In a work environment (a university, for example), there is enough worry and tension even without bad communication. If your email contains a well structured message, sandwiched between a greeting and a sign-off, you will make everybody’s life, not least your own, much easier.

So, if you want to come across as polite and proficient, how do you begin an email in English when you are writing to somebody you do not know? If you have never met the person you are writing to, the conventional opening is “Dear Ms. Robin Hood,” or “Dear Mr. Robin Hood,” when you are writing to a man. The titles “Mrs.” and “Miss” are considered obsolete, so you should only use “Mrs.” when the addressee insists on that title. The next step towards familiarity is “Dear Robin,” but, if you are corresponding with somebody who is your boss or in some other way above you in the pecking order, it is wise to let the other party make the move to first-name basis. In reality, however, this step is just as likely to be skipped completely, and the correspondence goes straight to the next step: “Hi Robin,”.

Most Swedes like to think of their culture as relatively level and (often deliberately and with some pride) pay very little attention to hierarchies. This fact can cause trouble when Swedes go abroad. A Swede may not feel that it is very important to keep track of academic titles; however, Germans and Italians and many others will disagree. Obviously, it may also create difficulties when communicating across cultures via email. Swedes who refuse to use titles in English because titles are rarely used in Sweden may think of themselves as progressive but will simply be seen as rude.

Swedes also find it difficult to come to terms with using “Dear,” simply because the direct Swedish translation (“Kära” or “Käre”) feels old-fashioned and oddly intimate. However, overcoming this discomfort is a necessary part of learning to function in a new language. It is an effect of giving up the security of a language where you have stopped thinking about what words mean and just care about how they function. If you resist using “Dear” because of what you think it means in Swedish, you are neglecting its conventional function in English.

In addition to demonstrating rudimentary social competence, the greeting and the sign-off also have a very practical function in emails: they tell the reader when to begin and when to stop reading. If you are using a commercial email service, there are often distracting advertisements at the bottom of your email; “Sent from my iPhone” is a relatively unobtrusive example. If you are using a corporate email account, there may be lengthy legal disclaimers following your message. A sign-off tells your reader clearly where your message ends. The following are all appropriate sign-offs: “Best regards,” “Kind regards,” “Best wishes,” “Best,” “Very best,” and a number of variations, followed by your name on the next line. “Sincerely,” is a little more formal, and “Take care,” is more familiar.

Between the greeting and the sign-off is the main part of your email: the actual message. Usually, when you are writing an email in a work setting (like a university), the message will be a request, a question or a complaint. Regardless, your message typically has a very specific objective; there is something you want to achieve by writing and sending that message. Please note that even when your message does not have such an objective, as when you are submitting an assignment in an attachment, it is still necessary to produce a short text acknowledging the addresse. An empty email with an attachment seems very arrogant. A proficient and effective message is characterised by two qualities: clarity and relevance.

Clarity is achieved by managing to give a complete account of a set of circumstances. Remember that you are always smarter than your reader, or at least a couple of steps ahead. Your reader may not know which course you are talking about, which assignment or which book. Explain in some detail (even if it seems unnecessary to you) what the circumstances are and what you are asking for. You should also keep in mind that the clarity of your message can be affected by poor language. Always write in complete sentences. Sentence fragments appear sloppy at best, and they are often significantly less clear than sentences that have a subject and a verb.

Not only are they enemies of clarity, emoticons (smileys) are absolute authority killers. If you want to come across as reliable, serious or careful, do not clutter your texts with inexplicably happy disembodied heads. They are very subjective (much more so than words) and necessarily vague, so someone who does not know you very well could find them difficult to interpret accurately. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve when you are writing something that could be upsetting or insulting and follow up with a happy face. Are you trying to cushion the blow? Are you showing that hurting somebody makes you happy? Are you demonstrating that you mean no harm but just have to express your feelings? Then ask yourself if smileys belong in a message that is not for your buddy or your mother.

Relevance means sticking to the point. There are many bad habits that are impediments to relevance, but here are two common but not very obvious ones that do their damage by being distracting: foul language and humour. Swearing is in fact an extremely complex linguistic skill, and swearing in your second language is risky. You need to be able to assess exactly how offensive your swearing is, and movies and books are not reliable guides to real-life situations. Humour does not travel well, and being funny in your second language is very difficult. Regardless of what language you are using, you should also keep in mind that your reader, being in an entirely different situation, may have a different sense of humour. Not only may he or she not think you are very funny-your joke may fail to register as a joke at all. Depending on the content of the joke, the consequences can be quite distinctly un-funny.

So, has this text taught you anything new? Hopefully not. In summary, it says that a well-written email should be concise but polite and have an appropriate greeting and sign-off. Email is an efficient communication channel, but it should not be approached carelessly. Whether you send it from your iPhone or not, taking the time and care to write a good email improves the work environment and benefits everyone.