What to call your e-mail recipient

With business letters there are well-known conventions for addressing one's recipient. But what about e-mail? What is the best text to start and to end an e-mail message? Marian Newell from Newell-Porter (www.newellporter.co.uk) put this question to the ISTC Discussion Group in October 2005. These are the results of her informal survey.

Twelve people replied to the question, so the findings do not have statistical significance, however, they give useful guidance.

Many people gave opinions about what they do in their own e-mail messages, but they did not have strong opinions about what they read in messages from other people. When people respond to new contacts, many people mirror the usage of the person who sent the e-mail message.

Many people preferred 'Hello' to 'Hi' for business, viewing 'Hi' as too informal, but others regarded 'Hi' as standard in e-mail, as invisible as 'Dear' in a letter. Two people opted for 'Dear' when they send an e-mail message to new contacts, but others expressed concern that using 'Dear' risked making the sender look older or inexperienced with e-mail. Many people thought that informality is part of the e-mail culture. Some noted that other European countries are typically more or less formal. One person objected to 'Hi' as American (it has its roots there in the mid-19th century), although one person wrote that it entered her vocabulary from Denmark not from the US.

Many people regarded <first_name> with no greeting word as the safest option when unsure, although some people found this a little stark. One person commented that he finds 'Good Morning' strange in e-mail messages that he receives and that he does not use it. Given that one has no idea when people will read their e-mail messages, it does seem an odd choice.

Many people did not like 'Regards' as a closure. 'Thanks' was popular when suitable, and 'Cheers' was used in friendly messages. However, one person had seen 'Cheers' irritate recipients when it was used at the end of a formal notice about disciplinary matters. That shows that all text must be suitable. One person noted that usage from the same person sometimes varies depending on the message content. Many people do not use a closing word if the e-mail message has wound down in a way that does not seem abrupt. Some had noticed people using unexpected closures like 'Love' and 'Cuddles' in business e-mail messages.

With a formal salutation, a related problem was the difficulty of knowing which title to use for women. Typically, persons of both genders did not like to use titles in e-mail messages. For letters, both women in the discussion were happy with the full name and no title on the envelope (or in the letter's address block). However, in the salutation, one preferred 'Dear <first_name><second_name>' and the other preferred 'Dear Ms <second_name>'. Both were happy with 'Dear <first_name>'.

Similarly, one person noted that when he sends an e-mail message to a person with only an initial known, he puts 'For the attention of <initial> <second_name>' and then 'Hello' below that.

One person passed on the conclusions of a thread in a similar vein in the SfEP (www.ciep.uk), which considered how to address a foreign author whose academic qualifications you do not know:

This informal survey shows that there are no clear rules. As with all types of writing, you must know your audience and write accordingly.

See also

How to write an e-mail message

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