Saturday, 14 June 2014

On e-formality

A correspondent writes to ask about the register to be used in emails. He wonders if a formal style is possible, such as (in applying for a job) beginning with 'Dear Sir/Madam' and ending with 'Yours faithfully', or the like. He says he has never encountered such an email.

I have - though only in recent years. When emails began to be widely used, in the mid-1990s, the netiquette manuals stressed the new and informal character of the medium. Formality was to be avoided, so that even a 'Dear' opening was not recommended. However, these manuals were written in the early days of e-communication, and usually by younger and geekier people. As the age demographic of internet users changed, with older (and more conservative) people coming online, so the stylistic range of emails altered, as did the range of contexts in which it was felt emails were (or weren't) appropriate. For some time, for example, it was considered inappropriate to send condolences for a death by email, but this happens now. Similarly, firing people by email was widely criticised a decade ago. Not so much now.

Today we see the whole range of formality in email exchanges - from those that replicate letters in every formal detail to those that avoid all traditional letter-writing conventions. I have had emails beginning 'Dear Professor' and ending 'Yours faithfully', or the like. And mixed styles are encountered too, such as beginning with 'hi' and ending with something more formal. Computer-generated emails often mix things up: I got an email once which began 'Dear Professor Wales'.

It's difficult to work out what is going on because there is so much anonymity 'out there'. Sociolinguists rely on context for their observations - age, gender, language background, and so forth - and this is usually missing or unclear in internet exchanges, especially in forums and social media. So it's often impossible to interpret the factors that have led writers to make their formality decisions. And even if one knew, it would be too soon to generalize, with a medium that is still (for most users) less than twenty years old.


Stephen said...

I have a lot to say about the wording, presentation and use of emails, but I'd just like to comment on one particular point in this post, David. My comment here is: I don't think there are any contexts in which bad news (you quote the example of firing someone) should be delivered in writing, whether old-fashioned letter, email, social media or text. So in my view sacking people, informing them of the death of close relatives, relationship break-ups, or whetever, should only ever be done face to face. In extreme cases telephone might be an acceptable substitute. But I can think of very few exceptions in which conveying bad news in writing is acceptable behaviour if you care or have respect for the person to whom the message is being conveyed.

DC said...

A nice ideal. But how otherwise can I react to the news from Australia of a deceased colleague, where face-to-face is impossible, I have no phone number, and I want to get an expression of sympathy there quickly? There are far more 'exceptions' around than you allow, and a lot of people evidently have very different ideas from you as to what counts as acceptable behaviour.

Stephen said...

I certanly wouldn't claim to have a monopoly on the definition of acceptable behaviour, and yes I'm sure there are lots of other views around. In the example you quote, email would be fine in my view - but that's about expressing sympathy, not breaking the news in the first place. However, if it were about breaking the news, and if there genuinely isn't a phone option, then obviously email is the solution. Maybe I overstated it by saying 'extreme cases' but I think what I was trying to get at is that there is a danger that people will often use email as the first or preferred option, as a way of avoiding a difficult or emotionally charged conversation.

Adrian Morgan said...

When I was at school, I formulated a rule for the use of "yours faithfully" vs "yours sincerely" that differs from the usual prescription but almost always coincides with it, and, in my opinion, makes a lot more sense.

In my formulation, "yours faithfully" is used when you are requesting something; "yours sincerely" when you are providing something. Or to paraphrase, if the recipient were to discard the letter unread, "yours faithfully" is used when that would be to the sender's deficit; "yours sincerely" when it would be to the recipient's deficit.

The whole question seems moot now, as both are anachronisms in all but the most formal of contexts.

Incidentally, it's odd that the word "dear" is considered formal in a letter, when elsewhere, the same word (meaning "precious") evokes familiarity, tenderness, and love.

Christine4 said...

I have worked in a lot of offices for various companies and organisations. It seems to me that whilst the opening for a standard business email is still a thorny issue, the closing is usually "Regards", "Best Regards, or "Kind Regards". These seem to be the new formula, at least here in the UK.