I have a number of course books that I use to teach English, but one is particular favourite. It’s an advanced book and is quite old – old enough to have pictures of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in it. And a detailed chapter on letter writing. There’s some useful stuff in that section. When to use Miss, Mrs or Ms, for example. Ms often takes some explaining. Once a bit of a rarity, and made famous by Martina Navratilova, it used to leave a question mark with regards the lady’s sexuality. These days it’s not nearly so uncommon, and the implication it once carried has largely disappeared.
But this section does deal with something of a lost art. Letter writing was long ago replaced by email. When did you last pen or type a letter that was delivered in physical form, rather than by the organisation of bits and bytes on a computer screen? For me, it was in January 2005 – a letter of complaint to National Express coaches in the UK. There is something far more formal about letter writing in comparison to drafting up an email. So how has the format and formality of letter writing changed? I came across a very interesting article today on the BBC website about this very topic…
It’s time we ditched “Dear…” from work e-mails, according to a US political figure, who says it’s too intimate. So what is the most appropriate way to greet someone in an e-mail – hi, hey or just get straight to the point?…..
….”‘Dear…’ is a bit too intimate and connotes a personal relationship,” Ms Barry told the paper. And as she strives to maintain what she calls “the utmost and highest level of professionalism”, she sees no need for old-fashioned graces….
…”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….
…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.
Where once there was correct protocol and certainty about how to address someone when writing a letter, there is now a minefield. It’s all too easy to give the wrong impression. So how to teach this tricky subject? I take a fairly simple approach. On many occasions, my students will be writing to people they have corresponded with before. They are often people who work for the same company in different countries. What format are they using? Play it safe and copy them.
What if they are writing to someone for the first time? If it is someone of their level within the company, and there is a format that is in general use within the company, then use that. This might be “Hello Juanita”. On the other hand, if the recipient is somebody senior, or an person not working within the company I always suggest using “Dear…”. It is possible that it might be viewed as being ‘too formal’ or even ‘overly polite’. I can’t see that ever upsetting someone though. And it’s far better than being perceived as being ‘too chummy’ or ‘overly familiar’.