Email etiquette


A couple of years ago, when the television film about my brother’s death was making headlines, I had an email from a Sky News journalist, wanting to interview me. It began “Hi Graham”. The woman writing had never heard of me until two days before, and yet she was presuming to write as if we had been friends for years. I didn’t reply until eighteen months later, by which time I was no longer “interesting”, and told her I did not appreciate being addressed in such a way by a complete stranger. During the furore, I was also rung by journalists unknown to me asking “to speak to Graham”. I literally pulled the plug, and was incommunicado for days.

Not only was it, in my view, inappropriate to start a letter to me in such a way at any time, it was far less so when the topic of the proposed interview was so painful to me.

Recently, I have bought a large item for the house, making the transaction by email. Again, I was addressed by the woman at the other end with  “Hi Graham”. If I had signed off in my email to her (in which I addressed her as “Dear Ms Xyz”) as “Gordon Brown”, would she have still written back “Hi Gordon”?

Emails have legal validity, just as much as printed or handwritten letters sent through the post. As such, business emails should be written in a similar style. It shows a lack of respect for the recipient to reduce the level of formality to that used between close friends.

I once received a letter at the BBC addressed to “The Head Pronunciation Honcho”. Needless to say, it came from California. I treated that as a joke, and wrote back in a similar way. Formal business mail is not to be treated so light-heartedly. I am not asking for deference, merely common politeness.


  1. Which brings you to the problem that politeness standards are far from uniform cross-culturally, even between closely related cultures (English and Californian, say…)

    Moreover, electronic communications have yet to evolve common standards. Clearly, the forms used in business mail are widely perceived as inappropriate for electronic communications (even the French are giving up on the je-vous-prie-d’agréer in electronic mail), so presumably new conventions will arise out of the present confusion within a couple of years.

  2. As Lukas so correctly observes, “politeness standards are far from uniform cross-culturally, even between closely related cultures (English and Californian, say…)”. This is borne out by an experience while dining at “The Machismo Mouse” (Palo Alto, California). On placing my order, I was asked for my name. “Taylor”, I replied, giving my surname as is usual in such circumstances in the U.K. You can imagine my surprise when, a few minutes later, the Tannoy announced “Taylor, your meal is ready” 🙁

  3. As an American computer technologist (though not a Californian), I have for more than thirty years lived in a business world where everyone orally first-names everyone else, even people who are bitterly and openly hostile to one another. Since we were using email before the rest of you had heard of it, our conventions have influenced (though not dictated) how emails are written today. While I continue to receive letters addressed to Mr. Cowan, and am so addressed on the phone by strangers, I take “Hi, John” for granted in an email. (As is well known, addressing someone, as distinct from referring to someone, by a bare surname in America is a mark of very explicit domination, and hardly to be tolerated outside the military.)

    To digress slightly, one of the things that has greatly changed on the Internet since the early days is the social acceptability of pseudonyms. People who are openly known by their true first and last names, as I am, are nowadays a comparative rarity. Back in the 70s and 80s, on the other hand, being known by a real full name was considered the mark of maturity and self-confidence, the willingness to stand behind what one said even if it had real-world consequences. Pseudonymity was the mark of poseurs and losers, except for people who had an obvious and well-founded fear of such consequences: rape victims, alcoholics, political refugees, etc. Obviously, this cultural standard no longer applies, but it took the old-timers (including me) some adjusting.

    Mr. TAYLOR, I too use my last name in such circumstances, but perhaps only because my first name is insufficiently distinctive.

  4. John Cowan’s experience of “living in a business world where everyone orally first-names everyone else” makes my point: these are people within a community. As I was being approached by a member of the media community, while I am not a member of that community, the same rules do not apply: within the BBC, it is now customary to address everyone, up to and including the Director General, by his/her first name, but it would be inappropriate for a member of the general public to write to the DG, addressing him “Hi Mark”.

    I wonder if John Cowan, in writing to the President of the USA, would begin his letter “Dear Barack”, or his email “Hi Barack”? I should be very surprised to learn that he would. If I am right, what is the difference between the President and anyone else whose status John is unaware of? Why should he show more deference to the President than to anyone else? Respect is a much abused word, but everyone is entitled to it, surely?

  5. It is a curious fact that emails appear to have settled into an area where informality is the rule. Perhaps the reason lies in the nature of the original beast where extra characters took extra payload – people were thus encouraged to remove all unnecessary bits. In addition, the plain text nature of emails originally discouraged all formal rules of layouts. Result – simple layout, minimal formality.
    I would also suggest that if I ever needed to write something formal, it would _never_ go into an email – it would be a formal document, attached to the email. This definitely suggests the world does not acknowledge such a thing as a formal email.
    No, I don’t think I could bring myself to write “Hi Barack” in an email. But I don’t think I could start it with “Mr President” either – the formality would seem stilted. I’d just leave any salutation out. (Apart from anything, it wouldn’t go near him anyway – why address a clerk as “Mr President”?)

  6. Mr Philip Taylor — in case you weren’t aware, ‘Taylor’ is a fairly common first name in the US, although usually for girls.

  7. it does not seem that emails are formal business letters, even when they have business content. If I wrote an email to President Obama, I would not use a formal opening at all; if I wrote a snail mail letter, however, I would begin “Dear President Obama” and address it to “President Barack Obama” (not “The President”; I’m not inviting him to a white-tie dinner).

    The society of email users is a recently improvised one, and in improvised societies one is always at risk of being either too informal or too formal (the latter being also offensive in its own way). What is more, different anglophone cultures with very different patterns of appropriate address have been effectively merged online.

    The best one can do under such circumstances is to obey the unofficial motto of FidoNet (a pre-Internet worldwide email and group posting network, not to be confused with the Internet service provider “Don’t offend, and don’t be too easily offended.” I trust I have not offended against this rule.

  8. This is an interesting discussion and many people make valid points.

    Firstly, I completely sympathise with the original poster. Your feeling umbridge towards those reporters is very understandable, there is nothing more insulting for me than someone who is clearly looking to turn a time of great personal sorrow for an individual into a proposition for their own personal or corporate profit. To my thinking insincerity is the real issue.

    I presently am in this very conundrum situation myself. Namely, how to address an email to someone from whom I now seek employment but with whom I have not previously been in contact.

    Last year, and for three years, I was working in New Zeland and the culture there is beyond relaxed (in terms of inter-personal relationships. Everyone is very friendly and on first name terms).

    Now, back in the UK, it feels a little like there is a whole country of people with various sizes of chips on their respective shoulders and communication becomes so much more fraught (Ironically, I did miss this aspect of living in the UK in some ways whilst abroad because in small doses its this culture makes people more interesting).

    Personally, I take people on what they say not on how they say it. This makes it hard for me to judge how to address strangers because I have no idea of how they are going to perceive my address. I have encountered both people who hate formality (seeing it as power positioning like John already aluded to) and people who see a lack of formality as a personal afront (a right to be earned not to be taken).

    So, in short, i’m entirely confused as to how to address this email and I am thinking the best suggestion so far it to leave out the salutation. However, that to me seems like side stepping the issue somewhat.

    I think, maybe, computer people tend to be more informal because their world is largely sustained by connectivity. Whilst computers are useful devices as stand alone utilities, its through their interconnection and world wide application that they become so profitable / inexpendible.

    Therefore, prehaps its fair to say computers (in general terms) encourage informality? Though I can see many sides.

    I think i’m going to go with the safe “Dear Sir”, always good to show respect.

  9. Except, of course, when the Sir is in fact female, a thing you can rarely take for granted on the Internet.

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