February
21st 2010
Try a little politesse?

Posted under: jobs

Undine writes that ze knows “where politeness dwells on the internets:”

But politeness does still exist–in professional email.

A few years ago, I started noticing that a number of academics didn’t just launch into requests or whatever when writing emails. Instead, the emails began with the sentence “I hope you are well” or another courteous phrase unheard of back in the olden days.

And the complimentary closes of the emails became more polite, too. Although a lot of people still apparently prefer “best,” I’ve seen comments at the Chronicle saying that this is too curt, and in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a lot more variety in this part of the email, too: “best regards,” “warm regards,” “all best,” “with best wishes,” “cordially,” and so on.

That’s my experience.  I always err on the side of formality when e-mailing complete strangers, addressing people by titles and last names unless and until invited to do otherwise.  And, it seems like this is the “house style” among professionals.  As Undine writes, “I’m charmed by this politeness. It makes me feel as though I’m in a Jane Austen novel and am receiving a letter, not an email.”  Right on!  Oh, if only I got letters like that intense letter that Anne Elliott gets from Captain Wentworth near the end of Persuasion, when all hope for their love seems quite lost.  But, I’ll take a friendly and polite e-mail, any day. 

As Dr. No writes in the comments on Undine’s blog, “I recently agreed to participate in a service task (something I would normally NOT do) simply because the email was so fantastically well written and cordial. I couldn’t help myself!”  This seems quite out of character for Dr. No–to say the least!  (It’s quite possible that Dr. No is being sarcasticWe can’t rule that out.)

26 Comments »

26 Responses to “Try a little politesse?”

  1. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    I spent years vaguely trying to decide whether “Best” was a soft-core kissoff, even as it occasionally arrived just over the sig-line of people I knew well and had very good relations with. It never really seemed so, but it did have a bit of a brusque aftertaste.

    Other surefire problematic openers are the ones (in letters as well as e-mails) that begin “Dear Indyanna Lastname.” I could never figure out what that was about, unless it was some godforbid ambiguity about gender in the *Firstname*/Lastname sequence. Let’s say I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an acceptance letter addressed to Indyanna Lastname. Well, there was the time when “Indyanna Lastname” raked in sixteen million Euros for helping some missionary’s barrister get twice that much out of Liberia after somebody’s step-uncle died in a tragic plane crash, but that’s another story.

    I like the occasional fleur’y signoff, as in “Ever in Your Regard,” but definitively draw the line myself at:

    Your H’ble & Obed’t Serv’t…

    (Although my students do get a kick out of hearing about how General Washington would humor his brigadier subordinate William Alexander, of New Jersey–the self-pretending “Lord Stirling”–by sending orders under the salutation: “My Lord,” with the sign-off as above). Democracy in America and all that.

  2. Comrade PhysioProf on 21 Feb 2010 at 1:19 pm #

    I tend to address my e-mails to other academics with just their first name followed by a colon. Although I otherwise treat professional e-mails pretty formally, checking spelling and grammar, and explicitly considering tone before clicking send.

  3. tony grafton on 21 Feb 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    Dear Historiann and colleagues,

    This archaic form still feels right to me. I have no problem at all with Comrade PP’s chosen form, which many of my correspondents use. But when I try to type it in, I hear my late mother and my beloved first grade teacher reminding me of the proper way to begin a letter, and I return to the old ways.

    With all best wishes,

    Your aging and querulous friend,

    Tony

  4. Another Damned Medievalist on 21 Feb 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    I have to say that I address my emails and tailor the language therein according to the subject and to the audience. If it’s an email about something professional, even if it’s to a campus colleague who is a close friend, I tend to write a bit more formally, although I am likely to start off with “Hi Colleague.” If it’s emails that are meant to take the place of a quick phone conversation, especially with my Dean, they are often pretty informal “Hi Dean, do you have time today to talk? I need a few minutes for X.”

    If it’s a total stranger, I write as though I were writing a paper letter, with “Dear Title X,” and “Sincerely”

    Like Professor Grafton, I would have problems with “Name:” — largely because I used to teach business writing, and to me that signals two things: curtness = rudeness or anger, and; no salutation = speaking down to another person.

    I have fewer problems with “Name,” but still, the only time I see it in emails on my campus (or in other email exchanges) is when my Dean is writing to all of us to remind us of a meeting or duty, or when someone else is trying to create a power dynamic that puts the recipient of the email on the defensive, generally because the writer is in some way remonstrating with hir.

  5. Another Damned Medievalist on 21 Feb 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    also, I would very much like Captain Wentworth, or his RL analogue, to write me that letter Real Soon Now!

  6. Susan on 21 Feb 2010 at 3:37 pm #

    If I don’t know someone, I always address an email to “Dear Title X:”; and I sign it with the formality that seems appropriate — though I haven’t gone as far as “Your H’ble & Obed’t Serv’t”.

    I worked as a secretary, and even when I’m passing quick emails with colleagues, I tend to think of emails as letters that travel a different way. So the formalities remain.

  7. Historiann on 21 Feb 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    Susan writes, ” I tend to think of emails as letters that travel a different way. So the formalities remain.

    I think that’s a great way to think about them. And yes, as ADM suggests, the level of formality all has to do with the level of familiarity.

    Do any of you believe that Dr. No was induced to take on a service committment because of a terribly polite, engaging, and well-written e-mail? I think he must be pulling our leg(s).

  8. Mary on 21 Feb 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    When I was a graduate student, I spent a lot of time thinking about the tone of emails I sent. There is a fine line between politely asking for help and sounding entitled and I always wanted to be on the side of politeness. However, in some cases, I concluded that asking a professor how they were doing or if they were having a nice weekend was inappropriate. It sounded very forced and contrived if I had virtually no personal relationship with the professor. Now that I am an instructor, I guess I feel much the same way when I receive emails from students which contain obligatory inquiries about how I am. It’s really none of their business and I know that they just want me to answer a question anyway. I do always appreciate “thank yous” though.

    In short, I think your position relative to the person matters a great deal. I feel much more at ease emailing professors from my former graduate institution and asking how they are now that I graduated. (I have also been freaking out about the tone of emails I send to prospective PhD programs.)

    Also, sometimes I wondered if my preoccupation with the tone of emails had to do with my gender. I know that male graduate students are more inclined to ask for and receive assistance.

  9. GayProf on 21 Feb 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    I agree with Susan and the letter thing. I sill follow the protocol I learned in my eighth-grade secretary training class.

  10. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2010 at 8:48 pm #

    Historiann, on the Dr. No “pulling our leg(s)” question, I think all of the play in this one inheres in what the word “service” connotes. A politely phrased request to represent the U. by calling “heads” or “tails” for the ceremonial coin flip at the Fiesta Bowl next January? Somebody has to do the grunt-work, I always say. :)

  11. Liz2 on 21 Feb 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Wow, I’ve just realized how rude I appear in email. I use just the first name comma and always sign “best”, which is what my advisor did. However, I always put my email in the form of a letter. perhaps I will begin to use “dear” – it just always strikes me as odd to refer to any colleague as a dear.

  12. HistoryMaven on 21 Feb 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    I have to admit to being vexed at times with the colon vs. comma question after the salutation in professional email messages. And I’m totally old-fashioned: I still write, by hand, thank you notes.

    What makes me giggle is the way students write “official” letters to me as their professor. The subject line reads “From Jane Doe.” The message reads “Dear HistoryMaven: This is Jane Doe from your class.” And the message is signed, finally, “Jane Doe.” More often than not, the person’s email address is “jdoe[at]someplace.”

    In reverential awe of you, dear Historian,

    I remain,

    HistoryMaven

  13. Indyanna on 21 Feb 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    @Liz2,

    I think there’s no hard format. Historiann gets it correct with the familiarity/formality formula. I mostly just use first name and comma too and often don’t use a valedictory signification. A usage that I sort of adore, although it can be weirdly awkward, is when someone does choose to “entitle” somebody else of note or rank, who they don’t know, they can put the recipient in the position of replying with first name and the highly-stylized “…,if I may,…” which is then to be acquiesced in. At least I think it would be pretty odd to rebuff this chess-move to first names by continuing to use Dr., or Col., or Sen., or whatever.

    Years ago, before I knew anything about anything, I made an appointment to go see somebody at the American Historical Association about a history-related problem I had. My appointment turned out to be with the Executive Director, whose formal title was “Ambassador G____n.” That was a little on the strange side, I will say!

  14. Trudy on 22 Feb 2010 at 12:19 am #

    I tend to write formal letters, even to my students, whom I often address as Mr. or Ms. So-and-So. It raises the register and hails them as adults. Sadly, they don’t always behave as adults–damn, they like to whine! (even in an email)–so a formal tone helps.

  15. perpetua on 22 Feb 2010 at 6:41 am #

    Like most of you, I engage in layers of formality/informality. For colleagues who are also friends, anything goes (But usually a “Dear First Name,” ending with a friendly conclusion – in my field those of us who know each other tend to use the conclusion form popular in the country we work in). For colleagues I have met personally but don’t know well, I still begin Dear First Name and usually end with a “best”, which has never seemed rude to me in those situations. For colleagues whom I have never met, I use Dear Title Last Name, ending with a “Sincerely yours” or similar. I simply cannot imagine sending a chatty, informal email to a scholar whom I do not know – especially a senior scholar. I also never ask such correspondents how they are – I introduce myself and get to the point of the email, quickly.

  16. Feminist Avatar on 22 Feb 2010 at 9:33 am #

    Having just been doing some reading on eighteenth century politeness, it occurs to me that historians are going have a blast with this blog post and comments in future generations.

  17. Katrina on 22 Feb 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    Another Damned Medievalist summed up precisely my problem with emails that begin “First name:” or even “First name,”. I thought it was perhaps an idiosyncrasy of mine but I have always bristled at the curtness and (what I perceived as) imperious tone. Regardless the content of the body of the message, I feel more respected by a message that begins with a salutation.

    The other one that really drives me screaming is when messages just begin with “Hi,”. Not “Hi Katrina” but just “Hi” on its own. It always feels like the author has forgotten my name (which doesn’t make me inclined to help them: oddly enough this form seems to appear most often on messages asking me for some kind of assistance!).

    “Best” as a sign-off is not ideal, but “yours,” seems incomplete (although intriguingly open to interpretation – is the absent text “affectionately” or “up”? ;)

  18. FrauTech on 22 Feb 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    Great picture from a great movie based on a great book. Me loves me some Captain Wentworth. HerrTech writes those sentimentalities about once every two years in more of a twitter-sized manner but still appreciated.

    I tend to go most formal with professors, I do the first name for colleagues and even those in my chain of command at work (MegaCorp runs things on a largely first name basis, if you’re shooting someone an email you probably know them/know the project well enough to address by first name) or I don’t use any kind of address at all if I’m just passing info along, attaching a file, or something where there’s no original thought. The worst has to be those who have “Thanks” or “Regards” built into their signatures. Sometimes I add an end “thanks” to my emails but I’m learning to not overdue it. Thanking someone before they’ve even shown they can help you can come off as insincere and thanking someone when YOU’RE the one giving them info shows a lack of self respect.

    —–
    Dear Professor Engineeringstuff,

    I am in your 106 course. When will the answers to the midterm be posted online? I would like to study for the next test this weekend. Thank you for your time.

    -FrauTech Lastname
    —–
    John,

    I’ve updated those files on the weight analysis in the project folder. Please look them over and let me know if you have any changes you’d like to make. Thanks.

    -FrauTech
    —–
    Attached is the heat analysis spreadsheet. Let me know if you need anything else.

    -FrauTech

  19. Sharon on 22 Feb 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    My perplexity relates to subject lines. Why do so many people label their emails with phrases that may mean something to the sender, but nothing to the recipient? I’m a department chair, and I’m asked five or ten times a day to forward a message to my colleagues in the department. Most of the time, I rewrite the subject line because I know NO ONE WILL OPEN the email as is.

    Here’s today’s best example: NACADA webinar March 4.

    I relabeled it “Opportunity to learn more about academic advising.” I know at least one colleague opened it, because he was kind enough to let me know he’d rather have a root canal.

  20. Indyanna on 22 Feb 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    This is the phenomenon of administrators with 450-word vocabularies, fortified by acronyms, polysyllabic catch- phrases, and cutesy neologisms. “Webinar” is one of the worst. A colleague has figured out a handy algorithm that basically identifies anything coming from admin and sends it straight to hir recycle bin. Those of us less e-droit are forced to wear out delete buttons fending off messages like “Approve Student Hours by 11 a.m. Monday.” What the latter means means is that the payroll office can’t figure out how to create a list targeted to supervisors of student workers, so everyone on the master list “univ-emp-faculty@pubdist.whatever” (basically the whole goddam uni) has to know three times a week when “student hours” need to be approved.

  21. perpetua on 23 Feb 2010 at 8:55 am #

    So true about the subject lines! And incomprehensible subject lines tied to non-academic email addresses or unknown senders usually end up – unopened – in my trash/spam. I’ve missed a few important messages that way!

  22. Prof. Koshary on 23 Feb 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Dear Dr. Historiann,

    I hope you have been very well this winter. (Since you and I have never met, I cannot in good conscience include the suggested opening platitude. Otherwise, you understand, I would surely do so.) I am sorry I could not catch up with you at the last AHA, since I am not, in fact, a historian. I hope that we’ll get the chance to converse someday soon, although, being as we inhabit entirely different academic fields, such an opportunity will likely be rare in the offing. Here’s hoping!

    It was excellent to read your posting of February 21. It reminded me of the informal education in email etiquette I have received from my advising professors. Notably, my supervisor has always maintained a scrupulous devotion to “old-fashioned” letter-writing style, and I soon noticed that my emails to hir beginning with “Hi Firstname” were infallibly answered with the salutation “Dear Koshary.” I soon took the hint, and have become accustomed to using “Dear” in the salutation of all professional written communications.

    I have learned much more, however, from another advisor, Dr. Awesome, who truly drove home the preference that Mary and others note: asking after someone’s general welfare, as I have done above. Awesome has spent significant time, as I have done, in a part of the world where such pleasantries are not only expected, but virtually required in order to have a conversation, much less compose a formal letter of any sort. As much from personal interaction as from email, Awesome taught me that, when discretion suggests, it may be appropriate to exchange some pleasantries before getting down to business. Naturally, as Mary also noted, the inept deployment thereof can strike a sour note in a recipient who does not wish to be buttered up before being petitioned. In similar fashion, Awesome has schooled me in the necessity (by hir lights, at least) of phrasing even the most urgent material requests in what I read as excessively deferential style, lest I seem to be demanding of my professors when it is they and not I who hold power. While I privately chafe at this practice, I am no position to suggest to my dear professor that zi dismount from hir high horse; extrapolating from this lesson, I have concluded that it is more useful to be painfully polite than refreshingly blunt, in academic emails.

    Warm wishes and best regards,
    Prof. Koshary

  23. Digger on 23 Feb 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Prof. K, Very win! Regards, Digger.

    I have taken to formalities in my emails to clients and colleagues I don’t know well. Dear Mr/Ms/Dr So-and-so (people I know better, or have corresponded with, or have otherwise indicated first names are a-ok are Hi, Firstname — and I do fret about that comma)… signing off, I like best regards, or regards. I save warm regards for people I feel warmly towards. All best confuses me; where did the middle “the” go???

    I do like the structure and nostaligia of it all; and it helps keep me from being inappropriately informal.

  24. MsMcD on 23 Feb 2010 at 8:35 pm #

    Fascinating! As an undergraduate and graduate student I always opened my emails/letters with Dear Professor Lastname, but now that I am writing to professors as a job applicant “Professor” seems to hit the wrong tone. I have started to use Dear Dr. Lastname as more befitting a possible future colleague. Am I reading this correctly or does it matter?

  25. Notorious Ph.D. on 24 Feb 2010 at 4:54 am #

    I’m a fan of the parenthetical “(if I may?)” when writing to a titled and credentialed colleague of equal or even lesser rank and addressing them by first name — usually in the second e-mail of correspondence. It’s a way of acknowledging a tiny bit of presumption, and that the person in question has the *right* to be addressed by their title, even by someone more august then themselves.

  26. undine on 26 Feb 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    Thanks for this post and all the great comments it inspired, Historiann! And now, to borrow from Indyanna and Susan,

    Best wishes from your humble and obedient servant,

    Undine