The formal versus informal question — how I answer email

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Because I interact with people from many countries and cultures, I’ve adopted the rule that I tend to let them set the tone and style of our interactions. I try to minimize the number of cultural faux pas I commit (speaking of which, should I follow English or French rules of pluralization when I went to pluralize “faux pas”?) . Most of the time, I simply mimic the style they set.

So a few rules I follow:

If they address me using my first name, then I address them using their first name.

If they address me using my last name, then I address them using their last name.

If they don’t use my name at all, then I don’t use their name at all.

If they use my full name, then I use their full name.

If they use “Mr” then I assume they are formal and traditional, so I use “Mr” for men. For women, if I know they are married and they’ve taken their husband’s last name, I assume they are traditional and so I use “Mrs”, otherwise I tend to cheat a bit and just use “M”. Hypothetically, if I knew they were political radical, I suppose I could use Mz, but offhand I can’t recall a single time a woman on the Left addressed me as Mr Krubner.

If I am the one initiating the conversation, I tend to use their full name with no salutation.

If they use the informal “Hi!” then I respond with “Hi!”. If they use the slightly more formal “Hello” then I respond with “hello”. But also, if their native language is one of those I had some exposure to in high school or college, I try to include a greeting in their own language. (Guten Tag! or Dzień dobry)!

In using humor, I have been burned roughly a gazillion times, so nowadays I’m careful. I’m inclined to use humor, but it is always a risk. If their tone is humorous or exaggerated, I’ll be the same. Otherwise, I play it straight. Although it kills the joke, I will sometimes explicitly write “That last paragraph was sarcasm.” If people don’t know me well, they can’t really know when I’m being sarcastic and when I’m simply an idiot.

Some people use email as chat, writing something in the subject line but leaving the body of the email empty. This is informal. I’ll do this with personal friends, but I won’t do this with anyone I think of as a business connection.

Quoting can weirdly offend people. I learned how to write email in the mid 1990s, before the advent of HTML email. At that time, it was common to respond to someone’s email by plucking out the most important sentences, putting a bracket in front of the sentence, and then writing a response specific to that one idea. About ten years later, I started running into people who were seriously offended by this, as they considered it the style of a lawyer writing a rebuttal, and that remained true even when what I wrote was informal and funny. I still use this older style of quoting in business contexts where precision is important, but in informal contexts I’ve given it up. Instead, I just write my response in the space at the top of the email (above any text that might be included from what they originally wrote).

I don’t use curse words, except with personal friends. Sometimes people in business will deliberately use curse words. I believe this is a tactic to create a feeling of an informal bond, or even friendship. To me it feels too much of a tactic, something planned, an obvious manipulation, unless the person is in their early 20s, in which case I put it down to inexperience. I avoid curse words in business email and I think others should avoid it.

In closing, I always include my first name, sometimes my last name. This has nothing to do with manners and everything to do with pragmatism. A lot of people read their email via something like Gmail, where whole conversations are threaded. I’ve noticed that people are sometimes confused about who is writing, if multiple people are on the thread. Such confusion is not common, but it is more common than it should be.

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