Is formality in business emails still required?

Today’s Dear Abby columnincluded a letter from a man who said that if he received business correspondence addressed to “Dear Robert” instead of Dear Mr. C, he would throw it straight in the trash.

Abby, predictably, responded by offering to sell us her booklet that reminds us that business letters should be addressed to Dear Mr. Smith/Dear Ms. Smith.

I always appreciate it when someone takes advantage of a situation to earn a bit of extra cash, but I don’t think trowing away letters is the right way to go about business.

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10 thoughts on “Is formality in business emails still required?

  1. I have to admit that one of the things I really like about the show “The Good Wife” is that they address each other as “Mr” and “Ms” (or “Mrs”).

    I was a little bugged when a woman introduced me to her five year old as “Class” instead of “Ms Factotum.” First name defaults are OK with peers, but a kid should be using a more formal form of address. Although at least he didn’t call me “Dude.”

    1. I totally agree that little kids should be calling you Ms Factotum instead of Class (although, what were your parents thinking, naming you “Class”?).

      If everyone was calling each other Mr. and Mrs. then it would be appropriate to address business letters that way. But, honestly, in all my years in the work force I’ve never been introduced to a coworker as Mr. or Ms. anything, always first names.

      The only exception was when I met directly with Bob Wegman, and I called him Mr. Wegman as did everyone else in the company.

      1. My first job out of college, I called the executives “Mr” and “Ms.” They were all my parents’ age! OLD!

        After a few weeks, the senior VP pulled me aside and gently said, “We’re on a first-name basis here.”

        It still took time to get used to it.

      2. I have found a happy medium (for me) of teaching my taughter to call an adult by Ms or Mr and then the first name. Ms. Theresa or Mr. Nick, etc. I am 31 and was taught to call adults by their last names, but find that’s too formal for me now to teach my daughter. So that’s my compromise. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t matter, but does to some people! Interesting post, thanks.

  2. Suzanne,
    This whole topic seems a bit insignificant. As long as its not extreme either way does it really matter?

    1. It doesn’t matter to rational people. But, the letter writer was rejecting people purely for using his first name, and that’s just silly.

  3. I have this dilemma at work. The issue is that the letters I send go to a wide variety of people, many of whom do not have English based names. I frequently have no idea if the person is male or female. Even with English based name you can’t always tell. My mother’s first name is Tommie and my niece is Parker. I’ve solved the problem by using, “Dear First name Last name”.

  4. If you know the person, first name should be fine. If you don’t, it might be safer to go with ‘Dear Mr Smith’. I’m called by my second name, and I must admit that I do get irritated by letters to ‘Dear Diane’, because no one calls me that. If you knew me personally, you would know my ‘real’ name (you might not know how to spell it correctly, but that is a completely separate issue).

    On the question of not knowing which is the first name and which is the last – you could always check on LinkedIn, or call the main reception business phone – I have found they are always happy to help if you explain that you are wanting to send a letter to Parker Smith, and just wanted to check his/her details (spelling, position title, gender…).

    1. When someone calls the house asking for “Mrs [my husband’s last name],” I know it is a telemarketer, as I do not go by that name. It’s an easy way to sort worthy from unworthy communications.

  5. I work at a university, and I deal with staff, students and professors (or people w/ PhDs). If I’m emailing a scientist or someone from industry and I’m not sure if they have a PhD (and I can’t find out online), I’m inclined to write “Dear Dr. So-and-So” just in case. There are people who offended if they’re not addressed as properly.

    I actually find that there’s a benefit to using “Dr” – you don’t have to try to determine if the person is male o female!

    A coworker and I had a discussion about this the other day – she thought it was silly that some professors insist on being called “Professor So-and-So” (even by other professors). It may be silly but I figure it’s safer to use the title Professor. Doesn’t matter if they’re being silly (we are all just humans, after all) but it’s better to be more formal and let that professor say “oh, just call me Bob”.

    However, if I’m interacting with coworkers or other staff, I’m more inclined to just call them by their first name. If they have a PhD, it depends on how closely I work with them – obviously for someone that I interact with maybe a few times a week, I’m probably not going to call them Dr. I do have a coworker that will address people outside our dept as Mr or Ms. It’s kind of funny but that’s how he wants to address them.

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