Cultures of e-mail etiquette, and homage to Bill Walsh
A while back, in one of my more interesting freelancing contracts, I was approached by a large multinational company and asked to work with its UK CEO. My task was to make the way he communicated more acceptable to the Americans (in particular), who hoped sooner or later to appoint him as the global CEO of the company.
D., the CEO in question, was French, and one of the things I was asked to do was to make him sound less French when he gave presentations or spoke on the telephone. This was relatively uncomplicated – for me, at any rate; I imagine it must have been immensely difficult for him to retrain himself at that stage of his life. What was more complicated was trying to get him to change the way he communicated by e-mail. At that stage, despite being a fluent French speaker myself and using e-mail a lot to stay in contact with friends and clients, I was unaware of the cultural differences between our two countries in e-mail etiquette: my major concern had been (and to a certain extent still is) how to conclude e-mails in French, having long been used to their absurdly flowery and formal valedictions in letters (‘Veuillez, monsieur, agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués’, for example). Working with D., however, I realised there was a difference in the two countries’ approach to e-mail exchange that I’d been unaware of. For example, if D. thought a presentation had been less successful than it should have been, he might e-mail the person responsible: ‘That presentation was really uninspiring. Your next one will have to be much more energetic.’ He would then be confused to find that his colleague took issue with the rudeness of the e-mail, when D. had considered it helpfully to the point.
I don’t think this was just D.’s e-mail style, because it closely mirrored another French manager I worked with in a related company. Neither of them could really take on that, for the communication to not cause offence, they would have to have phrased it something along these lines:
Thanks very much for such an instructive presentation this morning. I thought you timed your talk really well and matched exposition to slide content with an exemplary sense of proportion, and your answers to plenary questions were absolutely to the point.
I do think, however, that when you next present to this group you might spend more time considering the content of your presentation and making sure it matches the needs and interests of your audience. I don’t think Graham Smith was the only person to doze off in your talk and there were likely others who felt there was little new in what you were saying, however skilful you were in delivering your talk.
Neither D. nor the other French manager I worked with believed this kind of periphrasis was necessary, and I fear I failed with both of them in this aspect of my contract.
I have to say, though, that I have more sympathy with the French approach (if it is as I perceive it) than the British one, and it makes me think of other irritations I have with the way e-mail communication takes place in this country. Here are four pet beefs of mine:
Addressing the person you’re e-mailing
The letter-sanctioned ‘Dear Soandso’ feels impossibly formal in e-mails (though there are times when, for that reason, I use it) but the inevitable ‘Hi’ still grates for any number of reasons: too American, too chirpy (we’re British, for God’s sake), too much assuming a familiarity that might not have yet been established – as well as offending against my ancient ideas about punctuation (if you wrote ‘Hello Peter’ in a novel, you would usually have a comma before the name). So I always prefer to eschew any standard greeting and get straight into the content of the message: after all, the person who is receiving the e-mail knows who’s sending it and what it’s about. As a sop, I try to work their name into the first sentence or two.
An e-mail is often sent out to more than one recipient, of course, but that doesn’t mean that everyone replying to it has to ‘reply all’. My inbox gets clogged up with these unnecessary (and slightly obsequious) replies effectively saying nothing more than ‘Thanks for sending’ or ‘I’ll be there!’ or ‘Me, too’. It’s a form of e-presentism that we have come to expect from WhatsApp groups and the like, but in e-mail it’s just a waste of time and space. You don’t always have to reply but, if you do, normally it’s enough just to reply to the sender.
‘I hope you’re enjoying the fine weather’ – or any number of equivalents
This kind of intro jars with me, particularly when I don’t know the person who’s sending me the e-mail. Even if I am familiar with them, though, or work with them regularly, it strikes me as irritatingly redundant, a going-round-the-houses in that British, pseudo-polite way that is entirely out of place in e-mail. Give me the blunt to-the-pointedness of the French any day!
!!! and emoticons
People should be limited to a certain number of exclamation marks per day in any case but no e-mail should have more than one at the most. As for emoticons, I know that they are standard features in some countries (China, I believe) but in e-mails in this country, surely not?
Who decided that ‘Kind regards’ (with or without a capital ‘r’) was the appropriate e-mail equivalent to ‘Yours faithfully/sincerely’ in letters? What does it actually mean? Why do people use this to people they’ve never communicated with before and to whom they may or may not have ‘kind regards’ (if that is what the phrase means)? ‘Regards’ on its own attempts to be less sycophantic, but is no better. Nor is ‘Best wishes’, with or without the addition of ‘with’ or ‘very’ (as if ‘best’ on its own wasn’t superlative enough), though I have to say I do at times use it. ‘Love’ (or its variants) works fine, of course, but not in your standard professional client relationship. My preference is to have nothing other than my name, in full or first name only, depending on how well I know the person. After all, they already know who it’s from and they already know the kind of relationship we have.
Needless to say, I shelve all of these personal preferences when I’m working with a client for the first time, and often for sometime after, if I note that they like to do things in a certain way. Like most editors, I am essentially imitative, mirroring and reflecting the codes (of language, behaviour, communication) of the people I work with and for. But I still think back to my time working with those two French managers and feel, increasingly, that they were right and that the people who employed me were wrong. If we’re still communicating with the French after March 2019, and using e-mail to do so, it will be interesting to see which style prevails.
By now, I think that I must be in an impossibly small minority of people who still use the hyphenated form of ‘e-mail’. It’s to some extent defiance on my part but there is a logic to it, and this logic was best expressed by the late great Bill Walsh in his wonderfully titled Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things that Can Go Wrong in Print – and How to Avoid Them (Contemporary books, 2000):
When the shortened form of electronic mail first began appearing in print, the question was whether it should be e-mail or E-mail; the lowercase form has clearly prevailed, although using the uppercase would be an acceptable style decision.
My faith in human intelligence still hasn’t recovered from the development that followed: The predominant spelling among the general public has become email, which is an abomination. No initial-based term in the history of the English language has ever evolved to form a solid word – a few are split, and the rest are hyphenated. Look at A-frame, B-movie, C-rations, D-Day, E- (uh, skip that one), F layer, G-string, H-bomb, I-beam, J-school, K car, L-shaped, N-word, O-ring, Q rating, S-connector, T-shirt, U-boat, X-ray, Y-chromosome, Z particle, and scores of other such compounds. It doesn’t even look right; at first glance, the ein emailbegs to be pronounced unaccented, as a schwa (‘uh-MAIL’). Setting the letter apart makes it clear that the letter is a letter and that the one-letter syllable is accented. E! E! Eeeeeeee!
But an AltaVista search of the Web shows that ignorance is taking over: Uhmail outnumbers e-mail by more than two to one. The dictionaries, if you believe their ‘descriptive, not prescriptive’ mantra (‘We reflect usage; we don’t dictate it’), cannot be far behind.
Indeed, they weren’t. Almost all of them now present the unhyphenated form. Not just as a homage to Bill Walsh, I will continue to plough my lonely furrow!