Is formality in business emails still required?

Flickr user portmanteaus, cc 2.0

Commentary:  Today's Dear Abby column included 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.

I actually see a lot of this, "you must read my mind or I won't work with/hire you!" behavior in the business world.  Recruiters are famous for it.  There are recruiters out there that will reject you for going to 2 pages on your resume, calling, not calling, including a cover letter, not including a cover letter, etc, etc, etc.  It's absolutely impossible to predict what will make people happy.

Likewise, there are undoubtedly people out there who feel too young to be referred to as Mr. or Ms. anything and want their letters (and letters, really?  Emails, I'm sure) to be addressed to Dear Robert.

I get a ton of email daily from people I don't know.  Many start out Dear Suzanne or Dear Evil HR Lady or with no salutation at all.  A few (mostly from college students, incidentally) come to Dear Ms. Lucas.  All of these are fine, and don't bother me one bit.  But, do you know what does bother the heck out of me?

  • Dear Susan

  • Dear Sue

  • Hey Suzy!


Urgh.  I'm sometimes tempted to respond with, "It's S-u-z-a-n-n-e", but I do not.  I actually read the email and see if it's something of use to me.  Truth be told, I got an email addressed to Susan a while ago that actually contained incredibly valuable information in it.  Had I had a rule like the Dear Abby writer, I would have missed this information.

And that's the point.  We can make all the rules we want for cutting down the clutter in our inboxes, but sometimes your "rules" will result in missing out on good information.  I

But how do you predict what someone else will want in an email?  I absolutely prefer Dear Suzanne over Dear Ms. Lucas (although I think the latter is charming), but what about a Chris Jones?  Is that Dear Mr. Jones or Dear Ms. Jones?  And please, no Dear Mrs. Jones because then you're guessing about a marital status.  (It's Mrs. Lucas, by the way, but for business purposes Ms. is better.)  In that situation you're far better off addressing the email to Dear Chris Jones.  And while names from cultures other than mine may be perfectly obvious to people from that culture, they aren't obvious to mine.  I don't want to guess on a gender in those situations.

And what about the other nitpicky things?  Sign off Sincerely, Thanks, Thanks for your help, Best, or any number of other possibilities?  I tend towards, Thanks, but I haven't read Abby's booklet.  Still, if you're sending things out to someone you don't know, formal is probably preferable to informal.

But, if you're on the receiving side of things, stop being so dang picky.  Judge the writer based on the actual content of the email or resume, and not by a rule handed down by a woman who inherited her job.  

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