On Formality

I am a somewhat formal creature. My emails start with “Dear Sir/Madam” most of the time, and I will never call someone by their first name until specifically asked to do so, and even then it will be Ms/Mr Firstname for a while.

This meshes somewhat uneasily with my chosen career. Generally the people I write to are glad of the formality–politeness, after all, is a plus when dealing with editors, publishers, or other writers.

But it also means that the modern slide into informality irritates the living daylights out of me. Strangers who start their missives with “Hey Lili” or “Hey Lilith” get an automatic strike, and guess what? If I haven’t deliberately told you to address me informally at least once, you’re a stranger.

I wouldn’t mind so much, except for the Saintcrow Law of Informal Address1: the informality of address by a stranger is precisely proportional to the “favor” they wish to extract from you, and their concomitant fury when denied is multiplied by each factor and then squared.

In other words, I see “Hey Lili” at the beginning of a stranger’s email and wince, knowing ahead of time that I will be asked for something and when I say “no” I’ll get a screed2 in return.

It never, ever fails. I can count the exceptions to this rule on one hand and have fingers left over, and that’s after being on the goddamn internet for decades now.

By contrast, the emails I get with formal address (including, hilariously, missives sent to an entirely nonexistent “Mr Saintcrowe”, because somehow if I’m a man the extra “e” needs to be added, don’t ask me, I just work here) are uniformly much better spelled, not to mention more reasonable in content, and when I send a gentle “I am sorry, I cannot,” the letter writer takes time to pen a short, very polite, forgiving missive to close out the interaction.

Consequently I am much more likely to use the extremely limited time allotted to correspondence to respond to a letter or email using formal address than the alternative.

I offer this insight not to complain3 but to advise. The joking informality currently in fashion might be working against you if you want people to go out of their way or read past your greeting. Especially if you’re asking a busy person for a favor.

I realize my habit of formal address is often seen as cold or standoffish, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay for behaving in a decent fashion according to my own lights. I’ve never had a person call me rude for using proper address4. So, of course, your mileage may vary…

…but if you don’t get responses to your familiar, joking little emails, you might want to consider how you’re starting them out.

‘Nuff said.

Notes

  1. Somewhat like Rule 34, only slightly less…naked.
  2. Most often poorly written and extremely entitled.
  3. At least, not solely to complain.
  4. I like to display targeted rudeness in other fashions.