Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mr. Language Curmudgeon tackles email etiquette

Older Daughter holds a degree in English from the University of Illinois, our state's most prestigious public university. It was the job prospects for English majors that led her, by mesne conveyances (just a little, and slightly-misued, lawyerly flourish), to seek a career in nursing.

Now licensed in Indiana, Older Daughter is seeking employment in the nursing field. She has been directed to one or more "nursing recruiters" and she and I were conversing on the phone recently about an email she proposed to send to recruiter Hannah Helpful (oddly enough, a made-up name). Older Daughter started reading me her draft: "Hi, Hannah," she began -- and I interrupted.

"You are a proud graduate of the University of Illinois, with a degree in English, no less," I reminded her, "and you begin a business letter with 'Hi, Hannah'?"

"My degree is in English literature," Older Daughter responded, "not grammar. Besides, emails are supposed to be informal."

Says who? That's what I want to know.

I think I persuaded Older Daughter to change the tone and content of her letter, starting with a change from "Hi, Hannah" to "Dear Ms. Helpful," but that's not the point.

The point is that, since our conversation, I've started to look more carefully at emails that I've received. More than a few start with "Hi" or "Hello" as if they were phone conversations -- and I'm talking about business emails here.

I hate to sound priggish, but, for cryin' out loud, people, business emails may be discoverable in litigation. Do you really want the court and jury to hear opposing counsel, in full sneering mode, read an email that you wrote beginning with "Hi"?

I don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of "e-discovery" -- I have enough trouble finding stored emails on my own computer -- but I know enough to know that this is officially the next big thing in the ever-growing trivialization of the legal process. There are computer programs written to sift through reams of emails that no one will ever actually read -- unless they contain particular key words.

Let me put it this way: You would not send out a business letter that begins "Hi." An email sent in the course of one's business -- even one typed out on the teensy-weensy keys of one's Crackberry -- is a business letter. Informality leads to imprecision... even sloppiness.

Careless spelling and punctuation -- celebrated, apparently, as 'virtues' in 'informal' email composition -- can create all sorts of problems down the road. Consider the world of difference between these two statements:

The Dinner Party: "Let's eat, Mom!"


The Donner Party: "Let's eat Mom!"

And yet, the two sentences differ by only one letter and a comma.

Typos happen (more than a few examples are, unfortunately, available right here in this blog). Ambiguities are found every day in carefully drafted insurance contracts and statutes (sometimes I help find them). Why start out with an attitude that typos, imprecision, and resulting ambiguity will be SOP?

The executive summary of this post: Stop writing "informal" emails for business purposes. Stop it now. Tell 'em Mr. Language Curmudgeon told you this is the way it must be.

P.S. -- Don't believe me about e-discovery? Check out the link I got in the email just today (which, by the way, did not begin, "Hi, Curmudgeon") about this American Bar Association CLE program, the 4th Annual National Institute on E-Discovery.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...


smiles, bee

Dave said...

Down here it's "Hey Curmudgeon." I write informally in Emails to clients; but, and why I don't know, I attach a .pdf of a real letter if I'm communicating with the other side. And then, the Email is more formal, "I have attached...."

The Curmudgeon said...

Dave --

"Hey?" Really?

Isn't that just a tad, um, Gomer Pyle?

Dave said...

Yep, sure is. In person it would be "hey Curmudgeon, how you?" The response would be "not bad 'tal."