Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Yesterday, my partner read me a complaint from a friend about an email he’d received. The friend had gotten an email asking him to review his recent experience having his car serviced. Apparently, the email had begun, “Hi William.” (Names have been changed to protect the furious.) That form of address led to a rant on the company’s yelp review, including profanity. Something like:
“My name is ‘Dear Mr. Richardson,’ not ‘Hi William.’ Your service crew did an excellent job, but your marketing people can go f*** themselves.”
I am paraphrasing, but not by much. And the actual response was considerably longer. And he gave the service five stars anyway, so he was fair to the work.
That tale brought me to two interesting questions (well, interesting to me):
Why do people feel so strongly about forms of address?
What do the new forms of address in emails mean?
The first question has more to say about it than possible in this one blog post. I’ll just mention what I’m sure you already know, that people see forms of address as indicating degrees of respect or familiarity, distance or intimacy.
Since those forms of address matter to people (as they obviously did to that friend), the use of more informal greetings in emails matter.
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away, the first emails traveled through the magical air from one distant computer to another. Since I lived long, long ago, I remember those early emails I received and sent, and the model for them was quite clear.
Emails were business letters, just sent through that stratosphere rather than the snail mail (the postal service didn’t gain that name for a while, though).
As business letters, the format and style were already clearly established, even written in handbooks and guides to professional correspondence.
Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name]:
So the first emails I remember sending back and forth were for business purposes and we all used business formatting, including the formal greeting Dear Mr. Richardson. I would use someone’s first name only if I knew that individual personally—if the relationship had become more familiar and permitted the more familiar form of address.
But in this modern world of today (to quote a favorite academic paper opener), I rarely receive an email from a stranger that’s not addressed
Sometimes there will be a comma between the “Hi” and “Amy,” but my students tell me that drives them crazy, that the comma after the person’s name is all you need. Otherwise it “looks stupid” to have so many commas, like
I see their point, in spite of it violating an old rule about using commas to separate greetings from names.
For me—and apparently for “Mr. Richardson”—that greeting still feels overly familiar when it comes from a stranger. My mama taught me to address my elders with titles and last names (my friend’s mother was always Mrs. Buller), and I’m usually older than the strangers who address me like that. That followed formal etiquette in much of the United States at the time. And my professional mentors and teachers taught me to begin all letters with “Dear [appropriate form of address, with title].”
But I’m getting used to it, and it doesn’t bother me much, if at all, in emails anymore.
Why? Because genre.
Because the genre has changed.
Now there’s a whole other hornet’s nest in the question of whether email is a genre (almost surely not, since we use email to do so many different kinds of things, though the way the medium can shape the genre could be a topic for another post another day). But the genre of business letter or professional correspondence, generally, has changed with its move to email. More specific genres have changed on email, too—thank you letters and sales letters and customer service replies.
The change in greeting is just one sign of how these genres have changed with the move to email
All these formerly distant professional letters have become chummier.
Instead of the old way:
Dear Dr. Richardson [he is actually an MD]:
Instead he receives [my invented version, based on my own experiences with such letters]
Hi William [at least they didn’t drop to “Bill”],
OK, so I made up the example, but doesn’t it sound familiar? And familiar! The use of first names is just one of many ways the more familiar relationship shows up—use of contractions, shortened thanks, dropped subjects (not “We are looking forward”), lack of formal closure or full name in signing off, and, last but not least, use of exclamation points!!!
Although I’m having fun with these examples, I’m not at all a curmudgeon about these changes. I do not at all share Dr. Richardson’s objection.
We in the US have relaxed levels of formality in all sorts of ways—among businesses and customers, between teachers and students, and between children and their elders, to name a few biggies. But many of us were raised with different models, and change can be tough.
One little greeting can set off a tempest, but that little greeting just reflects changes happening, in genres, in digital forms of communicating, and in relationships. Not such a bad thing.
(A last note for the more cynical among you—yeah, as I was writing, I saw that companies especially are exploiting this American mythos, that we’re all equal. If only companies followed that belief when it came to wages and salaries. Did you SEE the first reports of the gap between a company’s CEO and the median wage of its employees??!! Almost prompts me to write another letter:
Let me tell you a thing or two . . .