Anatomy of an Email Message
In the mid-1990s, if a manager had wanted a document from an employee, he or she might have phoned. The conversation would perhaps have sounded something like this:
Manager: Hi, John. How are you?
Employee: Fine, Janet. How are you?
Manager: Great. I was wondering whether you had a copy of the latest user guide.
Employee: Absolutely. Would you like me to bring it over?
Manager: Yeah, that would be great. Thank you.
Employee: Sure. See you in a minute.
The words themselves would certainly have conveyed information, but our hypothetical employee, John, would also have gleaned additional information from the manager’s tone of voice. He would have been able to make reasonable guesses about whether she was in a good mood, pleased with his work, in a hurry, and so on.
Such an exchange might alternatively have taken place in person, in which case John would also have received visual cues through Janet’s facial expressions and body language.
Today such an interaction is increasingly likely to take place through email. When a person sends an email, though, vocal and physical cues are absent. Without accompanying nonverbal signals, messages can easily come across as rude, or curt, or confusing — despite the good intentions of the sender.
Good writing in the context of email messages, many of which are very short, requires an understanding of their various components. Figure 1 above illustrates these components, some of which are discussed in detail below.
The salutation is the opening line of your email where you address the recipient directly, usually by name. In business letters, your choices for salutations are limited to options such as:
Dear Ms. Smith:
To Whom It May Concern:
In the world of email, however, a number of salutation styles are acceptable. Which one is best for a given situation depends on factors such as your relationship to the recipient, the culture of your firm or department, and the content and context of the message. In addition, salutations for a single recipient generally differ from those for multiple recipients.
Listed below are various salutations commonly found in email messages directed to a single recipient. Their inclusion here does not necessarily mean they are broadly acceptable; there are comments elaborating on the relevance and appropriateness of each greeting for business email. The salutations are loosely organized from more formal to less formal.
Email Salutations for a Single Recipient
|To Whom It May Concern:||Although this formulation sounds rather old-fashioned and stuffy, it has long had a place in business letters to unknown recipients. A very formal greeting, it could be appropriate in cases such as an emailed inquiry regarding a potential vendor’s services or an emailed complaint.|
|Dear Sir or Madam:||This option is similar to the one above.|
|Dear Mr. Smith:||This formal salutation is appropriate when you are emailing a person you do not know well or at all — for example, a prospective client. Depending on your corporate culture, you may also want to use it when writing to someone in your firm who is quite senior to you, particularly if you don’t know the person.|
|Dear James:||Some people find Dear along with a first name to be a strange opening for an email, complaining that it feels either too intimate — like a personal letter — or too formal. If you aren’t comfortable using Dear with co-workers, there are certainly other options, but the salutation Dear has a long and happy history in business correspondence. Even if you do not use it much internally at your firm, it has a legitimate place in your email repertoire, particularly for external, international, and formal communications.|
|Fine in many contexts. Occasionally the name by itself can sound a little abrupt, but it is a solid opening for many types of email messages.|
|Good morning, James.||This salutation can be a useful way to begin email messages as it is both businesslike and friendly. Of course, at the time you send the message, it should actually be morning in the recipient’s time zone.|
Hello, James -
|These salutations may be acceptable for use in a business context with someone you know reasonably well. The punctuation in the second instance is untraditional outside the world of email, but is clear and practical for electronic use.|
|Hello James,||This salutation is common but is punctuated untraditionally and is therefore not an ideal way to begin an email. (According to standard punctuation rules, the greeting requires a comma between Hello and James, but then the writer would end up with two commas in a two-word salutation, which looks odd.)|
Hi, James -
|For use in a business context, these salutations are usually too casual. Hi is a word better reserved for correspondence with friends. However, depending on your corporate culture, these salutations may be acceptable for communications with co-workers you know well.|
|Hi James,||This salutation is very casual and is also punctuated untraditionally. A comma is needed between Hi and James, but then the salutation will contain two commas in a row, which looks odd. Although this salutation is common, in business email it may be perceived as unprofessional.|
As you can see, it isn’t easy to figure out how to address an individual. Addressing a group of people through email can pose an even more formidable challenge. To formulate a salutation for multiple people, consider the composition of the group you will be addressing. If you are writing to your co-workers in the marketing department, for example, you could perhaps begin your message with one of the following salutations:
Dear Marketing Colleagues:
The appropriateness of these salutations, however, depends on the context and your corporate culture. Below are comments on various salutations, some good and some not so good, that appear in group email messages.
Email Salutations for Multiple Recipients
|Any of these salutations can be used in email going to multiple recipients. In addition, Greetings can act as a salutation in an automatic reply you might set up when you are going to be out of the office.|
|In a working world populated by both women and men, these salutations are out of date in almost all cases. Theoretically they could still be used with relative safety in a context where every recipient was male, but even in those cases, the formulations would be likely to come across as old-fashioned.|
|Dear Colleagues:||This salutation is both respectful and friendly. It can be used to address the people in your department or division, assuming that you have a good working relationship with them and that the members of the group are of similar professional status or junior to you. Do not, however, use this salutation with a group containing people senior to you.|
Jane and Tim,
Dear Jane and Tim:
Good morning, Jane and Tim.
|If you are addressing two people, you may use their names in combination with various greetings from the table of email salutations for individual recipients. Some common options appear to the left. For emails going to more than two people, it can sound awkward to refer to all of them by name.|
|[None]||Many people don’t like to receive emails without salutations. Nonetheless, if your corporate culture supports it, sending a mass email with no greeting at all can make sense. Such an email is, after all, virtually identical in form to the traditional memo, which does not contain a greeting.|
|Hello,||If you can’t figure out a way to address your recipients directly, whether as Marketing Staff, Colleagues, or something else, the first three salutations in this table (Greetings, Good morning, or Good afternoon) may be preferable to the more casual, less professional-sounding Hello.|
|Unless you have a very casual working environment — and even if you do — these formulations can sometimes be perceived as unprofessional. Proceed with caution.|
|Guys,||Like Dear Sirs and Dear Gentlemen, this salutation may offend female recipients. In addition, it is too casual for most workplace correspondence.|
4.1.2 Email Closings
There are multiple ways to close an email. The first step is to choose your closing word or phrase, if you wish to include one — for example, Thank you, or Sincerely, or Regards. If you know your recipient and are addressing him or her by first name, in most cases you should follow your Thank you or Regards with your first name. If you are writing more formally and are addressing the recipient by last name, it is usually preferable to use your full name.
Below are some common email closings accompanied by comments on their use.
|Sincerely,||This is a polite, professional way to close, but is most appropriate for formal emails, such as initial communications with prospective clients. In emails with people you already know, Sincerely may come across as excessively formal.|
|Regards,||This is a safe, acceptable closing term in almost all situations, ranging from fairly casual to quite formal.|
This closing is ideal when you want to show appreciation for something the recipient has done or is going to do for you. If you want to be very appreciative and say Thank you very much, then you can keep that as a separate sentence and perhaps add a different closing. For instance:
Thank you very much.
|Thanks,||Similar to Thank you above, but more casual. Most appropriate if you are writing to co-workers you know well and have a good relationship with, or when you are emailing, say, vendors or people who are somewhat junior to you. If you have reason to be really appreciative, Thank you is generally a better choice.|
|[None]||For quick, casual emails to people with whom you have an established business relationship, closing with just your first name is a common and acceptable practice.|
|Best,||Ending with Best may give the impression that the email writer was simply too busy to bother completing the closing. Best what, after all? It could perhaps be considered the email equivalent of a host’s failing to see a guest all the way to the door at the end of a dinner party.|
4.1.3 Signature Files
A signature file is a block of contact information appearing at the bottom of an email. For example:
111 Main Street
Anytown, NY 10909
Tel: (212) 555-0469
Fax: (212) 555-1472
In your email software, there should be an option enabling you to set up a signature file that will then appear automatically in all of your outgoing messages.
Why is a signature file necessary? For one thing, it helps an email appear polished and professional; it is like stationery for electronic messages. In addition, if recipients of a message don’t know you very well or at all, the absence of a signature file can cause confusion as they try to figure out who you are. Finally, you should generally make it as easy as possible for recipients to find you; by including contact information in your standard communications, you enable them to reach you with minimal effort.
Your email software may well allow you to set up a shorter, alternative signature file for internal communications with employees of your firm. Suppose, for example, that Marcia Jackson from the previous signature file is emailing someone in her company’s accounting department. An appropriate signature file for internal use could be:
Tel: (212) 555-0469
Fax: (212) 555-1472
Of course, not every email should have a signature file. Sometimes you may not want people to have your contact information. For example, if you are sending a message asking someone to stop sending you unsolicited email, delete the contact information from your signature file so that you won’t give the person even more information than he or she already has!
In addition, if you are having an ongoing email dialogue with someone, it is often better — after your initial exchange — to omit the signature file in subsequent messages that accumulate within the same email chain. That way your contact information won’t show up repeatedly within the growing pile of messages.