Should e-mails open with Dear, Hi, or Hey?

By James Morgan
BBC News

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Sealing wax

It's time we ditched "Dear..." from work e-mails, according to a US political figure, who says it's too intimate. So what is the most appropriate way to greet someone in an e-mail - hi, hey or just get straight to the point?

Two words. That's all Giselle Barry needed to leave a lasting impression.

The spokeswoman for US congressman Ed Markey was e-mailing a group of reporters, to alert them to an important announcement.

"Hey, folks," she began.

Such a casual salute raised eyebrows at the Wall Street Journal, which interpreted the beginning of her e-mail as the end of a centuries-old written tradition.

"Across the internet the use of 'dear' is going the way of sealing wax," noted the newspaper.

"'Dear...' is a bit too intimate and connotes a personal relationship," Ms Barry told the paper. And as she strives to maintain what she calls "the utmost and highest level of professionalism", she sees no need for old-fashioned graces.

E-mail has changed the rules of engagement. The language of business is evolving. Our old "dears" are withering away, replaced in the top perch by "hello", "hi" and "hey".

And not everyone is quite so relaxed about this as Ms Barry.

"I'm fed up with people writing 'Hi Jean' when they've never met me," says etiquette guru Jean Broke-Smith.

"If you're sending a business e-mail you should begin 'Dear...' - like a letter. You are presenting yourself. Politeness and etiquette are essential.

"We are losing the art of letter writing. E-mails are becoming like texts. If we don't get a handle on it, future generations won't be able to spell at all."

But why are so many of us culling "Dear..." from our e-mails, even in the workplace? The simplest answer for its detractors is that it no longer says what it means, it feels cold and distant.

"The only time I write 'Dear...' is if I'm making a complaint," says Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent smoothies. "If I'm writing to someone I am trying to impress, I would simply say 'Hello'. Losing 'Dear...' does not equal rudeness."

The word also implies being of a certain age, says Jon King, managing director of the digital marketing agency Story Worldwide, who adds: "I never use 'Dear...' It's old-dearish."

Mr King was the frontman in post-punk band the Gang of Four. His clients today include luxury brands like Faberge and Estee Lauder.

So how does he greet them? "Often with no intro line at all. I assume they know who they are, and cut to the chase."

It is this race to communicate that leaves old-school etiquette trailing in the wake, according to social behaviour expert Liz Brewer, star of ITV's Ladette to Lady.

"With social networking, we do everything in three seconds - reply, type, send - and often without due consideration," she explains.

"We have to remember that at the start of an e-mail we are sending a subtle message. If I write 'hi' to a person I don't know, I risk falling into a pit. I shouldn't presume I can be so familiar."

Introducing an e-mail is a lot like arriving at a party, she says. "Better to be overdressed. You can always take off the pearls."

As e-mail greetings go, "Hey folks" sure ain't pearls.

"Hey" sounds more like the brash, surfy American cousin of "hi". But is it really Bermuda shorts and bare feet?

That all depends on the recipient, says Anna Post, spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute, which is based in Vermont and provides etiquette experts and advice to corporations in the US.

"'Hey' is a funny one. I never used to have a problem with it," she says. "Until I met the CEO of a young, hip company, who said she hated it. She said it sounds like a sharp jab. 'Hey!' Whereas to me, 'hey' sounds jaunty and uplifting."

And since we have no control over our e-mail recipient's perception, greetings like "hey" are not worth the risk in business, she adds.

"I would use 'Dear...' with people I don't know particularly well, because it corresponds to respect. I disagree with people who say 'Dear...' means 'you are particularly dear to me'. To convey that kind of 'Dear...' you need to write 'my dearest'."

But if introductions are a dilemma, sign-offs are a social networking minefield.

"Yours faithfully" can't be trusted. "Sincerely" feels insincere. And your "kindest regards" sound like anything but.

Liz Brewer believes you can never go wrong with 'best wishes'. "People put 'XX' all the time - and that's fine, but only if you would kiss the person in the street."

The trouble with sign-offs is you have so many options, says Anna Post. "It's the hottest question I get asked at my business comms classes. If it's business, I would stick to 'regards', 'kind regards' or 'best'.

"'Cheers' is too warm for some industries. But the one I really don't like is 'BR'. How could they be your 'best regards' if you couldn't even be bothered to type them out?"

The trick with sign-offs is to choose a phrase that's almost invisible, she says, because if the phrase looks odd "then people are no longer thinking about the content of your message", says Anna Post.

So maybe the solution to what's right to write is just to keep it simple.