Say hello, say goodbye. The importance of courtesy in written communication


In the olden days, when people wrote with quill on parchment, the salutation that started the letter was an indicator of the relationship between the correspondents.

The first paragraph revealed the mood of the author. Those sentences that began with a forceful modal – “I must…” “I should be grateful…” presaged worse to come. Conversely, benevolent adjectives like “delighted” and “pleased” settled the reader’s nerves.

The formality of business communication was partly a reflection and reinforcement of the divide between private and professional life. In the workplace, locked into suits and demure twinsets, true personality cowered behind a corporate face.

With sartorial liberation has come self-expression that extends beyond appearance. Workers now laugh and joke, discuss their private lives, share their passions, and even converse on first-name terms.

A typical day at work for me involves at least one circuit of the building on the space hopper. Such levity would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Indeed, during a post-graduate traineeship, eyebrows shot skywards the day I did my first post-lunch handstand. I often feel the need.

This liberation of the workplace has had an undesirable effect. Combined with the pressure of longer hours, and the immediacy demanded by digital communication, professionals have become sloppy communicators.

Emails today very rarely begin with a salutation. “Dear” is almost obsolete; “Hello and Hi” appear on sunny mornings or Friday afternoons, which are both times of joy; “Hey”, which has migrated from America, is what hipsters write, be they actual or aspirant. 

More often than not, just the addressee’s name appears, followed by dash or comma. And increasingly often, there is not even a name; the message is a question or mere statement or instruction.

Consider the effect of this laxness. Written words are far less expressive than spoken, which are only at their most expressive when combined with body language. Apart from the small company where everybody knows each other, many of the people you communicate with – especially those external to your company – will never have met you, or will know you only vaguely.

Emails that lack the care and attention of a considered salutation show the author to be careless and inattentive. This is not an impression anyone wants to give. If you do not bother to show respect and decency in your writing, the values you project are only negative.

Similarly, the farewell says more than you might think. Many professionals include a “Very best wishes” or similar in their email signature. But “Hello” at the beginning clashes with the formality of “Very best wishes”. Farewells should at the very least reflect the nature of the correspondents’ relationship, and, preferably, include a friendly touch that shows the personality behind the message.

“Have a nice day” will not do.

Spelling and grammar

We are not all wordsmiths, but there is rarely an excuse for spelling mistakes. They do, again, show a lack of care. Perceptive clients and customers will assume from this that you are a careless worker, and their confidence will plummet.

They will picture chaotic piles of paper, lose sleep over anticipated mistakes, and fear delayed delivery of objectives.

And grammar, besides being the pedant’s plaything, is important for clarity. Unfortunately, grammar is often poorly taught in schools, and many people are unsure about the correct usage of punctuation.

Long, rambling sentences with clause banging against clause make for confusion. If you never use anything other than a full stop at the end of short sentences, your message will be clear.

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