How casual should e-mail messages be?

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Business communications appear to be developing a dress code.

Letters sent through the mail tend to be reserved if not formal. Let’s call it “black-tie optional.” E-mail messages, on the other hand, tend to be more personal and relaxed. I’ll label it “business casual.”

The problem is many people, including me, are not too sure about proper etiquette with e-mail. Does the digital form of business casual mean slacks and a blazer or jeans and a polo shirt?

I understand the common rules of e-mail: be concise, stick to the point, answer quickly, avoid overuse of “reply to all.”

My quandary involves how to address people that I don’t know.

I admit to being bit old-fashioned in this regard. I grew up at a time when it was customary to address everyone by the appropriate courtesy title (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., etc.) on the first encounter. While this custom largely continues in letters, I find it increasingly rare in e-mails. Most of the e-mails I get start out “Robert” or “Hi, Robert,” even if we have never met or exchanged an e-mail.

Occasionally, I even get a “Bob,” which is amusing.  I haven’t been called that since high school. I am not offended, but the presumption that all Roberts are Bobs sets the wrong tone for an e-mail.

Is this being too fussy? Not at all, according to e-mail etiquette commentators. “Many people, me included, are offended by strangers being overfamiliar,” says David Tuffley, a lecturer at Griffith University at Australia.

His sentiments are echoed by Judith Kallos, an author of three books on e-mail etiquette.  On her Web site, Netmanners.com, she advises anyone using e-mail to consider their relationship with their recipients to avoid getting off on the wrong foot. “If you do not know them well, always assume the highest level of formality,” she writes.

Kallos suggests that formality can be relaxed if the recipient replies using a first name or nickname. “Follow their lead, and you’ll never go wrong!” she says.

I think I’ll follow her lead and stick to my stuffy ways.

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