Minding Manners

Emily Post

There’s an interesting article in DR today:

Are you sill in doubt whether to use “Hi” or “Dear?” Why it’s hard to begin a polite mail
Lucca Elisa Møller Pedersen & Julie Würtz, DR.dk, Sep 26

The question is simple enough: should one begin an email or SMS to a stranger with “Hi” or “Dear?” (Hej or Kære.)

It’s a question I imagine (and the article suggests) we’ve all pondered from time to time.

Eva Skafte Jensen is a senior researcher at the Danish Language Council. She says “I’m absolutely under the impression that people are very much in doubt about how to begin their mails. Over the years we’ve received a really large number of inquiries about that.”

The Danish Language Council therefore carried out some research along with Aarhus Universitet and Syddansk Universitet, and they found more or less what one would expect: preference for one or the other tends to fall along generational lines: those between 40 and 65 prefer kære (dear), while the younger prefer hej (hi).

The problem, Jensen explains, is that you rarely know even the approximate age of strangers you’re writing to.

And it gets worse: although the over-65 crowd generally prefers kære to hej, these seniors also invest more meaning in the term. That is, they believe “dear” actually means “dear,” and that it’s therefore too intimate for use by strangers. They’re therefore best addressed, Jensen says, with “to whom it concerns” (til rette vedkommende) or something like that.

And the end of the day, the Danish Language Council doesn’t have any good advice on how to handle this conundrum. Nor do the authors of the piece, which concludes like this:

“We shouldn’t be too quick to be alarmed by how people address us. If you just think: ‘They probably meant well,’ I think you’ll get along fine,” says Eva Skafte Jensen.

So there are no golden rules or guidelines, but she has some good advice:

“Actually, I think a good recommendation is: Don’t take it so seriously.”

They had me right up to that last sentence. Which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with coming from almost anyone else, but this is a senior researcher at the Danish Language Council. On their own homepage, they declare that their purpose is to “follow the Danish language, answer questions about the language, and determine spelling and punctuation.”

This is the group that tells us where we can and cannot place our commas, for god’s sake. And the best they can do with respect to how to address a letter, email, or SMS to a stranger is to tell us to lighten up?

As a lover of language, and as someone who prefers doing things correctly to half-assedly, I feel this is something that should be taken seriously.

Not because I think it matters which terms we settle on, but because of what Jensen herself says repeatedly in the article, in several different ways: people spend a lot of time fussing over whether to write “dear” or “hi” or “hey” or “to whom it bloody well concerns” at the outset of an epistle in any medium.

Every minute of that time is wasted.

There can and should be established rules for this. There used to be. Back in the day, in the United States, you simply used “dear” whether you were writing to your grandmother, the IRS, or the hot chick in your math class. Signing off was only as tricky as you let it be: you could always write “sincerely,” “sincerely yours,” “most sincerely,” or any other variant of sincerity. That was the default, the go-to signoff when your relationship with the intended recipient was somewhere on the scale from not particularly close to non-existent. Otherwise you could play around with options ranging from the very simple “love” to any number of adverbs or adverbial phrases. But generally speaking, if you opened a letter with “Dear Mr. Jackson” and signed it “Sincerely, John Smith,” you were good to go (as long as your name was John Smith and you were writing to a man named Jackson). Those were the default settings and everyone knew them. Mr. Jackson wouldn’t come back at you for presuming an unwanted intimacy; nor would he inquire why on earth you’d felt compelled to express your sincerity.

There are no longer any standards in this area. That’s not good. (There are no longer any standards in many other areas, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Emily Post Institute (“advocating for civil society”) offers a primer on etiquette (my emphasis):

To us, etiquette—a word on so many of our books!—is made up of two parts. There are manners; lots of them, in fact. Books and webpages full of them! “Please” and “thank you,” holding doors, chewing with our mouths closed, dressing appropriately, shaking hands—these are all manners. They are important because they give us confidence, allow our focus to be on the substance of our interactions, and they tell us what to do and what to expect others to do in return. Plus, they’re nice.

But etiquette also expresses something more, something we call “the principles of etiquette.” Those are consideration, respect, and honesty. These principles are the three qualities that stand behind all the manners we have. They are timeless and cross cultural boundaries, unlike manners, which can change over time and differ around the world.

The bit about the difference between principles and manners is important. Manners are the rules of the game; the principles are why we play by the rules—or don’t. I’ll go ahead and assume we all still possess some degree of the principles, since Danes wouldn’t be spamming the Language Council with questions about how to address people correctly in correspondence if they didn’t feel the need to do so correctly.

This is a question of manners. We’ve lost all our manners with respect to written communication, and we need to fix that. Not because I’m a rule-loving ninny, but because by the Council’s own acknowledgment, and as I’ve already pointed out, we’re collectively wasting an enormous time wondering how to begin and end our letters.

When we write someone, we ought to be able to do it with “confidence… our focus to be on the substance…” and we ought to know “what to do and what to expect others to do in return.”

That’s what makes manners “nice,” after all. They make our lives easy and uncomplicated. Imagine stressing over how to greet everyone you met every day, or what to say every time you picked up a phone. Manners take care of that for us. They don’t make you a bad person for trying out some creative alternatives if that’s how you roll, but they let you fall back on some easy defaults so you don’t have to waste mental energy on such trivialities.

Think, for example, of every time in your life you’ve said How are you? or Nice to meet you or even banalities like please and thank you and see you later. Now imagine that in every one of those circumstances, you’d had to come up with something entirely original to say, with no idea how the person you were addressing would receive it.

It would be hellish.

Alternatively, we could “not take it so seriously,” like this bitch Jensen suggests.

Wait, what? Did I just call a senior researcher a bitch?

Whoops. That’s really not how I roll.

But no one should be alarmed by how I expressed myself; my intentions were probably good.


See the problem?

Featured Image: Screencap from EmilyPost.com (doctored… obviously).