Anatomy of a Salutation

Salutations have three simple purposes in email. They are the greeting, the email handshake. They set the tone and tempo for the communication that follows. And they establish a hierarchy, depending on whether the writer attaches a title (e.g., “Professor,” “Miss”), thereby creating a formal separation, or a lack thereof.

We know this; many of us have been writing some form of email now for nearly two decades.

But what we may not realize is that when an individual offers a salutation, he or she is not going through some formal motions. He or she is engaged in an activity of relationship-building. A variety of salutations will likely be used over the course of an email correspondence, and their evolution reveals something about the developing relationship (or the perceived one) between the correspondents. Just as you wouldn’t ignore body language that indicates whether someone is intending to shake your hand or high-five you, nor should you ignore email-greeting intentions — no matter how well you know someone.

Components of a Salutation

A quick review:

The components of a salutation are simple. The salutation of “Dear” is common in both formal and informal correspondence, as in “Dear John,” both in British and American English. While this is still standard in email communication, it is more acceptable to drop the “Dear” in email even with a stranger. A comma, colon, dash, exclamation point or other favorite punctuation mark follows the name, depending on formality.

Professional titles (“Doctor,” “The Honorable ____”) tend to increase the formality of the email immediately, while social titles (“Mr.,” “Mrs.”) are formal without being stuffy. Titles, however, when used between peers, should be dropped after one subsequent thread unless the intention is to make visible a difference in age or professional hierarchy.

Dropped Salutation

With the ability to directly message through services such as Twitter, salutations can be dropped altogether (more on that in a moment). In places where salutations are still being used, I was interested to study how a greeting evolved over the course of a single communication stream between two people or two parties.

In the second cycle of an email correspondence, it’s typical for writers to switch to a less formal greeting or drop the greeting altogether, depending on the relationship between the corresponders. In the third cycle, writers may drop the greeting altogether. Writers who start out with “Dear,” are more likely to drop the initial greeting, and writers who begin with the strong “Greetings!!” are most likely to be met with a non-salutation from their responders.

In an informal survey of my recent inbox, it appears that it takes approximately 3.5 emails for a responder to drop the greeting. Depending on the initial greeting and intent of the writer, the pattern appears as follows:

Dear [Title] [Name], Dear [Name], Hi [Name], Hi [Name],
Dear [Name], Hi [Name], Hi, [Name],
Hello [Name], Hi [Name], [Name],
Hi [Name], Hi [Name], Hi [Name], [Name],
Hey [Name], Hey [Name], [Name],
Hi All, Hi [Name], All, [Name],
Hi, Hi [Name],
Hey, Hey [Name],

What’s consistent is really just the second email; the responder seems to match the perceived attitude of the note and respond with a greeting. The exception, however, is time. After even a bit of time has passed, the cycle must begin all over again.

Response Responsibility

If one party fails to respond in kind to the salutation he or she’s been dealt, the return email lacks empathy. Each salutation must match the attitude and subsequent cadence that’s unfolded over the course of the conversations. (This, assuming there is time to pay attention to such things. Carrying on as if there is time to do so.)

In the 1898 book, A Guide to Letter Writing for Ladies, which has some fairly stringent instructions on how to compose a salutation as a woman: “If they wish to cultivate your acquaintance, the fact will soon be evident from the tone of their letters to you. Then, but not until then, you may respond, if you wish to, with proportionate friendliness.” A party should change the salutation (and valediction for that matter) to match the growing relationship and increased informality that’s being introduced by one person over a series of threads.

Emerging Etiquette

Today, among friends and close colleagues, skipping the salutation is accepted — preferred even — and quick email communication has been all but abandoned for the 140 characters of Twitter direct messages, bypassing the email client altogether. The job of salutations is now done by the pre-qualification of Twitter Followers and, therefore, no greeting is necessary. Relationships expedite as a result, is one theory. So there is a Twitter/Email divide forming that will be interesting to watch.

Relationships, not Rigmarole

Clearly the 1898-style advice is far outdated, but what is still imperative, even today, is that one not ignore the signs of a salutation. A salutation is the beginning of an emerging relationship, and the signs have to be reciprocated as such. Whether it be guidelines from Henry Dreyfuss in Designing for People (1955) on mapping the human body to forge ergonomic interfaces, or Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) on interpreting facial gestures, or Donald Norman in The Design of Everyday Things (1990) on observing people to create natural affordances, we’ve been urged to pay attention to human responses so we can better design for people. It would be interesting to pay that same attention to our own communication with one another as relationships continue to evolve in new ways.