Formal? Casual?Affectionate? Ali Bacon reminds us not everyone wants to be kissed

Now we’re home from holiday, I’ve stopped worrying about my lack of Spanish, but the niceties of how we use our own language are sometimes just as mysterious as a foreign tongue. Maybe it’s a preoccupation of the elderly, but I’m always aware of the register we use depending on our audience. At the extreme ends of the scale, an application for a job or a pitch to a publisher is always more formal than a thank you note or reply to an invitation, unless we are making a conscious effort to be matey. Informality, after all, is a characteristic of speech rather than writing, or should that be ‘was’? 

Still nice to get some things in writing
The universal use of email (and all communication via keyboard)  has gradually blurred the lines. It was once the case that a stranger contacting me at work would start with ‘Good morning’ or ‘Dear’. These days I might use ‘Dear’ for a first cautious approach but anything after that would be ‘hello’, gradually giving way to ‘hi’. And this includes people I have never met in the real world. Virtual meetings are so much the norm we feel we have met people even if we’ve never sat down for a cup of coffee together.

We also meet in all kinds of online spaces with their own unwritten rules of communication. I made contact last year via Facebook Messenger with The St Andrews Photography Festival , or at least its publicity department. We were perfectly polite, but our exchange of messages (in my case hunched over a hot laptop around midnight) was peppered with things like ‘no worries’ and ‘brill.’ And this was potentially the start of a business arrangement!  We could have been more formal if we had wanted to, but really we were two people talking, so there was no need.

There is a final layer to this new world of interaction.  Social media and email platforms have strong visual signals . Not only that, but these display differently on different devices. I’ve just begun to realise the way I react and respond to messages is affected by the thing I am holding in my hand or looking at on my desk. Say, for instance I get an email about an event where I’m reading my work with other authors. I may or may not have met the organiser but we’ve already been in touch by email.  If I answer this on my laptop (which rarely travels anywhere so really it’s my permanent workplace) I’d probably say.

Hello xxx,
Many thanks for the information, I’m really looking forward to (event name) and meeting the other readers. 
I’ll make sure I’m there in good time. 
Best wishes,
Ali B

But if I pick the same message up on my phone, out-and-about in a shop, car-park or even in the golf club, I might just say.

Thanks for this.  Sounds great. See you there. Ali x.

The different interface and visual display, and I suppose my state of mind,  actually changes the nature of the discourse. (Here's a survey of what devices we use the most.) And did you spot that sneaky x? I used to steer clear of social kissing, but on the internet I’m an absolute luvvie. In certain situations, not to put one in looks downright rude!

The constant conversation -in real time
Does it actually matter if we slip into casual friendliness with strangers as long as we get the arrangements right? Years ago I remember reading that any important email should be save and reread next day before sending and this saved me from falling on my face more than once. But where once a gap of two or three days between message and response would be fine, now we are all in a state of constant conversation. Even so, if a message arrives that looks important, I often leave it until I’m at my desk to compose my considered answer. At the same time, I’m very well aware of a tranche of my acquaintances who do not have desks, or laptops or PCs – and who  don't need to differentiate between emails, texts, Whatsappp messages etc. If any of these people seem too casual, I make allowances!

Longing for a letter  on nice headed paper? That could be a long wait. And in most respects, our call-me-anytime- kiss-me-afterwards culture is progress. Things can be arranged so quickly and so easily. And I can think of some very good friendships forged on line. 

But if casual is fine, sloppy is to be avoided, and sometimes that’s hard to pull off. We’re always in a hurry, let’s face it, and the end of that email just slipped off the bottom of the screen. Was it Thursday or Tuesday? Did it even get in the calendar?

We have all had those communication disasters. Just remember some conversations are more important than others.

And maybe not everyone wants to be kissed!

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction.
Her latest book,
In the Blink of an Eyejust signed with Linen Press, is due out in 2018. 


Bill Kirton said…
Interesting, Ali. I often find myself musing on the same things. In the end, I think the use of 'Hi' or 'Hello'is more honest than 'Dear'. Long before I became an official curmudgeon, I found myself writing 'Dear XXX' and thinking 'But this person's not in the least dear to me'. I know it's just a written form of Phatic communication, but I prefer to think that words mean things.

As a lecturer in French, I was always amazed and confounded by the compulsory flourishes they use to end letters, such as 'Veuillez accepter, Messieurs (or Monsieur or Madame), mes salutations distinguées', or 'Croyez, cher Monsieur (or chère Madame), à l'expression de mes sentiments les meilleurs' or 'Je vous prie d'agréer, Monsieur le Directeur, l'assurance de ma considération distinguée'. As for the recommended way of ending a letter to the Pope, as well as having to subject oneself to the most abject verbal self-effacement, it all has to be done 'Prosterné à [ses] pieds'.
AliB said…
Hi Bill, generally I agree. Now when I read 'Dear' I'm alerted to possible spam. And thank you so much for letting me know how to address His Holiness should the need arise. I love collecting random bits of information.
Anonymous said…
It's all about tone, isn't it? When I began emailing. I was told you can't get subtleties of tone in emails. Oh yes you can, just as in a letter, if you want to. You can still be polite and businesslike by being friendly and relaxed, as you demonstrate perfectly in your post, Ali.

Have to admit though, I hate emails beginning Hi if no name nor comma follows, that feels rude to me. If in the subject line it definitely sounds like spam. Better not to put anything, just start the message. Much prefer the formality and tradition of Dear. The French are another matter.
AliB said…
Since writing this I discovered we missed a night out last week because I misread a text message from a friend. *sighs*
You've got to be careful about using acronyms as well - someone I know kept signing her emails to friends with 'LOL' (thinking it meant 'lots of love') until one of them asked what she was finding so funny.
I don't mind being addressed with 'Hi' but I hate seeing 'Best' as a sign-off on emails. It just seems lazy to me.
Interesting post, Ali. I do tend to wait and revise before sending important emails. I don't mind casual sign-offs though. Notice lots of Scots using 'yours aye' and I rather like that, but tend not to use it. Your point about kissing - or not kissing - reminds me of a theatre director telling me about a production she had worked on where, on the opening night, she had taken an accountant friend along. Backstage, afterwards, he had remarked to her how wonderful it was that all these people were getting together when they hadn't seen each other for so long. What a great reunion it had been. She said she didn't like to tell him that most of them had seen each other the day before. I must admit after working in theatre for a while I started to really like the hugging and kissing and the sheer physicality of actors! Now that I don't do too much theatre, I miss it.

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