E-mail etiquette

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New article by Stephen Johnson in Lifehacker (3/24/23):

"These Are the Most Savage Ways to Start or End an Email:

How you start and end your work email says something about your worth as a person"

N.B.:  This is about work email — a very different kettle of fish from personal email, email with friends, and email in general.  You work those things out on your own.  If the solutions you arrive at are suitable, the relationship will persist.  If not, it will wither.

Selections from Johnson's article:

How do you begin your work emails? Do you go with a simple “Hey?” Or are you into formal greetings like “Good afternoon?” or “Salutation, right, trusty, and well-beloved friend?” Or are you one of those absolute animals that just starts—with no foreplay at all? How about the closing? Are you one of those annoying, “Thank you in advance” people? Or are you more like, “Byeeeeee?”

Back in the pre-computer days, this wouldn’t be a question. There were hard-and-fast rules for business correspondence: You started the letter with “Dear, Mr. Jenkins,” and ended it with, “Sincerely yours.” Anything else would mark you as a communist or beatnik.

Then email hit the scene. At first, it was widely used for informal work communication—serious business-y business was still put down on paper. But now, no one write letters for work, and there are even more informal ways for us to communicate. Email is in a gray-area. Everyday work-words are sent through text messages or Slack, and email is reserved for more “serious” buisness—but it still isn’t exactly formal, and there aren’t any universally accepted rules. This leaves everyone free to start and end emails however they want. But we still judge each other for the choices we make.

According to research from online tutoring company Preply.com, 46% of those surveyed report that they can tell a coworker’s mood based on their greetings and sign-offs, but only a third of those same people think about how they start and end their own emails. You should be one of the people who thinks about it, at least enough to understand how you’re coming off to your co-workers.

Personally, I draw a lot of implications from the way people open and close their email messages; plentiful signals inherent therein.  In a university setting like Penn, much depends upon the various levels and departments from which and to which emails are flowing.

Inside of a department, especially if the correspondence is between people who are in the same building / corridor, or whose offices are right next to each other, one can be almost as casual as in conversation.  Still, since the message is being transmitted in written form, I feel the need to have an address and a closing, which can be as simple as "Linda" and "Victor", or just "L" and "V".  If the exchange goes on for several messages, especially if closely spaced, then we can omit the names and their abbreviations.

According to the survey, “Hi [NAME]” is the most common opening for work emails, with 67% of respondents saying they have used it. This makes sense. “Hi, Gary” is reassuring in a work context. It’s not overly familiar nor overly formal, and it briefly acknowledges the recipient’s humanity before launching into whatever mundane drudgery occasioned the communication. “Hi, Gary” says, “We’re all in this together.”

At Penn, I almost never use "Hi" before someone's name, because it seems too flippant in that setting (though it might fit perfectly in other contexts).  For me at Penn, it's usually "Dear …" or just the person's name, mostly the latter.

Johnson goes into considerable detail about how people close their emails.  He says that most people use "Thank you", although, to me, it seems a bit odd to be thanking someone for something they haven't done yet, unless one is thanking "in advance", which is still rather presumptuous to me.  When someone explicitly says, "thank you in advance", I find that annoying and even borderline obnoxious.  unless one means by it "thank you for paying attention to my message" (and the request it makes).

I find it significant that Johnson doesn't mention "best", which is far and away my most frequent closing and the most frequent closing for my regular correspondents outside of work.  To write "best" in a work context somehow sounds both too close and too casual — though I do see it from time to time.

"Kind regards", which Johnson also cites as a fairly frequent (16%) closing sounds old-fashioned.

I have one colleague who always closes with "toodle-oo"; she's the only one who does that.

A shockingly high percentage of people—58%—believe emojis are appropriate in work emails. As in any kind of communication, “correct” depends on the audience, but emojis seem too informal for work

Weirdly, people are more likely to approve of emojis in work emails than exclamation points. Forty-eight percent of respondents report that they re-read emails and remove exclamation points. But 25% add exclamation points. Are you an adder or a subtracter?

One thing I think we can all agree on: Closing your email with “Sent from my iPhone” or similar is not good. A little more than half of survey respondents want people to stop this entirely, and 65% object to: “Sent from my phone, please excuse typos.”

The absolute most savage opening and closing is the same: Nothing.

Suffice it to say, email etiquette is still a work in progress.

As for texting, thank god I don't have to worry about that.  It would make some sort of sense to me if someone would resort to it simply to communicate a short message and be done with it, but I've seen too many people drag on such conversations for far too long and then have existential crises about how and when to bring closure to them, or become seriously disturbed by trying to understand what the other side means by not replying.


Selected readings

[h.t. Michael Carr]


  1. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 2:33 pm

    You started the letter with “Dear, Mr. Jenkins,

    You did ? With a comma after "Dear" ? In what countr{y|ies} was this the norm ?

  2. Bloix said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 2:35 pm

    – "Dear" exists to demonstrate that the communication is formal semi-formal.
    – I always use the person's name, and sign mine, to confirm that this is not a blast. "Jackie- see below. How to respond? – Joe" Someone a bit more distant: "Hi, Jackie. Simon just sent the following. I think we know the answer, but how to phrase it? Would like to respond before 10 – thanks – Joe"
    – "Kind regards" is common in UK business emails. Don't think I've ever seen it from an American.
    – Many people think "best" sounds dismissive. My formal closing is "best regards" and if I want it a bit colder, then "regards."
    – kthxbi – Joe

  3. DaveK said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 3:06 pm

    I’ve started using more exclamation points in work e-mails. When someone e-mails me about a good result or goes out of their way to assist me a simple “nice work” or “thanks” seems like I could be using the terms ironically. But writing “nice work!” or “thanks!” gets the point across and I hope sounds jaunty or breezy rather than gushy.

  4. DBMG said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 4:01 pm

    It is my experience that a well-chosen exclamation point will lighten a business email, and that omitting it may even have a passive-aggressive feel.

  5. Matt Sayler said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 4:31 pm

    The cardinal rule, as in all writing, is to know your audience.

    Depending on the recipients and topic, I would be comfortable using: very formal business style, something more conversational, bullet lists of key points, emoji, exclamation points, a few words of a foreign language, end notes[1], or really anything I thought would serve my purpose in writing the email.

    Basics like reviewing spelling, observing standard grammar rules, and so forth are a great idea, but not strictly essential.

    I work in a (computer) technology company. I'm sure I would adjust for a different industry, cultural norms, etc.

    [1] It's a shame there's no real standard for these in email.

  6. Christian Horn said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 8:04 pm

    To me, closing with "best" gives a feeling of "I have given over the task to you now, do your part", and "all the best of luck – you'll need it" – so I almost never use that.

    It would be interesting to compare mail etiquette over various languages.

    In Japanese, even communicating with colleagues, mails tend to have longer formal/addressing text parts.

  7. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 9:45 pm

    I am kind of surprised by the number of people who think email should mimic written letters with salutations and closings. I’m also surprised by the persistence on “dear” because many of the people who wrote to me on paper dropped “dear” years ago, mostly, I think, because it is often regarded as an endearment. If I don’t want a cashier to call me “dear,” why would I want a vendor or some other business acquaintance to address me as “dear”?

    The emails I sent at various jobs were modeled on the emails I received. The bulk of these dropped all header information that letters included, and often dropped closings, but there were a good many years of elaborate “signatures” featuring name, rank or title, department, quotes, weird fonts, and corporate logos, along with various kinds of boilerplate about confidentiality, miscellaneous legal blather, admonitions about not printing out the email, and so on.

    Because each email comes with the date and my email address on display, I don’t write the address and date as I do on handwritten or typed letters. I never use “dear” in business communications. If I were formatting a cover letter for a job application in the conventional manner, for instance, I would write “To the hiring manager” and I would end with “Sincerely.”

    When I took a typing class in the late 1960s, we learned various formats for business communications and documents. I always thought the closest parallel to email was the memorandum, not the letter. The form of the memorandum I learned opened with a stack of pieces of information, was typed flush left, and had no opening or closing. A typical format would be:

    [paragraphs of text]
    typist’s initials

    The header of an email provides the information for “to” and the date. It leaves room for “re,” the subject, which the writer should always provide. The body of the email is the memorandum. The end of the email ought to provide the “from” in a straightforward way, preferably without elaborate logos or cutesy additions.

    Styles change in business correspondence, of course, but I am surprised by all this nostalgia for a few conventions mostly designed for writing to friends and family. I don’t feel insulted when an email gets down to business without a salutation.

    @Matt Saylor — I agree with most of your points, particularly knowing the audience. I do think reviewing spelling and grammar is essential.

  8. R said,

    March 25, 2023 @ 9:56 pm

    I was recently told outside of work that my habit of starting emails with "[name]," is aggressive which startled me, since I thought it was just a step down in formality from "Dear [name]," which I find too formal for short notes.

  9. Jenny Chu said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:32 am

    I'm certain we will find opinions diverging between older and younger emailers – especially when it comes to the use (or omission) of final punctuation


  10. Jenny Chu said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:34 am

    I have also heard, anecdotally, that emails without exclamation point, when coming from women, are treated as less friendly than exclamation-point-less emails from men!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to listen to my opinion!

    (And if I don't say something like that I'll be viewed as grasping or entitled!)

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 2:45 am

    @Barbara Phillips Long, I don't always include a salutation, but I do (nearly) always include a sign-off to show that I considered the e-mail complete and ready to send. Maybe this is a sign of my distrust of mail user agents.

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 3:55 am

    Being old-fashioned, I always use "Dear X" as the opening salutation of any letter, no matter whether personal or business. If I know the addressee's name then I will use it, either formally ("Dear Mts Talisker") or informally ("Dear Jean"), otherwise "Dear Sir/Madam".

    For e-mails I use "Hallo <given name>" with friends, with closing salutation normally "** Phil." (although this might be preceded by [e.g.,] "Very sincerely" if the e-mail were one of sympathy or similar), but my formal e-mails follow a similar pattern to my letters although the closing salutation is normally just "Philip Taylor" with no preceding "Yours <".

    Afterthought. Planning to send an e-mail immediately after posting this, I realised that it would include no opening salutation — it is to a friend and academic colleague with whom I want to raise a technical point, so I plan to plunge straight in with "I was thinking more about the mark-up that we curerntly use for the transcriptions of Vlastares and Etheridge …", so my "Hallo <given name>" might in practice be used more in replies than in new threads, although it would by no means restricted entirely to the former.

  13. bks said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 6:50 am

    The shorter the better, with the point of the email clearly stated in the subject line, and don't spare the white space. Before email, receiving five business letters in a day would have been unexpected. Now five in an hour would not be exceptional.

  14. TKMair said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 8:38 am

    I have a co-worker who begins every email or Teams chat with the same opening "Howdy!" And he's quite a intelligent and sensible fellow.

    As for closings, I use an auto signature that says "Thank You" in a slightly oversized cursive style font. The thank you does 2 things, I think. First, it does thank the correspondent for having read to the end of the email (and also considering what the email says), but also it is subtly implied that if there was a request, they will do it. This is why it's slowly replaced the older sincerely. It's a simple way to engender positive feedback loops of getting things done. "Thank you for that, and implied, you can count on me and thank me later if you need something from me." (Incidentally I do often use sincerely outside of work, but when communicating with people such as school officials, bank employees, etc.)

    Yes, the insipid "Thank you in advance" is the worst and most obnoxious, because you *know* this is not the kind of person you will ever be thanking later! They just want to get the goods from you. Obnoxious!!!

  15. Robert Coren said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 10:16 am

    Re the prevalence of "sent from my iPhone": I believe I discovered some years ago that the iPad puts the corresponding phrase in by default when you use it for email, and you have to do something deliberate to stop it. I don't have an iPhone, but it seems like a logical inference that it would do the same thing.

  16. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 10:18 am

    Well, whilst I never write "Thank you in advance", I frequently write "Many thanks in advance", and those thanks are sincerely meant. Recent example (partially redacted) follows —

    […] are you by any chance the same R***** who looks after C****** S**** in Bolsehle ? I ask because I spoke to C****** on the telephone yesterday, and she sounded extremely low and depressed, so Lệ Khanh & I are more than a little concerned. If you are the same R*****, do please keep in touch so that we can be kept aware of C******'s situation.

    Very many thanks in advance :
    Philip Taylor

  17. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    Robert Coren: That's precisely what makes it obnoxious. "Sent from my iPhone" is basically an admission that "I can't be bothered removing this advertisement from my personal correspondence."

  18. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:34 pm

    I'm seeing "Ahoy $NAME" as a salutation more often these days, from younger correspondents.

  19. poftim said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:37 pm

    Jenny Chu,

    In my experience, women make greater use of *multiple* exclamation marks than men, so receiving an email from a woman that lacks exclamation marks entirely is more likely to elicit a "what have I done?!" feeling than a similar email from a man.

    The most obnoxious exclamation mark of all is the red "high priority" one in Outlook. I had colleagues who used it for every email they sent. The best way to attract attention was actually to use the blue "low priority" down-arrow because it was so rarely used.

  20. David L said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 2:57 pm

    There was a story in the Washington Post many years ago about the different ways people sign off on their emails, and all the implications thereof. The only thing I remember is that the story closed with a person who signed his emails 'wonka wonka,' for no reason except that it caused amusement and no offence.

  21. Jenny E said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 5:25 pm

    I don’t love adding exclamation points in emails, but as Jenny Chu says, women are seen as unfriendly if we don’t. I have actually been criticized for not using them, so I did learn how.

    I actually spend more time on two other aspects of an email message than the salutation and closing, although they both matter.

    First, the subject should signal what is inside, how urgent it is, how alarming it is, and why it is worth opening, all in a 4-8 word phrase. I work hard on those.

    Second, I make sure to include all relevant information unless it is well-known, trivial to look up, or sent separately. My goal is the recipient doesn’t have to do any additional work to understand or respond.

  22. Julian said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 5:53 pm

    "I've seen too many people drag on such conversations for far too long and then have existential crises about how and when to bring closure to them"
    This is an interesting detail. In a normal conversation, after one party says 'I'd better go now', there will usually be at least half a dozen more turns to negotiate the parting, which are important for politeness even if they only take 20 seconds, before one of the parties stops replying and actually goes.
    How much should we replicate this in email? Suppose someone has answered your question or done you a small favour ("If you refresh your screen it should work now'). Do I reply 'all good, thanks for that'? Or do I stay silent? The person who did me a favour has ticked off that job and has no need to hear from me again.
    Personally I'm happy not to have my inbox clogged with 'thanks for that' type messages. But now I lean towards sending them, on the basis that the politeness aspect is important for the relationship.

  23. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 6:11 pm

    So far (as far as I can tell) no-one has discussed trimming in replies. I am punctilious in trimming all but the relevant part(s) of the message to which I am replying, removing all previous correspondence, yet I have correspondents who routinely include 32 levels of indentation corresponding to 32 sequential untrimmed replies. Do others have strong feelings about trimming ?

  24. Chas Belov said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:00 pm

    I generally start with just the person's given name and close with "hope this helps" followed by my signature. If I'm writing somebody who I've never written before such as a customer who is contacting us, I open with Dear followed by their full name.

    @Jenny – I make no inferences whatsoever about use or non-use of exclamation points by men or women. I actually find exclamation points distracting.

    @Philip – I detest trimming because it means if I need context from a previous message I have to go find and correctly identify that message instead of simply scrolling down to find that context. That said, thread forking and topic drift from the subject line are worse issues.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:04 pm

    Actually, thinking about it, if somebody writes me and opens with "Hi" or something similar I will tend to match their tone when responding as opposed to my typical practice.

  26. Chester Draws said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 11:44 pm

    I have a co-worker who begins every email or Teams chat with the same opening "Howdy!" And he's quite a intelligent and sensible fellow.

    I would send internal work e-mails with such a greeting, but never an external one.

    I'm toying with a few new sign-offs. "Lukewarm regards" is a favourite. But again, the target audience is not external.

    Sometimes when asked to do a simple task by a colleague I will send "done" as the entire message.

    Given that some people still like the formal greetings, all my external e-mails have them until they break first.

  27. Linda Seebach said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 9:40 am

    I don't recall paying much attentions to salutations/closings whether in- or external, with one notable exception: a colleague at a different Gannett paper whose emails closed with an elaborate (and I assume both automatic and company-mandated) sig line graphic including inappropriate (and to me, offensive) text:

    = = = =
    I am an Ally

    Inclusion is | Diversity is | Equity is
    What We Do | Who We Are | How We Operate

    = = = =


  28. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 10:34 am

    @LindaSeebach: “sig line graphic including inappropriate (and to me, offensive) text”

    What part of that is offensive to you?

    FWIW, I find it slightly difficult to parse written in plain text like that, where it doesn’t line up properly, but you said it’s a graphic so I assume it would line up ok in that format.

  29. CCH said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    I genuinely never thought about my "thanks"/"thank you" usage being taken to mean "thank you in advance"! I have always signed off with "thank you" (or "thanks", if I'm getting annoyed and mean it in a polite but sarcastic tone) to mean "thank you for reading this email". Now I'm going to overthink *that* as well as the rest of the email!

  30. Michael said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 2:27 pm

    For opening, I generally prefer simply "Hello," — it's what I would say if I walked up to you, and it covers the need for "strokes" without being too encumbering.
    For closing, "Thank you," seems to me to say "thank you for paying attention." That said, I've always despised "Best," under any circumstances. Best what? And why? "Best" by itself is not a statement, it's a cop out.
    As far as email being more like memoranda than letters – I'd be careful about making such an equivalency. Memos were developed in a business context, and follow business standards, but email has been a method of communicating in personal contexts now for decades, and the expectations surrounding them are influenced by other social factors than those which would apply in business.
    I'm also reminded of what I once read regarding the use of the telephone in 19th century Austria. Formality was so institutionalized that simple connecting with the person you wanted to talk to began with a lengthy conversation, "the Herr Professor greets the Fraulein Operator and hopes that he finds you well this day…"

  31. CD said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 5:16 pm

    I've found for work e-mails exclamation points have become standard ways to signal that you're happy about something or well-disposed to your correspondent. There's also a rough pattern in which correspondences often start with formal-ish openings and closings, and then switch in replies to mere content, as though people were texting. Students sometimes start that way, I think because they treat e-mail like texting.

    (Like Michèle, I also don't see what Linda Seebach is on about, unless "xx" is interpreted as kisses, which would be a little weird. You could possibly call sig-file statements like that anodyne or ostentatious, but…)

  32. Warren said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 9:48 am

    regarding "Sent from my iPhone" (or "iPad", etc) … I adjust that to "sent mobilely"

    I don't need/want to advertise the device I wrote it on – I've never seen an email program that appends "Sent by Outlook" or "Sent from my Dell Inspiron 270xlq"

    But I *do* like to alert my recipient there may be a higher-than-usual number of typos present do to autocorrupt

  33. Linda Seebach said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 11:22 am

    @Michèle Sharik Pituley

    Everything about DEI as policy is offensive, but Equity as applied entails making personnel and admissions decisions to achieve race and gender proportions equivalent to those in the population as a whole, rather than the proportions in the pool of potentially qualified applicants.

  34. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 2:48 pm

    "Sorry about the datacenter overheating and shutting down your computers. We'll have the cooling system back online shortly.

    Warmest regards, IT"

  35. Mike Anderson said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 9:15 am


    Interesting discussion. @LindaSeebach, @Michèle Sharik Pituley: spare me the wokey-dokey chest thumping. It's rarely pertinent to the topic at hand.

    Thank you for your attention,


  36. Rodger C said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 9:58 am

    "wokey-dokey chest thumping"? Mike, Linda is on what I take to be your side. Michele expresses no opinion. Maybe stop thinking with your knee?

  37. Jenny E said,

    April 6, 2023 @ 1:43 pm

    @Philip, I think trimming has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but I agree it matters. Thirty-two levels of indentation sounds pretty bad. I summarize relevant information, if necessary, rather than let that happen, and irrelevant stuff needs to go, since it wastes the recipient's time.

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