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What is the right level of formality when sending a work email?


This is a fairly simple question to answer – your business emails should, on the whole, be formal. There are times when you can be a little less formal, but until you know when these are, it’s best not to be too familiar.

It is a fact that most people think that in this time of almost instant communication and people counting strangers as ‘friends’, that it’s okay to be informal with everyone. For instance, we receive many emails into our office that have no salutation, no sign-off and are often full of spelling, grammar and punctuation errors.

When you are representing the business you work for you need to give a good impression. And, giving a good impression is all about getting things right. Those things include using the right level of formality, as well as more obvious things, like making sure your spelling, grammar and layout are correct. The best way to highlight how being overly-informal in work emails can affect how people think about you and your company, is to give an example. Consider these two emails:

Hi mate how’s it going? We’ve got some stuff you wil like. If you want sum call me 0161 2136 8796. c u later. peter xx

Dear Mr Smith,

As a supplier of stationery items for schools in the local area, we thought you may be interested in some products we currently have on sale. We have a range of exercise books, in various colours and sizes, that are be perfect for all kinds of classroom activities. If you’d like to know more, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Warm regards
Peter Jones

I know the first example is rather extreme, but I hope you can see the difference between the two emails. One is highly informal and contains many errors that will create a poor impression. The other has the right level of formality, is grammatically correct and has no spelling or punctuation errors. It is more formal, looks professional and will create the right kind of impression on potential clients.

However, if you know the person well, and have a friendly relationship with them, you may be able to relax the formality a little. So, rather than using ‘Dear Mr...’ all the time, you’ll be able to use their first name, ‘Hello’ or even ‘Hi’. And, you can end the emails with ‘Regards’ or ‘Thanks’, rather than the more formal ‘Your Sincerely’ that you would use in a letter.

And, you can sometimes take the lead from the other person. For example , your correspondence may begin in a formal way, with the emails starting with ‘Dear’ and ending with ‘Warm regards’. However, if the other person then starts to use ‘Hi’ as their salutation, it’s reasonable to assume that the formality can be relaxed a bit on your side too.

But, bear in mind that this will only apply to some people. Others, such as company directors or those much older than you, may still expect you to be formal – no matter how well you know them. So, you will have to use your own judgement too.

Obviously layout is much less formal than it would be in a letter, however, this does not mean that you should abandon it altogether. You still need to have paragraphs and breaks in the appropriate places or your message runs the risk of being unintelligible. You should also make sure you make good use of the subject line. Use it to indicate what the email is about, for example, ‘School Stationery Offer’. Why is this so important? Well, if you put something inappropriate in the subject line or something that email filters don’t like, such as ‘free’ or ‘sale’ it may get snagged in the recipients spam filter. If this happens all your hard work will have gone to waste as your message may never be read.

If you’d like more help, why not enrol for our Business English course. It’ll teach you how to write professional emails, letters and memos as well as giving you a thorough grounding in all the basics of business.