The fact of our social reality is that we are judged by such silly things. But when we think about how deliberate some of those things are, maybe they aren’t so silly. The decision to favour trousers over a skirt has a distinctly gendered set of connotations for women. I have heard ad nauseam many conversations from women stating to the effect that they hate wearing high heeled shoes but it is expected of them.
Thinking about the micro level of interactions. I’ve been thinking a lot about emails. As someone who has to do a lot of emailing for work, and job applications, and everything in between (such as say, organising family things with my sister), I’ve been thinking about email salutations.
The issue of email salutations has been on my mind because it has encroached on issues of interactions in terms of gender, age differences, cultural/social backgrounds and just protocol. The issue really boils down to this: can or should I still use “Dear …” as a greeting.
Let’s consider a variety of cases:
Case one: working in a formal place
I sometimes work at a place where protocol is very important. Observing people by title or their ceremonial roles are very important as some of them occupy ancient institutions and are key civic figures. In this context it is not only appropriate, it is a sign of good Britishness to uphold the ‘Dear’ and other related customary salutations. This is the case in which the Dear is absolute, and in this situation I cannot ever get rid of the Dear.
Case two: at work: emailing someone who is literally behind you
I also work in a context where I am often in a lot of different desks and departments (see hotdesking) and there are often a lot of first introductions with people, sometimes meeting them physically after I contact them by emails (so I don’t recognise them by face). I usually do an anonymous Dear as a form of protocol to email people, including when I am unfamiliar as to where they physically are. If in some instances I am near someone that I need to contact, but I would need to email them because they are working on a caseload or on the phone or I just can’t judge their availability to deal with something, I would email them. I would often agonise over whether Hello is too informal for someone I don’t know, or if Dear is too naff and over-formal. These tend be the main cases in which a salutation becomes an issue of social interaction.
Case three: Dear and Gender
Antisophie put it to me in this way: would you call someone Dear to their face in the same way I might in an email with the same frequency? The answer to that would be a resounding no. It is true that when working with senior figures; Rt. Hon., Lords or your everyday Sith Lord, you would accord the correct title and greeting to them. If I worked more in this environment I certainly would take formality to be more frequent. Going back to the question Antisophie posed: would I call someone Dear? No. It’s incredibly gendered, and context of the other party’s acceptance of the term needs to be established. For example, an acceptable instance of me using Dear would be as a joke or an informal or familiar context with someone, and usually its to men and women that I know very well, and the quaintness of the utterance forms much of its acceptability. Outside of that it seems distinctly patronising at best, misogynistic at worst and horridly outdated. Antisophie gives me a reason to think that I should purge Dear altogether! Although if I’m writing a job application I wouldn’t want to undermine any chances by getting a little thing like the protocol of a salutation wrong. If we were living in a philosopher’s world I’m sure something like ‘Dear’ would be eradicated as a default.
Case four: to and fro emails
The usual kind of emails I get, which go something like:
Me: Dear n here’s my update on the situation
n: Great thanks, can you also account for so and so?
Me: Sure thing here you go
n: great thanks
(a bit later)
n: (unrelated question/topic with previous thread included in body text for some reason)
In these instances, sometimes it is a really quick fire of emails in a short period of time. Or it might just be a long thread. In these instances I think that putting Dear at the top is not only artificially distant, but also not germane to the discussion’s material. To and fro’s typically requires just the facts and even a greeting after the 2nd or 3rd reply isn’t necessary.
Case five: making an impression
I sort of hinted at this with the job application point. There are points where the formality of a situation is not established because you don’t know the person and or they are new to you (note I made a distinction here). Having a clear greeting and honorary salutation is crucial here. Having the Dear is important to establish a new connection, as in this context it is not presumptuous as a more informal greeting might be. With someone new having an impersonal distance is the default. My Latin American friends think that this impersonal distance with new people is absolutely quaint and quintessentially English (or in their words: soo cute!). There are instances where Dear is used to communicate a lack of salutations. Hi is too informal, Hello is awkward sometimes, and Hey? Well lets go to that.
Lemma: On ‘Hey’
Like the 19th and 20th Century aestheticians who had a fundamental dislike for the sublime. I too am not a such a great fan of hey. Hey is an informality that needs to be earned, like people who call me Mike. I am not a fan of hey and instead of communicating disapproval openly to practitioners of the word, I simply avoid participation.
Our salutations reflect our definition of the situation. I am eternally reminded of Dr. Kieran Flanagan’s example of the definition of the situation, in which a younger version of him was in a hotel in Minnesota and the hotelier asks: how are you today? To which he replies: I’M FUCKING AWFUL! Despite the values we have on authenticity, we still aren’t allowed to be honest when we aren’t okay, or in Flanagan’s case, fucking awful. I suspect that salutations exist in this same baffling way.