Nobody's Perfect Ich hasse diese E-Mails

Der Hanseat kennt das subtile Hamburger Du ("Jens, schauen Sie mal"), die Lehrerin kindliches Siezen ("Du, Frau Schmidt"). Wie aber halten es Briten und Amerikaner? Ian McMaster, Chefredakteur des Sprachmagazins "Business Spotlight", hat es satt, per Mail angekumpelt zu werden - and now let's switch to English.


I'd like to talk to you about hate mail. By this, I don't mean threatening emails that I receive at work (although I do get some very strange ones). I mean the business emails that I hate most.

These are not, as you might think, the emails from colleagues or business partners that create a lot of extra work for me. Nor, funnily enough, are they the ones that offer to deposit huge sums of money into my bank account in exchange for…well, in exchange for the details of my bank account.

No, the emails (and letters) that really get up my nose are the ones that start, "Dear Ian".

Now, you might think I'm being a bit oversensitive here. After all, Ian is my name (in case you're interested, it's the Scottish form of John). So what's the problem?

Well, I have no problem at all with friends or colleagues addressing me like this. Nor, in most cases, do I mind if a business partner whom I have met only once calls me Ian. In that sense, I guess I'm a fairly typical Brit, who accepts a high degree of informality in business communication.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

But the people who really annoy me with their informality are those who don't know me at all. For example, I sometimes get marketing letters from an American management magazine that start "Dear Ian", and then go on to tell me that they know how valuable my time is, how important am I, blah, blah, blah.

My reactions, in reverse order of annoyance, are: (3) "if only you knew how much time I waste, you wouldn't say that"; (2) "I don't regard myself as important at all"; and (1) "show some respect and don't address me as 'Ian' when we don't know each other".

So forget any clichés about Brits (or Americans) always being informal. As with all business communication, the way you address people should depend on the context. This means asking yourself these questions:

  • Who exactly are you communicating with?
  • What is the nature of the communication?
  • What is the person's cultural background?
  • How well do you know them?

How often do you ask yourself these questions before communicating, whether on the phone, in emails, in meetings or at job interviews? If you're like me, your answer will be "not often enough".

First name terms do not automatically mean a German "du" relationship

For example, when did you last think about your email style? Not just the way you address people but also the formality or informality of your writing, your use of abbreviations or smileys, and even whether you have spelling mistakes or typos in your messages. You can test your email style with a special checklist in the current edition of Business Spotlight.

But how should you address business partners who you don't know well? Here are some guidelines:

  • If in doubt, be more formal rather than less formal. This means addressing a man as, for example, "Mr Jones", and a woman as "Ms Jones" (don't use the old-fashioned titles for women, "Mrs" or "Miss"). It also means using "Dear…" in email correspondence and not "Hi".
  • If you are unsure whether the person you are writing to is a man or a woman, address them with both names: "Dear Jerry Lewis".
  • In English, you don't combine the titles "Mr", "Dr" and "Professor". So you can address someone as "Dr Smith" or "Professor Evans" but not "Mr Dr Smith" or "Professor Dr Evans". (In US English, the titles Dr, Mr and Ms are written with full stops after them: Dr., Mr., Ms.).
  • If you are uncertain, wait for your business partners to offer first names ("Please call me Michael"). To show that you would like to be called by your first name when speaking to people, you can introduce yourself like this: "I'm Paula, Paula Wilkins."
  • Don't assume that because someone offers to be on first name terms that this automatically means you have the equivalent of a German "du" relationship. Instead, treat it (at least, at first) more like a "Sie" relationship in which you use first names.
  • "Sir" and "Madam" are sometimes used as polite titles in business situations, for example with customers: "Can I help you, madam?"; "Thank you, sir".

Finally, just in case the situation arises, how would you address Paul McCartney if you met him? (I'm assuming that, even if you are under 30, you know who he is. If not, he was once in a reasonably successful British band called "The Beatles"…) Anyway, would you call him Paul, Mr McCartney, Sir, or what? In fact, the correct address would be "Sir Paul", not Sir McCartney. For a woman, the equivalent title is "Dame".

Oh, and by the way, feel free to call me Ian.

Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur des Sprachmagazins "Business Spotlight", das alle zwei Monate erscheint. Er ist Brite, lebt seit 1989 in München und hat ein Vierteljahrhundert Erfahrung im Umgang mit Bewerbungen. McMaster ist ausgebildeter Lehrer für Wirtschafts-Englisch und Koautor des neuen Buches "Communicating Internationally in English".

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