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Consider Your Email Style

How we craft our emails may affect how they are received.

Key points

  • Differences in linguistic style can help or hinder email receptivity.
  • Views of what form polite behavior should take can vary.
  • Err on the side of caution when emailing those whose linguistic style may differ.

If you’ve ever received an email that irritated you because of its overly familiar or casual tone, you are not alone. Particularly in contexts involving professional or social distance, the language used in an email can determine whether and how a recipient responds.

The key is to understand how one’s linguistic style plays a role in how we craft our email messages and to realize that we don’t all have the same style – a potential problem when emailing those we don't know well.

Email etiquette

Unlike formal writing which is highly codified and taught in schools, email is a newer form of communication which is more of a hybrid between speech and writing (Baron, 2003). As a result, the “rules” are more fluid and more sensitive to social context and relational factors compared to other written contexts.

What this means is that the formality level and politeness we adopt will vary based on the norms and expectations brought in from one’s social reference group as well as our interactional goals in a specific email context and with a specific recipient.

For instance, we might have been introduced at a social mixer during a business event. Following up on that meeting with an email, the sender has to decide whether workplace norms toward formality should supersede the tendency toward greater informality with someone they’ve met in a pseudo-social context, i.e., “Mr Smith, So nice to have met you” vs. “John, how’s it going?”

Age differences can influence how one perceives what would be most appropriate in such a context, potentially leading to culture clash when there is a mismatch between a sender and a receiver’s assessments.

What’s our normal?

Workplace culture has been trending more informal for the past several decades, something not only apparent in the increasing prevalence of “business casual” dress, but also in the shift toward less hierarchical conversational styles.

This means that younger speakers often prioritize establishing solidarity and equality with their linguistic choices (John, Hey!) while older speakers might show respect through titles and formal greetings (Dear Sir…). Differences in the use of social media and technology can also drive a wedge if, for instance, one is used to viewing a resume as an attachment over being directed to Google Docs or LinkedIn to view necessary information.

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Differences of opinion on email etiquette
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

While a lot has been made of younger generations being less “polite” than older ones, it is more likely that what has changed is what we view as polite behavior rather than the loss of politeness more generally.


Politeness is a topic that's received a great deal of research within the field of linguistics. Most well-known is a theory of politeness first articulated by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson (1987) suggesting people are driven by two different pressures when it comes to formulating polite exchanges.

The first pressure is that we generally want to be liked and admired, something linguists refer to as “positive face.” To address each other’s positive face, we formulate what to say in ways oriented toward making others feel good and highlighting commonality. This would include things like giving compliments, using first names, and other shows of solidarity and friendship as well as using inclusive language.

The second pressure we feel is toward recognizing what has been termed “negative face.” Paying attention to another’s negative face recognizes the fact that we also have a desire to be respected and not be imposed upon. Courteous language and showing deference and an awareness of another’s time (via apologies or polite forms like hedging) are typical ways of addressing this pressure.

Thus, the more casual language style popular among Gen Z is, at least in part, indicative of the increased attention to solidarity and friendship involved in forms of positive politeness. Older speakers, on the other hand, may feel that attention to negative face, i.e., not causing offense and showing respect, are a greater priority in business settings.

Likewise, though digital natives (those who have used technology their whole lives) may not see directing others to links to information instead of directly attaching it as burdensome, it has the potential to feel like an imposition to those who prefer to be able to simply get an attachment in the body of an email.

Take the safe bet

These differences may explain why some emails may come across as disrespectful or lacking etiquette, especially in intergenerational situations. But there is an easy solution: Err on the side of caution.

Research has suggested that polite speech is related to social power, being more typical of those with less rank. As a result, those with higher status in an interaction may have a greater expectation for politeness markers from those seeking help or in subordinate roles.

So, when emailing someone you don’t know well, especially in workplace contexts, using a more formal greeting, such as Ms. X, instead of a first name, is the safest bet, at least at first. As well, while links (i.e., to a resume or profile on LinkedIn) are fine to include, offer to send a digital copy should the recipient prefer it. Once the initial email is received and responded to, shifting to a less formal style is likely to be better received.

Whether you lean formal or casual, the strength of new hybrid forms of communication like texting and emailing is exactly that they are more fluid and conversational. Being aware of how you might come across to those with a different linguistic style helps ensure this will be a boon and not a bust.


Biber, D., & Finegan, E. 1989. Drift and the Evolution of English Style: A History of Three Genres. Language, 65(3), 487–517.

Baron, N. 2002. Who Sets Email Style? Prescriptivism, Coping Strategies, and Democratizing Communication Access. The Information Society 18 (5): 403–413.

Baron, N. 2003. Why Email Looks like Speech. Proofreading, Pedagogy and Public Face. In New Media Language, edited by J. Aitchison and D. M. Lewis, 85–94. London:Routledge.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., Sudhof, M., Jurafsky, D., Leskovec, J., & Potts, C. 2013. A computational approach to politeness with application to social factors. Proceedings of Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics

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