9

Imagine you write an email to a professor (or, to avoid academic specifics, councillor) Joseph Doe whom you never met personally before:

Dear Professor (Councillor) Doe,

blah-blah-blah

Kind Regards,
Paul Smith

and soon you get a reply,

Dear Paul,

blah-blah-blah

Regards,
Joe

My question is:
Does the way that someone signs an email change how I should address them in my future responses?

Both correspondents live in the UK if it affects your answer.

13

In business school, I learned about the formalities of writing an email. (Note, this is a US perspective)

When addressing someone in a superior position (such as a professor), always start with the highest formality possible, just as you did. It is then up to the other person to dictate the formality going forward.

A formal salutation and email will include a Dear, Hello, etc. (no hey or hi), a title (use Dr. if a doctor, Mr. or Ms./Miss), followed by a last name.

Dear Dr. Doe,

Hello Miss Doe,

If they drop the formality, like in this case, it is safe to drop formality on your end BUT to the extent that the formality was dropped.

Because your professor address you as "Dear Paul" (switching to first name and signing with first name) you should respond with "Dear Joe". If the other person drops the salutation, you can drop the salutation. You always match the formality of the superior you are communicating with.

If it is a person equivalent to you (colleague, student, friend), you dictate the formality. You can start as formal as you'd like and drop formality as the communication continues to your discretion.

Edit: @EmC found a link to a UK document that supports this approach, indicating this is customary in the UK as well. Thanks!

  • "You always match the formality of the superior you are communicating with." - Is it mandatory to always match the formality or should I be at least as formal as the person I am corresponding with, but not necessarily always match? – Anonymous Jun 18 '18 at 13:29
  • @Anonymous I think it is safest to match the formality since some people may find the additional formality unnecessary or even annoying. I would say this is comparable to a situation where someone asked, "Please, call me Joe" but you continued to call him, "Mr. Smith". You are blatantly disrespecting their request to drop a level of formality. All in all, it totally depends on the person and I can't imagine anyone being offended if you kept up the formality (particularly in academia) on your end unless they specifically asked you not to. – cheshire Jun 18 '18 at 16:45
5

From my time at a UK university, and interacting with those from others, most professors - as they are in a position of authority compared to you - prefer / expect students to address them in a formal manner. "Dear Professor Surname" would be acceptable to keep up, even if they use their forename in the signature.

Many professors though are happy for their students or colleagues to address them in a more casual way, but given the more formal norm/expectation, they will typically make this preference known at the earliest convenient time. Best to stick to calling them Professor Surname until then.

  • 2
    > they will typically make this preference known at the earliest convenient time Can writing "Regards, Joe" in their response be considered of expression of such a preference? – Anonymous Jun 8 '18 at 16:12
  • @Anonymous It could be but it's no guarantee. It would be best to play it safe and keep to the formal naming until told otherwise. – user8671 Jun 11 '18 at 8:45
1

I work in a UK legal environment, and my first email to someone I have never contacted before will start "Mr Smith", "Judge Jones", "Mrs Patel", "Ms le Blanc" etc (i.e. title and surname), and will be ended with my standard signature "Michael Harvey". If that individual signals willingness to drop formality by calling me "Michael" and signing off "James Smith" (or even "Jim") I will do the same for subsequent messages. Some contacts may get to the stage of calling me "Mike". I have had to train young new starters not to write "Hi Judge" at the beginning of a first email to someone. Some (mainly older) judges complain about this, some don't mind at all. The key is to let the other person guide you.

  • 1
    "The key is to let the other person guide you." The question was is the person signing themselves Joe a sign of them guiding? – WendyG Jun 11 '18 at 8:43
0

I work in a hospital environment in the UK so frequently have email correspondence with persons with titles such as Doctor, or "Mr" (which denotes a consultant, senior to a doctor).

There does not seem to be a "rule" but I have developed a code of my own in this aspect. In a professional work environment I will always address a doctor as "Doctor" in spoken and written correspondence as long as the correspondence seems formal/work-related.

I don't trust email signatures as an indication of how someone wishes to be addressed because they can be preset, or even written in a hurry. I have also noted that some doctors use their first names to distinguish themselves from another doctor with the same surname, so again this doesn't indicate they want you to call them this.

Additionally, and I may be opening up a can of worms here, you should remember that it may not be your culture dictating what a person may want to be called, but their own. Again, from my experience, I may be in the UK but many of the doctors I mentioned are from overseas, and interestingly the majority of those who have invited me to call them by a particular name are not UK born. Another reason to avoid any hard and fast rule.

As you are concerned about it, the best course of action is to keep it formal. In my experience, this does not hinder the development of any professional relationships. If anything, it can build one of mutual respect. For example - when I was at school (again, in the UK) we all referred to our male teachers as "sir". Now, aged 42, I often see one of my old teachers in my town who always stops me to chat. He is friendly, asks about my family, asks about my work, and I would go as far as to say we have a friendship of sorts - but I still call him "sir", and he has never corrected me.

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