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When Should I be Formal or Informal with Business Emails?

when to be formal or informal in business emails

I’m often asked a tricky but important question about business communication:

“When should I be formal or informal with my business emails?”

Tone is perhaps the toughest aspect of email writing. Since the person on the other end can’t hear us say the words, they have to assume our intent or inflection. And so often, they guess wrong.

“Is she trying to be funny? That message came off rude.”

“I thought he was a nice guy? His emails are so cold.”

Or more to the point:

“He’s way too comfortable with his messages to our team. Not professional at all.”

When you move from a formal to informal tone, you roll the dice and hope the other person will appreciate your casualness.

Big gamble.

As an example, what’s the best way to start an email? Right away, we’re faced with a decision that can make the message seem informal.

Hello: too flat and impersonal
Hey: too comfortable
Dear: too formal
Hey Hey: don’t even think about it

I think it’s cleaner and less distracting to go with:

Hi ____,

(Yes, I place the comma on the end rather than “Hi, ___,” because the two commas look weird.)

For me, it’s “Hi” and then the person’s name followed by a comma. It’s the right blend of friendly and formal and the best “intro” word for the majority of business situations.

Second topic: exclamation points.

I have talked before about the danger of “over-doing” it with exclamation points.

For example, rather than start off strong with exclamations, let other people make the first move and match their emotion. That way, you’re always in line with how they want to exchange messages.

If the person writes back:

Thanks so much for the note!

Then you say:

You’re welcome!

If the person goes with:

Thanks so much for the note.

Then you reply:

You’re welcome.

When you defer to other people, you’re always right. If they want to drop exclamations here and there, so do you. If they prefer to keep it plain, you feel the same way.

And finally, how should we act within the body of the email? Like exclamation points, the key is to let other people make the “first move.”

If they want to keep the messages prim and proper, so do you.

If they want to loosen up, guess what? You do too.

Here’s an example.

Keep it formal

Person: OK, so we’ll meet your team at Acme Bar on Friday to celebrate finishing the XYZ Project.

You: Sounds great. Should we all meet outside and go in together?

Person: Yes, that works.

You: OK, see you then.

Make it informal

Person: OK, so we’ll meet your team at Acme Bar on Friday to celebrate finishing the XYZ Project. Can’t wait to have a few drinks and celebrate being done! Yes!

You: Totally. We all deserve a strong drink after the XYZ Project! Should we all meet outside and go in together?

Person: Yes, perfect. See you Friday! 🙂

You: OK sounds great!

Effective business communication relies heavily on “soft” or interpersonal skills. It’s about understanding peoples’ thoughts or emotions and matching them word for word.

It should come as a relief to know you don’t have to say “all the right things” — or in the context of email, “type all the right things.”

Instead, you need to monitor the conversation and look for cues to remain serious or go casual. Other people will always tell you what they prefer.

Of course, if the other person kicks off the message with:

“Hey hey hey!”

Then I think you know what to do next.

Featured photo: Luke Porter (Unsplash)


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