It seems that society is more willing than ever to stretch the confines of what constitutes socially acceptable behavior. But, according to Katherine Lewis, etiquette tutor for the 250-year-old authority on etiquette Debrett’s, certain rules of etiquette remain immutable. Even in a era where an entire conversation can be conducted in emoji dialect and ‘sliding into’ one’s DMs is the 21st-century MO of networking (and dating culture), Lewis says the tried-and-true practices of formality should never be underestimated. Ladders was on-site at New York’s iconic Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel where Lewis expounded on these essentials of etiquette over a fitting spread of coffee, tea, and crumpets.
Despite her adherence to anachronistic verbiage, Lewis herself is no dowdy traditionalist — the politeness master simply recognizes the value of etiquette in leveraging one’s career and social life, adapted to fit the context of today’s digital mediums (even she’s not above sending the occasional emoji.)
The main talking point on Lewis’ linguistic chopping block: email etiquette. And, rightly so. According to a recent survey by the virtual editing platform Grammarly, 93% of respondents said they have made email blunders. This figure may not be surprising considering the amount of time people spend interfacing via email — Americans spend around three-plus hours a day checking their work email. These errors may be forgivable, but they’re not retractable once the email is sent out. According to Lewis, when it comes to digital messaging, these three principles ring true no matter the context:
Know your audience
You wouldn’t speak to your boss in the same way you’d address your best friend. The same applies to email. Age should always be taken into consideration when addressing and ending an email, says Lewis.”You need to be aware of your audience. Is it someone who is older that is expecting you to sign off, or is it someone who is younger where it doesn’t matter.”
At work, more often than not, you may not be aware of the person’s age. To tackle this conundrum, Lewis says it’s better to play it safe by keeping your tone formal. “You can never offend someone by being too formal. Including messaging like “xoxo” can offend people in certain contexts,” Lewis says.
Of course, if someone addresses you in an informal tone, the same rule doesn’t apply. In this case, replying in an overly formal tone can make you sound stilted. “If you’re approached with informality, then reciprocate in kind. However, always wait for the other person to initiate this kind of messaging before you reciprocate.”
Hone your style
Just because you’re writing on a digital interface, doesn’t mean style and diction get a free pass. “When we teach people about traditional letter writing, we encourage people to have their signature letter paper and style. It’s the same with digital messaging,” says Lewis. “It’s all about finding what works for you. People are very good at picking up when people are not genuine, so always be yourself.”
Keeping in line with her insistence on always being aware of your audience, Lewis advises keeping culture differences in mind. Certain euphemisms and spelling differences can be interpreted differently by the sender and receiver, especially on screen. Lewis is especially privy to this, being a Brit on the receiving end of American expressions. “When it comes to sarcasm via messaging, Americans are twice as likely to tackle it head-on and ask for clarification while 31% of Brits just keep a stiff upper lip and ignore it,” she says.
Above all, Lewis stresses “time and attention show respect.”
Practice good exit-ette
While pulling an ‘Irish Exit’ has its appeal, practicing good etiquette means always saying goodbye. Lewis emphasizes the importance of “always excusing oneself” whether that be on or off-screen. “Politely tell the person you need to go. If you’re pressed for time, at least acknowledge to the person that you received their message or email,” says Lewis. Not doing so can have some serious social repercussions, she warns. However, the level to which this offends someone is dependent on age. According to Messenger from Facebook’s recent etiquette survey in partnership with Debrett’s, almost half of global 45-64-year-olds surveyed always sign off every messaging conversation whereas only a third of 18-24-year-olds feel a need to sign off.
Because the ‘goodbye’ is generational, leaving it out can be seen as permissible, and may even feel natural, Lewis admits. But, when it comes to emailing where age is sometimes unknown, it’s better to conclude the conversation. “If in doubt, always sign off,” Lewis says.
In terms of the actual lingo used to conclude an email, Lewis once again insists on formality. “‘Yours faithfully/sincerely’; in most cases, you’ll use something more casual (eg ‘Best wishes’). In a business context, it’s always useful to add your full name, job title and telephone number under your sign-off,” she says. No matter who you’re addressing the email to, Lewis says you should always err on the side of formality.
“Whilst language goes in and out of fashion, what does not is respect, consideration and good manners.”