The best style for business writing, says Dianna Booher, is business casual, somewhere between “stuffed shirt” and “T-shirt.”
Booher’s guideline is intuitively obvious. Savvy business writers won’t begin with pompous prose like this: “Pursuant to your message on anticipated changes to predetermined shipping schedules…..” Neither will they email something like “Dude, got your message about shipping delays. Bummer.”
Yet style is only one of the things that determine the appropriate level of formality. Is it OK to use your reader’s first name in the greeting? Should you make your request directly or indirectly? Are you writing to a superior, a colleague, or a subordinate?
These decisions all require judgment, and these judgment calls can make or break your business relationships. Etiquette rules offer some guidance. However, decisions about how to apply a rule often depend on context. For example, etiquette manuals universally advise you to state a request politely. However, norms of polite behavior vary. in some cultures, stating your request directly is polite because it respects your reader’s time. In other cultures, a direct request is disrespectful because it presumes that your reader is willing to comply.
How can you find the right balance of friendliness and formality? This self-scoring quiz can help: How Formal Does My Email Need to Be?A score of 45 is in the middle of the formality scale. This score of 66 suggests that the writer should follow the rules for polite greetings and closings, avoid slang, and be careful to avoid misspellings and grammar errors.
If you’re have questions about the rules of formal email etiquette, download this free Quick Guide to Writing Professional Emails.
Dianna Booher’s “Stuffed Shirt or T-Shirt Writing?” is available at http://www.booher.com/newsroom_article25.html
For more about the difference between direct and indirect language, see Steven Pinker, “The Evolutionary Social Psychology of Speech Acts,” published in Intercultural Pragmatics in 2007, available at http://stevenpinker.com/files/evolutionary_social_psychology_of_off-record_indirect_speech_acts.pdf