My wife Amanda is a high school history teacher, as I may have mentioned a time or two on this blog. Each year, her ninth and tenth grade students are assigned a research project, which takes them the better part of the school year to put together because it is a complex, multi-step process that Amanda and her colleagues use to teach their teenagers how to write a rigorous, research-oriented term paper in general. There are outlines, many-labelled index cards, draft after draft, and then finally a paper about, say, whether the princes in the tower were really killed by Richard III.
It’s a terrific, if painstaking exercise, and by the end those kids—if they pay attention—really know how to write a paper.
This week, one of the interim assignments was due, and for the first time Amanda asked her students to email her the finished documents, and she would return them with corrections in Track Changes. The submissions came flooding in on Saturday night and Sunday, and as I watched her open the emails, I was struck by how many of them started “Hey!” and “heres my work” and “i couldnt finish.”
This is not to slag on these students in particular. I could just as easily have been looking at my own inbox or, really, most people’s. It’s ironic, isn’t it? After decades of being a verbal society upon the innovation and dominance of the phone, we are once again a text-based world. Between emails, chats and text messages (as well as blog commentaries, tweets et al), we spend a huge amount of time typing. Now this isn’t a tut-tutting over new spelling and emoticons ruining our lives (although I’d love to tut-tut about the loss of capitalization and apostrophes…but not now.). Rather, it’s about the way to start a letter, and when it is appropriate to be formal. It’s about context.
Ultimately, what I see is an assumption that because a document is instantly delivered and digital, it somehow isn’t formal. Sometimes that’s correct, particularly when per-character charges are incurred—no need to say “Dear Josh” on a text message. (And that’s true even if you have an unlimited plan—at this point the texting rules are pretty clear.)
However, in emails, context really does matter. If I’m having a long email chat with my assistant (which I often do even though we sit at desks facing each other for eight hours a day), there’s no need to say “Dear Maddie” each time (or really at all). But I almost never begin an email to an editor, or start a chain of emails with a client, without “Hi Jason” or “Dear Sally.” It’s simply not professional. It’s not polite.
I also rarely use as my subject line “Hey” or “hi.” For one thing, again, I tend to find it more informal than really appropriate, and I like to give the person receiving the email the opportunity to prepare him or herself for the content—hence, subject. Also, given that I get and send a couple of hundred emails a day, it would make it almost impossible to organize and file my emails with any kind of hope of retrieving one efficiently if they all said “hi” in their subject.
So given all this bemoaning (and I’m really sorry if I sound like the old fart my kids claim I am), it makes sense that I was shaking my head at Amanda’s students’ email subjects. And it doesn’t matter that many of them had written pretty terrific papers or drafts or notecards (although one had in fact said “so u see…” in the actual text). It’s just not polite to address your teacher as “Hey.”
Unless you’re the Fonz, I suppose, but then it would be “Heeeeeyyyyy.”