Be Appropriately Formal

One issue that you need to consider is whether to use first or last names. In our informal society, it is common to use first names even when we don't know people well. A better choice, however, is to use last names until you have established a relationship.

Many people are offended by the presumption of intimacy that results from an inappropriate use of someone's first name. A letter from a stranger addressing you by your first name may not receive the kind of attention the sender seeks. "I throw those letters away," Tom says. "As general manager of a lens manufacturing company, I get dozens of pitch letters a week. My assistant weeds out most of the junk, but sometimes a couple reach my desk. I look at them. If they start 'Dear Tom' and I don't even know the company or the writer, forget it. Straight into the trash. They make me mad. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but that's how I feel."

Sally, a business student approaching graduation and now on a job hunt, explains that she applies for most positions online. "I hesitate to say 'Dear Mr. Smith' in an E-mail, but I do it. I don't know Mr. Smith, so I figure it's best to be more formal, rather than less formal."

Sally's right. Even in an E-mail, usually if you don't know the person you're writing to personally, you shouldn't use his or her first name. There are exceptions, of course. A new supervisor, for example, might send an E-mail saying hello to each of her employees and use each person's first name, even before she's met them individually, to set a tone of approachability.

As a general rule, though, it's better to err on the side of extra formality, rather than insufficient formality.

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