I recently got an email from WordPress.com. “Howdy,” it began. After the substantive content, I was granted permission to disregard it: “If you don’t care, just ignore this email. :)” The message closed with “Cheers, WordPress.com.”
This is what business communication has become in the 21st century.
One could argue that an informal tone is natural for such a blog host. But 10 years ago — before the word blog entered our vocabulary — we might have called WordPress.com a web publishing service, in which case its business would have sounded a lot fancier. It seems the Internet is casual because we have made it that way.
Internet companies are colloquial in a way that traditional businesses rarely are. PayPal is a company that I have trusted for financial transactions and the storage of very personal information. The only brick-and-mortar institution that receives this level of trust from me is my bank. When I go to the bank, they call me Mr. Mandell even though I am only 21. This feels weird because I am not used to it, but at least I know that they respect me. PayPal begins its emails to me with “Hello Jeffrey Mandell, ” an incongruous mix of the formal (my full name) and the informal (“Hello”).
Is PayPal going along with the relaxed culture of the Internet, or do they simply have no idea how to begin a letter? You’re supposed to start with, “Dear So and so.” For a more respectful tone, say, “Dear Mr./Ms./Dr. So and so,” and for a more intimate one, write, “Dear So” — but not “Hello.” It would seem somebody at the PayPal headquarters has to know these rules.
Then again, there’s Facebook. In addition to always greeting you with “Hi”, Facebook has the silly habit of ending its emails with “Thanks,” even though there is nothing in the content of the message that indicates what they are thanking you for. The word “thanks” does not actually mean anything to them; it is just how they end emails. This stylistic quibble is probably not worth harping on too much, but I do think that excessive thanking dilutes the meaning of gratitude and encourages a false and unearned sense of closeness.
It’s obviously okay to say “hey guys” or whatever else you want when you are greeting your friends by email. My friends say things like “sup baby dogs” and “what up fellow soldiers.” But when businesses are communicating with clients, the style should be a little more restrained. Luckily, the protocol for more formal writing has already been invented. So why doesn’t it get used?
My theory is that Internet companies, from PayPal to Facebook to Amazon, feel that their relationships with us have gotten close enough to dispense with formalities. Collectively, they know almost everything about us from spying on our browsing behavior, purchase history, ad clicks and friend networks. The communication lines between company and client are always open, and an email to a user is just a drop next to a steady stream of personal information flowing the other way. From the perspective of these companies, writing “Dear User” would be like writing “Dear Big Toe”; the electrical tendrils that connect us have created an intimacy where a simple “hello” suffices.
As the Internet becomes ever more central in our culture and our daily lives, we should ask for a healthy distance from the virtual businesses we patronize. I don’t want to be on first name terms with Facebook or any other non-human entity. We appreciate web companies, and in some cases we like and even admire them, but that does not mean that we are friends.
Jeff would like to incorporate your questions, comments and complaints about etiquette at Stanford into future columns. He appreciates your thoughts, which can be sent to jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.