One of the great things about our industry is the variety of people we get to work with; people from all different countries, cultures and ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. The other side of this coin is that we have a lot of clients and colleagues who aren’t named Bob or Janet, which brings up a few issues that we need to pay attention to:
- Get the spelling right. Take this from someone who receives e-mail addressed to Corrine, Corrinne and even “Hey Connie!” (from someone I’ve never met). If someone has an uncommon name, copy their name from the e-mail that they sent you so that you get it right. When it comes to first impressions, there really is no bigger turnoff than being addressed by the wrong name.
- Call people what they ask to be called. In some cases, people want to be called by a name that isn’t their given name, and really that’s their prerogative. I learned this lesson when I kept insisting to an Asian acquaintance that I wanted to try using her Chinese name, rather than Veronica, the name she used in English. Finally she explained that it pained her to hear English speakers butcher her Chinese name, and she’d really (really) rather be called Veronica. Another Asian friend told me that he (emphasis on “he”) asked to be called Scott rather than his Chinese name, Hoa, because he was “tired of getting rejection letters addressed to ‘Dear Ms. Ly’.” So, use the name that your client or colleague asks you to use.
- Use titles wisely. Similar to French’s use of “tu” and “vous,” it’s sometimes hard to know when to use a title and when to use someone’s first name. In general if you’re contacting a prospective client, a title is a safe bet. In English, always use “Ms.” for women even if you know that the person is married. Again, take this from someone who receives e-mail to “Dear Mrs. McKay,” which is actually my mother, since I don’t use my husband’s last name. The place where I think it’s good to omit a title is when you want to put someone at ease; when someone is contacting you as the employer/authority/job reference, etc. and you want to let them know that you’re really not that scary, I think it’s good to respond to the “Dear Mr. Warren” e-mail with “Dear Celeste, thanks for your message and feel free to call me Paul.”
- Gender. This is a hard one. If you have a name that is used for both genders (Chris, Alex, Terry, etc.) or a name for which the gender is not obvious to English speakers, you may or may not want to clarify your gender. It’s easy to do with a simple “Ms. Alex Thomas” or “Mr. Fouad El Tawil” in your e-mail signature file, but of course it’s up to you whether or not you want to do this.