Years ago, I learned to type. As in, I learned to use a typewriter. And I learned the correct lay out for business correspondence, with the sender’s address at the top right, followed by the date and then the recipient’s name and address on the left.
Whoever the letter was going to, it always started with Dear, then a phrase with reference or topic, if required, centred above the body of the letter.
The first line of each paragraph was indented five spaces and it was usual to leave an extra line between paragraphs for ease of reading.
An extra space was always included before the sign-off phrase, which was either “Yours sincerely,” if the letter began with the recipient’s name, or “Yours faithfully,” if it started “Dear Sir,”. And then there were five blank lines – just enough space for the signature – and the name of the sender was typed.
I think the abbreviation “Enc.” was added at the very end to indicate that there was an enclosure with the letter. And a reference in the form ABC/def would be the initials of the writer of the letter (in capitals) and the person who typed it (in lowercase).
This was simply the way things were done, and the format was used pretty much consistently for as long as we had secretaries and typists who had been taught the rules.
And then along came the desktop computer and the bosses got to type their own correspondence. While some of them continued to follow the same rules, I’m sure others had no idea and simply did their own thing.
And then along came email and there were no rules.
A quick glance at my inbox shows that the bank, the letting agent, HMRC and various professional organisations continue to use “Dear”. But even these formal openings tend to be in the format “Dear Firstname Lastname,” – an unforgivable faux pas, if my typing teacher was to be believed.
Although I try and keep to some kind of formal structure and language, I often now start business emails with “Hello” or “Hi” and I don’t think that it’s considered inappropriate.
But what about the sign-off phrase?
We’ve moved far beyond sincerity and fidelity. I absolutely hate the phrase “best regards”, and don’t think “kind regards” is much better. But I understand that for some people “Best wishes” belongs in a birthday card not on business correspondence. “All best”, “Best”, “Warm wishes”… none of them seem to be quite what’s needed.
So mostly it seems that we fall back on “Have a good weekend”, “Speak soon”, “Have a great evening” or a simple and meaningless “Thank you” or “Thanks”.
Of course, depending on the time of year we also have the problem of whether or not to use a seasonal greeting or sign off. In this international and supersensitive world, should we wish people Merry Christmas, Happy Hallowe’en, Blessed Beltane, or a Prosperous New Year when we can’t be sure they share our calendar, let alone our culture?
It’s tricky trying to balance being polite with being inclusive and inoffensive, so we end up with anodyne phrases like “Happy Holidays”.
It may seem a little odd to be ranting about this now. After all, it’s still the first half of September, so it’s a while yet till Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving and “the Holiday season”. But, maybe because of my involvement in the Modern Pagan Prayers project, (and particularly the third book, Turn of the Wheel), I’ve become rather more aware of the different seasonal festivals.
Summer is ending and we’re in the period between Lammas and Mabon, both of which have elements of Harvest festival. And yesterday I came across a marvellously non-committal sign-off in an email.
“Wishing you a pleasant seasonal transition”
It’s true that, wherever you are on the planet, whichever culture you belong to and whatever faith you practice – or not – the world continues to spin and the seasons change.
So the photos today illustrate the current seasonal transition here in Middle England and the poem is about correspondence.
Letters from my mother
She used to write round hand
with a gold-nibbed Sheaffer she filled
from a diamond bottle. Meticulous
accounts of non-events would cover
sheet after water-marked sheet
of linen-finish bond. She’d blot
the excess blue-black drops and sign off:
Now we correspond by email.
No emoticons or TLAs contaminate
her concise messages. She proof-reads
carefully and checks her spelling
in Chambers’s Twentieth Century.
Registered virus software stamps
digital approval, but, for added security,