How To Fuck Yourself With Three Words – A Practical Lesson in Business Etiquette

“Hi Miss Smidlap”

What’s wrong with that sentence?

Well, nothing. If you’re five, and you’re writing a letter to your teacher, and her name is Edna Smidlap.

But what if you’re someone looking for a job in a particular industry? And what if you’re writing an email to someone who works in that industry, someone you’ve never met before, asking for their help in getting your foot in the door?  And what if that person’s name is Sam Smidlap?

Now you have a problem, because that sentence is a disaster.

First, the usual salutation when you’re addressing a business letter to someone you don’t know (and someone you’re asking a favour from) would be “Dear Miss Smidlap”, not “Hi”. Ok, its a minor thing, and people are more relaxed on email (though they shouldn’t be) but you’re trying to pursuade someone to help you, why wouldn’t you try to put your best foot forward?

Second, and this is more serious, it’s 2013, why are you addressing your letter to “Miss” Smidlap? In North America Miss is traditionally used to refer to girls or young woman, in much the same way one once referred to young men or boys as “Master” so-and-so. It’s an honourific, sure, but a diminuative one and one that would generally be inapropiate (if not rude) to use when addressing a more senior member of the business community (much less when asking a favour). Would you ever address a letter to “Master” so-and-so asking for a job? Plus Miss has connotations about a woman’s marital status (Miss Smidlap being unmarried vs. the married Missus Smidlap) that aren’t neccesarily appreciated. The convention (and the convention for most of my life) is that unless you know that a woman prefers to be referred to as Miss or Missus, you use Ms., being the equivalent of the male Mr.

Third, and finally, but this is brutal, if you’re going to refer to Sam Smidlap as “Miss”, you’d better be damned sure that She isn’t a He. Sure, the world is filled with women named Samantha who go by “Sam”, but odds are, if you’re emailing a Sam, he’s a guy. In any event, it’s the 21st century, if you don’t know if Sam Smidlap is a man or a woman, google him, check Linked-in, hell, call their office at 2 in the morning and listen to their voicemail message (also a good tip for figuring out how to pronounce their name), but get it right.

Why am I writing this? I recently read the email described above, starting with “Hi Miss Smidlap” (that wasn’t the actual name – I don’t want to embarass anyone here). With those three simple words, the writer conveyed that he was ill-bred, socially awkward, sloppy and couldn’t be fucked to learn anything about Sam Smidlap (like the fact that he’s a guy) before asking for a favour. I’m not saying that the writer is ill-bred or socially awkward. I don’t know. But that’s the impression his letter conveys. And keep in mind, this was a writer with at least a couple of universiy degrees. How does an otherwise smart person make it to adulthood without picking up these basic etiquette and writing skills? That’s actually a damning criticism of our education system.

Oh sure, maybe I’m being to hard. Maybe I should overlook these sorts of “nits” and focus on the substance of the letter. That’s certainly be the educational philosophy in many Canadian school boards for the last few decades. The problem is, the nits matter. Ok, they certainly matter in the legal profession, where precision and attention to detail is paramount – which is why job applicants with cover letter that start like this one find themselves in the “No” pile. But they matter elsewhere too. Imagine the writer of this email was writing you a reference letter for a job or an recommendation for an award and started with “Hi Miss Smidlap”. Think Sam would give much weight to that reference? What if the writer was writing to Sam Smidlap, his city councellor, urging him to adopt a particular policy? Think Sam would give much weight to a concerned citizen who didn’t know enough about city politics to know that his counsellor was a guy. Again, the point of this sort of letter is to pursuade people to so something (“Do me a favour”, “Give me a job”, “Put in a speedbump”), why make it harder for yourself by starting on the wrong note.

The point of this is that writing matters and that the “little things”, the “nits”, that didn’t matter to your teachers or professors will matter to would-be employers.   So, for the love of god, think before you write. You’ll get a lot further in life.

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