Monday, August 30, 2010

Salutations and Compliments

Eventually, when proofreading a friend’s cover letter for a job application, there will be a clash of ideas about what’s “proper.” I believe it was back in the third grade* when I learned how to write a “proper” business letter. Sign with “Yours truly” or “Very truly yours,” a very simple rule, later corroborated by Emily Post. I’ve followed it faithfully in letters, and even some formal emails, for well-over two decades.

So when my friend used “Best,” I was puzzled. And when he protested against “Yours truly,” I was annoyed. What other way is there than the “proper” way? So I Googled* business letter format, and discovered self-appointed letter-writing gurus advocating “Best” and even the dreaded “Cordially yours” as the most proper ways to close formal letters. What an outrage!

I calmed down enough to ponder the situation. Propriety is certainly a fluid concept. In Jane Austin’s time, it was apparently perfectly respectable to send one invitation to an entire household, including houseguests, but that had become vulgar by the time round two of the cult of domesticity came around. Perhaps the post-Baby Boom world didn’t know what to make of “Yours truly,” mistaking it as a term of endearment. I dare say the new recommendations are no improvement.

What does “Best” mean? “Best wishes”? But why send your best wishes to a potential employer or other business associate? That’s rather impertinent, don’t you think? “Cordially yours”? If it hasn’t retained the condescension Emily Post complained about, then how is it any different from “Warmly” or “Affectionately,” which have been disregarded as too intimate? If these were intended to avoid a misunderstanding brewing over being “Yours truly,” it appears that business letter writers have actually gravitated towards becoming increasingly informal. But what else is to be expected from people on a first name basis?

*The image in my mind is the yellow Calvert textbook that taught cursive, although I might have learned “proper” letter format from a different book around the same time.
**I used Google, but I was just wondering: Is it still “Googling” if another search engine is used?