Please take the time to get names right in correspondence

At least once a week, I get a piece of email addressed to Sara(h). Or Sean. Samantha. Sam. Some variant of a name starting with an S. These emails bug me on multiple levels, one of the most important of which is the fact that the person sending them has not bothered to even try to get my name correctly. While I write under my initials and prefer to be addressed that way in professional correspondence, it’s not like I hide my first name and I certainly use it with close friends and colleagues.

Here’s the thing: Please try to get people’s names right. As a general rule, follow the conventions they use with their names. If you’re emailing them, there’s a high probability that you know what they’re called — and if you don’t, you need to seriously question your life choices (and perhaps address your email ‘to whom it may concern’ or ‘to the staff at $publication’). It’s typically not hard to find examples of people’s names spelled correctly and also styled correctly, particularly in media they control themselves — in my case, for example, the fact that my name is s.e. smith is pretty readily available, not least because it, along with my email, is in the footer on almost every single page on this site.

Public individuals usually don’t go to any great lengths to conceal our names. Name recognition is important — we want to be acknowledged for the work we do, we want our fans to be able to easily find our work, we want to build up a dreaded ‘brand’ around our work and a name is an assured way to do it. Whether it’s a birth name, a pseudonym, or another variant of a name, it’s usually stable across a given medium to make it easier for people to find and contact us.

We also don’t (or shouldn’t — much to my frustration some people can’t seem to get this) make it hard to contact us or our representatives. It’s fairly easy to find emails for most public figures, or, barring that, email for their agents, editors, and other contacts. That means that it’s quite easy to find someone, find out how that person’s name is spelled, and address a letter to that person.

It’s especially frustrating to see names misspelled in an email thread where the person’s name is spelled correctly right in the ‘from’ line. Someone who can’t be arsed to see that a letter is from ‘Tim Jones’ and not ‘Jim Jones’ is not exactly making a good professional impression. Moreover, it’s really frustrating and hurtful to see your name spelled or styled incorrectly, because it makes you feel like you’re not valued by the other person in a conversation. Particularly if you want something from someone, it is an excellent idea to spell that person’s name right to start off on the right foot, indicating that you have done your research and you are approaching that individual respectfully.

Yes, spelling names right includes accents. If accent shortcuts aren’t convenient, copy and paste from an example of a person’s name styled correctly. Don’t address a letter to ‘Dear Beyonce.’ Address it to ‘Dear Beyoncé.’ Make sure you know whether someone is Dr., Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, etc. If you don’t know, leave that salutation off or err on the side of caution — if you’re writing a medical doctor or someone with a PhD, use ‘Dr.,’ for example.

When I receive an email addressed to a name other than my own, I throw it away. I do not respond, it goes directly to trash and I move on to things addressed correctly and other important matters in my life. I can’t speak for everyone here, but I’m sure there are others who do the same. If someone repeatedly contacts me using the wrong name, I usually have a terse reply along the names of ‘My name is not Sam.’ People are usually too embarrassed to pursue whatever it is they wanted.

There’s something else important here that’s worth noting: Don’t take uninvited familiarities. I don’t like being addressed without a salutation unless I have a very close relationship with someone (and in that case usually email exchanges open without any salutation at all). Depending on the nature of the correspondence, I might send an email to a friend with an opener like ‘Heya Marianne’ or ‘Heyo.’ Do not use these casual openers with people you are trying to contact professionally.

Do not use first names with no openers if you have not been explicitly invited to do so, and the same goes with last names. (I also throw out things addressed to ‘Dear Smith.’) I’m fine with ‘Dear s.e.’ or ‘Dear s.e. smith,’ but the sight of my name without an opening salutation makes my blood boil; and, truth be taken, I don’t like it when anyone, even close friends or colleagues, doesn’t use an opening salutation. It makes me feel like I’m being called, like a dog. That implies a level of familiarity that we don’t have. When I contact people I don’t know or with whom I have a cordial but not personal relationship, I open with a polite salutation.

This should be correspondence 101, yet I encounter this kind of stuff All. The. Time., including from ‘professionals’ who should know better. This applies to anyone reaching out for professional reasons (to ask for reprint rights, to request a speaking appearance, to talk about a commission, &c) or from an interest in getting in touch with a writer (to express in a particular piece, &c), or for entirely different reasons. If you do not know someone, err on the side of formality. I’m much more inclined to be friendly to someone who writes an overly formal letter than the other way round.

So let’s review:

  • If you don’t know someone, always open with a cordial and professional salutation (Dear, Hello)
  • If you don’t know someone, include a title when known, or leave it off (Dear Dr. Jones, Dear Kaitlin)
  • If you don’t know someone (or even if you do), make sure that name is spelled and styled correctly (emily m. danforth, Quvenzhané Wallis)

Image: Pencil Eraser + Paper Pad, Kristo de Klerk, Flickr