Getting Personal or Staying Formal

Woman talking with man using tablet device video chat

You're writing to a top manager or company owner about how to solve a problem they have and which you or your company know you has a new, effective and lower cost solution than what is currently in use by your client. The person you're addressing is female and you want to make sure you use a type of address that is businesslike, respectful, appropriate.

Why should you bother? Until you know your client and she trusts what you're saying, you're effectively on trial anyway. Yet, that's the key point: at this stage, until your potential client knows you better, trust has yet to be earned, so any mistake is magnified. Therefore, this reality alone is sufficient reason to pay attention to the details and learn all you can to help make the best presentation.

You resolve that you don't want to hamper your efforts before you've even had a chance to present your proposal, so you're happy to put in the extra effort and consideration. Excellent! Surely a good attitude to adopt.

Key tip: first contact between strangers can be fragile at the best of times. One or both parties may be suspicious of the other. Your job as key communicator is to break down this barrier first. It's nice to be nice for no other reason. You need to demonstrate that you have applied consideration and forethought.

Consider the following points:

  • Given enough time, your first instinct is to try to find out more about this person, directly from sources within the organisation. However, how would that look? You can't risk any possible misunderstanding getting back to the client, however innocently intended. Therefore, for now, let's imagine you don't have the luxury of sufficient spare time to carry out such an investigation. You must make a move and take action soon. You decide that you'll simply evaluate what you know and get the job done. Fair enough.
  • People naturally like to be addressed in the way they prefer, so when writing or speaking to a specific person. Yet you're interacting with grown-ups, with probably quite a few "thick skins", so no need to overthink your cautions.
  • A little basic fact-checking goes a long way. Whenever possible, makes sense to do whatever background research you can to make sure you at least know the basics of who you'll bee meeting, yes?
  • An example: we may use "Miss" to address an unmarried woman; "Mrs." to refer to a married woman, and perhaps"Ms." when communicating to a woman if you prefer to take no account of her marital status, treating her as an individual.
  • Forget the games. Other than simple politeness and a little respect, few may care either way today. 
  • A little effort helps too. Most women probably appreciate some kind of effort to even bother thinking about such things. Later, if you become friends or work colleagues, you can look back and laugh at your clumsy attempts to impress.
  • The awkward "Ms." Perhaps many women may prefer to be addressed using the neutral label "Ms.", the answer is not clear cut. Some women may consider "Ms." as slightly offensive, too formal, standoffish, and prefer "Miss" or "Mrs." instead.
  • For the purposes of this article, your job is to simply to get to know the right form of address for the person you're meeting, then move on to what is more important. If you already know which preference your female addressee prefers, you have your answer which to use. However, if you don't already know, or you are addressing a wider general audience, I suggest using the person's full name, normal email address, or "Ms." until or unless you're corrected.
  • Many women simply won't mind so long as you're not outright offensive, thoughtless, negligent, or rude.

Key tip: when you know what form of address is correct, make sure you update your customer record database to ensure future communications can be maintained without any such little annoyances entering the negotiation space.

So you can avoid the possible problem altogether and use a first- and last-name combination such as:

  • "Dear Jane Smith..." once on your first salutation line.
  • Then use the personal identifiers "you" and "your", etc., throughout the body of your message.

Key point: don't look for a problem if there isn't one showing up. Instead, simply give the matter some proper thought to start off a mutually beneficial business relationship.

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