Why ‘Hey’ Trumps ‘Dear’ in the Internet Age

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"Dear," along with letter-writing in general, is aging with an older population.

Andrew Errington/GETTY IMAGES

When was the last time you began a message with “Dear”? Probably in a cover letter to a potential employer you’d never met before, or perhaps even to your great-grandma thanking her for that fruitcake decaying in the re-gift pile.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal Thursday, there’s no question that the use of “Dear” is dwindling and “Hey” is taking over.  As the formal letter dies out, so too has the use of “dear”.  With email, tweets, IMs and texts rapidly exchanged throughout our tech-savvy lives, it’s only natural that our language and way of communicating has become more relaxed and informal. We live in the age of brevity where 140 characters is just enough, so who’s got time for “Dear” or even any salutation at all?

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But it’s not only about the essence of time, it’s also semantics.  “Dear” comes across as too formal–or simply plain creepy and overly intimate.  And between men, the use of it can appear a bit too effeminate. If “hey” is a pat on the back, then “dear” is its feminine cousin with a kiss on the cheek.  “I feel dear is a little intimate for someone I don’t know,” says Mr. Caron, a 50-year-old former trucker and auto-repair-shop worker in an interview with the The Wall Street Journal. “Guys talking to guys–I’m sorry, that’s against the code.”  But isn’t “Hey” too informal?

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Most business etiquette experts overall say it’s alright to drop “Dear” in an email, but it should be used in a formal business email. Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, who runs the Syntax Training business writing school in Seattle, says she tells clients they can drop “dear” in email but must keep it in business letters. “We don’t use dear because someone is dear to us,” she says, “but because we understand the standards of business writing and recognize the standards of intelligent business people.” The Emily Post Institute says it’s OK in general to drop “dear” but advises using it in particularly formal email. “I don’t think it’s as important as it used to be,” says author and institute spokeswoman Anna Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette guru Emily Post. “You can still certainly use it. If you don’t know someone well, or for a new client, I would absolutely use dear.”

Chris Allison, a 36-year-old international-trade analyst, says he uses dear only when he doesn’t mean it: “I find that I am most likely to start a letter with ‘dear’ exactly when the recipient is least dear to me, probably because I have never met the person”. (Read Furious Love Letters: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton)

So, it’s “Hey” for friends and colleagues and “Dear” for distant relatives, divorce lawyers and banks? Got it!

Sincerely Yours, NewsFeed (Read Bards of the Internet)

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