Thursday, 31 March 2016

Kisses at work

A friend drew my attention to this story about a judge who ruled that an MP was representing a constituent as a friend, not an MP, based on 'familiarity of the wording' and a kiss at the end of an email.

MP Jess Phillips was acting on behalf of a woman described as 'frail' and who is having her PIP (disability benefit) stopped by this brutal government. Her appeal had gone to a tribunal and Jess wrote to the constituent to update her with what was going on, and this email was the one that the judge based the decision on.
Hi [name redacted]
Hope you are well and are keeping smiling. Below is the email trail with the DWP, I will let you know as soon as I hear anything.
The 'familiar wording' is presumably the use of Hi, the constituent's first name, the cheery greeting, and the sign-off with her own first name. More on the kiss later.

Emails are not formal letters, or at least not usually (they can be). They don't need to begin with Dear Madam, or even Dear anyone: Hi is perfectly acceptable. If I'm writing to someone I don't know, I'll always used Dear the first time, but I'll usually switch to Hi once we've established a connection, which is to say fairly quickly. I'll almost always use first names right from the off; only with very senior people would I use a title. But then that's academia, where things are pretty chilled. What about this, where the MP has a professional duty to the member of the public? I think that given they've probably met several times, and had many conversations about this matter, it would be strange to stick to the formality of a title and surname. Similarly with Jess's own first name: they're on first name terms. I generally prefer the use of my first name with anyone I'm interacting with regularly: when my bank person who sorted my mortgage kept calling me Dr Bailey, I had to make him stop because I was calling him Jamie and there was a weird sort of mismatched power thing.

A cheery greeting is nice: as Jess has said, she was acting in a compassionate way towards her constituent, and included a little message to show that she was thinking of her. The rest of the email is entirely formal language (there's a comma splice, but that's a punctuation error rather than an inappropriate register).

And then that kiss. Kiss etiquette is hard. Another friend of mine, from Germany, was talking about just this the other day. How many, and when to use them? I had a more or less accurate rule of none for work friends, lots for family, and other friends somewhere in between. Then it gets messy, though. I use them in text messages but not chat conversations, except for sometimes when I do. Male friends get them less often than female friends just in case it seems inappropriate, except that some male friends do because that's just what we do. Some female friends don't because we send short and frequent messages. Sometimes I include kisses for first and last messages but not for the bulk of the conversation. I think I tend to mirror what other people do, just as in real life (in real life, my preference would be for hugs for all greetings with friends, but in practice some people get hugs, some kisses and some nothing because I am bad at initiating hugs). Lynne Cahill from Sussex University is preparing an article on this very matter, which I'm looking forward to reading.

That's my complicated system, though. Jess might be someone who always puts kisses on her emails and texts. Many people do, especially if they're young, which she is - she's 34 and 34 is definitely still young (I am telling myself this). In addition, she is old enough to have gone through school before email was really a thing, and therefore, like everyone my age, not been taught how to write an email in an appropriate register. We learnt how to write a formal letter, but we hadn't yet realised we were going to need to do something different for emails. We've made it up as we go along, getting less formal along the way - even a few years ago I always included a salutation and sign-off in emails, but now I often don't, even at work. It's not necessary. It's like putting your name on a text message.

What I'm saying is, it's a minefield. The judge was mean.


  1. Hi- came across this article on twitter. I wondered if you'd ever heard of 'X' substituting a signature? I don't know why I think that might be the case- no particular reference to give you but I'm sure I've heard of it.... perhaps something in the history of signing off with an X the signature became a kiss?

    1. Hi! Thanks for reading. Yes, X was used for a signature (I believe for people who couldn't write their name, although that has the ring of a nice-but-untrue story to me). I don't know if that's what developed into the kiss, though. I somehow thought it represented pursed lips, but that's just my idle speculation. I've never looked into it - no doubt the answer is out there somewhere, but it's an interesting question!