How to Address People at Work in Britain
Posted on January 27, 2014
One thing that takes some getting used to is the level of formality in business English. Compared to a lot of other cultures, British language at work can be very relaxed. Of course, all companies have different cultures but these points are what I consider typical in British work culture.
Among colleagues we rarely use titles like “Mr” or “Ms”; I might use a title to approach someone I had never communicated with before, a client or to address a letter. Job application emails are also an appropriate time to address people with titles, if you know the person’s surname from the job advert.
When I worked abroad in Japan and France I was surprised that even after you have known a colleague a long time you do not really begin to speak to them casually. In the UK we might start an email to someone we don’t know using any of the following depending on how well we know the person, what our relationship is and what the email is regarding:
Dear Ms Smith,
If the person replies addressing us by “Hi” and our first name we might reply in kind. By the third email we may have even abandoned first names entirely and just started using “Hi”.
One of our students recently expressed surprise that her British female colleagues addressed her as “babe”! I can understand why this seems odd but for the most part we like to be casual with people we see regularly.
Adults almost always call their own teachers or instructors by their first names. Sometimes my adult students ask if they should be addressing me by my title as they would in their culture. I would say that this is only really appropriate for children addressing their teachers. It would sound natural to address your child’s teacher using their title because it fits with the culture of the school and the teacher would see you as setting a good example to your child.
Be careful also that you only use titles with surnames; “Miss Smith” sounds generally polite but “Miss Alice” sounds like a servant addressing a noble child of the house. I assume, readers, that you are not in this position!
Among British colleagues, most business-casual emails tend to start “Hi (first name)” and sign off with “Thanks”. This may look very informal but bear in mind that using this formula in most emails between friends would seem too formal. When I email friends I might start “Hi” or “Hey” with no use of the person’s name, and sign off using something like “See you soon” or “Talk to you soon”.
It may be the safe option to be more rather than less formal, but pay attention to what your colleagues do and think about trying to match it. Good luck!