In case of the unknown, trust formality

We have become an informal culture. CEOs wear hoodies to work. We text, chat, facebook, and use all sorts of other intimate communications with strangers. The constraints and conventions of society have changed.

For most of us.

I am quite sure there are still some people in powerful positions who would never considered removing their tie from their daily dress code. Of course, they probably gave up the mandatory hat sometime in the late 70s. And we still expect some people to dress formally, speak formally, and generally behave better than the rest of us. Basically, the president and people of the governing bodies (maybe that's why we're so disturbed when they fail; they are the last bastions of the bygone formal age).

So, I've been trying to convince my students that when writing to people they don't know, who may have some power over them--whether they are a direct superior, a person in an authority position, or just someone they want/need something from--it's best to start formal and then adjust down as they learn more about the person and determine what level of formality the other person is comfortable with. I suggest to my students that formal people will be offended and put off by informality much more than informal people will be offended or put off by formality, so it is best to err on the formal side.

It's much harder to come back from having disrespected someone than it is to survive over-respecting someone. Most people are quite pleased to be over-respected.

So, I recommend using a formal greeting, addressing a person by title and last name (make sure to verify what that title is; people really like their titles--or maybe that's just me), when making a request frame it as an option rather than a demand (offering people a choice, even if you expect them to say "yes", is a key element of respect), and consider what will save that person time in understanding and responding to your message. Imagine treating everyone like your grandparents, with an elevated formality indicative of a time in which constraints and conventions were considered the ultimate etiquette because we don't know the people on the other end--they may be of our grandparent's--great-grandparents?...great-great-grandparents??-- generation. Regardless of who they are, these unknown readers will most likely be flattered by our attempts at formality and gently lead us to a more direct and less formal middle ground.