Archive for March, 2009

Letters of the Law

A question I often get asked is whether a thank you letter is stuffy and unnecessary in our new, liberal modern age. My answer is always, most definitely, no. There will never be a time when a thank you letter of any sort is no longer needed…at least, I certainly hope not.

writing-fountain-pen-400As a child, my parents would tell me that if I didn’t send thank you letters then people would not want to give me a present next time. Whilst this parental hyperbole is not strictly true, they do perhaps have a point. A thank you letter is a gesture that you are actually grateful with the present you have just received. Simply saying thanks on the day is just not enough. They have gone out of their way to buy you a present, so a quick (doesn’t have to be lengthy) note to say thank you is hardly laborious. I do know someone who does her thank you letters by telephone. If you do choose to do it this way (which is better than nothing) make it a decent length call: first to say thank you but then ask about their family/life etc.

Thank you letters should also be sent after you have received any form of hospitality, and preferably the very next day.  Emails are acceptable if you really cannot bear to write, but be clear that text messages are no way to communicate your thanks.

The same basic principle applies in the heady world of business. The rule used to be that if you received a letter today, a reply would be sent tomorrow or at least the day after that.  Even in these times of budgetary and manpower constraints, some form of acknowledgement should be given. It tells the sender that you have successfully received their correspondence and you are dealing with it. Even the new-age email has the function for a ‘read receipt’ to be sent back to the sender.

Not many people bother to respond to business letters (or emails) anymore, which is quite frankly wrong. One of the golden rules of manners is to make people feel valued and appreciated. A letter saying ‘thank you for your letter dated X, which we received today/yesterday…. we will get back to you shortly’ will do. “But that costs money!” I hear you cry. If the sender has included their email address on their letter, then a similar electronic letter can be sent.

Whilst we’re on the subject of business correspondence, we should remind ourselves how to open and close a formal letter. If I were writing to someone I did not know (and by that I mean them as a person, as well as their name) then I would open my letter with ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’ (or even both – ‘Dear Sir or Madam’). I would then close it with ‘Yours faithfully’. On the other hand, if I were writing to someone to whom I knew their name, then I would start it with, ‘Dear Mr. Smith’ and close it ‘Yours sincerely’. These are simple rules that once learned should never be forgotten.

It is never acceptable to start a letter to a client with “Hi William”, as my bank once did. They won’t be doing that again.  Nor do I favour “Dear William Hanson” which appears more and more frequently and suggests mailmerge has been used.

In any event, remember that if someone has made an effort to write or email you, it takes very little time, money or energy to respond and you never know what dividends it will pay later.

William Hanson
Tutor, The English Manner

Steppin’ Out With My Baby

bearI’m a realist and enthusiastic proponent of adapting traditional rules of etiquette to the way we live today but there are some traditions I am loathe to give up.  While I send and receive well over 100 emails a week, I still turn to my copper-engraved writing paper and fountain pen for those occasions when an email just won’t do: thank you letters, mostly, letters of condolence or congratulations, that sort of thing. So it was with mixed emotions that I received an email announcing the birth of my nephew and wife’s new child along with a beautiful photo of the happy family embedded within the message. They live thousands of miles away and I didn’t even know they were expecting.  It took me aback. Was this email, already getting pushed farther and farther down in my inbox, supposed to trigger an engraved sterling baby gift? Was I expected to pen a note offering congratulations? Would a proper letter in response to their email possibly embarrass them? Should I simply send an email? Would there be an “official” announcement in due course, a beautifully engraved card with a small ribbon (from Dempsey and Carrol, America’s finest printers), a keepsake for all time. (I hope there won’t be one of those rather boring little cards listing the baby’s weight and length and including a hospital picture of a scrunched up crying baby.)  A long-deceased great-aunt’s voice echoed in my head: “Is this the way things are done nowadays?”

My conversion took about five minutes. My worries about the medium were soon over-whelmed by the message, the touching photograph (all personal prejudices aside, it was stunning), the fact that they included me in the distribution, included me in their life, in their own way. I will send my heartfelt congratulations and best wishes (written with my fountain pen on my personal stationery) and I will send an engraved sterling baby gift, too. Perhaps they will think me old-fashioned.  Maybe I’ll send an email, also.

John Robertson
Tutor, The English Manner

Flying Into the Facebook of Danger

This is not the first time this has happened; neither will it be the last, but according to media reports, a few weeks ago a worker was sacked for writing on her Facebook profile that her job with a marketing firm was “boring”. Kimberly Swann, 16, Essex, was asked to leave after her manager saw the comment.

William Hanson on BBC1's The Big Questions

William Hanson on BBC1's The Big Questions

The current ‘king’ of social networking, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. The media covered this event thoroughly; I have spoken about the issue on various radio stations and last week on BBC1’s Sunday morning live debate programme, The Big Questions, hosted by Nicky Campbell.

Facebook is a wonderful tool, yet it can also pose great danger and caution is needed. It is important to remember that you are making information about yourself semi-public, and all-and-sundry can log-on, register and look at your profile.

I do not for one moment suggest that Facebook and the like are scrapped. Some of my friends are hopeless when it comes to email and the only way to get their attention is to send them a Facebook message (which can be both public and private). The important thing to remember is that social networking sites should be there to complement our social lives, and not to replace them. There is no substitute for face-to-face conversation. The danger with such sites is that younger generations will become unable to hold a proper conversation, or to write legibly. (My own handwriting is far from perfect! Although that is more to do with the rise of the computer in general, rather than Facebook or MySpace.)

These sites are no place for anyone who wants to remain anonymous or enigmatic; some people even choose not to reveal their real names.

As this unfortunate girl found out, some employers (rightly or wrongly) do now check their employees’ profiles – either before they hire or after. It is important that we don’t use our Facebook pages to create a different, more glamorous version of ourselves – masking the real person. If you are true and consistent to yourself, then you probably won’t fall into any traps. facebook-logo

If you upload photographs of an event, do remember your friends’ egos. Decide (or ask) people what images they want online, especially if they are embarrassing. Don’t splurge out details of a private conversation you may have had in the public zones on the social networking sites. Avoid applications such as ‘Top Friends’, where you rate your friends and put them in order: you may as well line up your friends in real life and give them differing rosettes.

There is a school of thought that the more friends you have the more kudos you will gain amongst other friends: poppycock.

One positive of Facebook is that it tells you a few days before whose birthday is coming up, thus enabling you to (if they are a real friend) go and buy a present and/or card. This does not mean that for ‘real’ friends you can then write on their ‘Wall’ wishing them happy birthday. How impersonal!

Social networking sites can be a help; they can also be a hindrance. Common sense will help you steer clear of any mishaps that one day could cost you your job.

William Hanson
Tutor, The English Manner

Black Tie: A Coat of Many Colours?

Last week, we discussed some of the conventions associated with wearing Black Tie, following the start of the awards season. There is so much to say about this dress code that we thought we should pursue it further. This week, how to introduce colour successfully into what some perceive as a boring colour system, and how to tie a proper bow tie.

The white dress shirt should preferably have a turndown collar (as opposed to winged). Wing collars are the preserve of White Tie, which is the highest form of formal dress. Although, it is usual to find gentlemen in Black Tie sporting wing collars. Interestingly, John Robertson, fellow tutor at The English Manner, notes that:

bowtie“[He has] seen the black dinner suit with the wing collar and the black tie worn SO successfully that [he] would be the last person in the world to say it is incorrect. It comes down to confidence and flair. Especially amongst the younger set, I say go for it, just so long as you do it with style. As long as you are breaking the rules anyway, best to go all the way. Not only does this look require that you tie your own tie, to avoid any display of adjusting hardware as well, wear a single ended bow tie (the favourite of The Prince of Wales) or a properly sized butterfly (that matches your collar size).”

Introducing colour into the black and white colour scheme of the garments can be dangerous. Yet, like with the wing collars, if you know the rules you can break then with panache and élan. There was once an occasion where a gentleman attended a Black Tie dinner wearing:  a white business shirt, blue blazer, dark bottle green trousers and a bow tie. No one noticed that he wasn’t wearing a ‘proper’ dinner jacket, as the bow tie gave the over-riding impression.

It is probably fair to say that most of the male population would opt for a ready-tied bow tie over a DIY one. Whilst there are benefits with the former, nothing can look better than a ‘proper’ one, as the ready-tied variety do not look nearly as good and can be very obvious to the trained eye.

You can find instructions on how to correctly tie here:

http://www.societies.cam.ac.uk/cuhags/whitetie/howtotie.htm

However we would advise a trip to a gentlemen’s’ outfitters to learn how to tie a bow tie, rather than just relying on the web. Shops such as Gieves & Hawkes, T. M. Lewin, or Thomas Pink – all of which are accessible outside of London.

It is never good manners to question the authenticity of someone’s bow tie: especially by pulling it to see if it comes apart! It may be a good idea to carry in your pocket a ready-tied tie, in case your attempt at having a go yourself fails.

Cummerbunds are worn with pleats pointing upwards and are worn in the spot around the waist where a conventional belt would be worn. Belts themselves are not normally worn with Black Tie: opt for braces if you feel a cummerbund is not for you.  A cummerbund bridges the gap between the waist edge of the trousers and the beginning of the pleated or pique fronted shirt.

Other accessories you can add include evening studs: a lot of proper dress shirts do not have the front four buttons, but have holes for formal dress studs. Studs are often given as 18th or 21st birthday presents and can last a lifetime. For dress shirts with double cuffs, cufflinks are required. Please note that all ‘jewellery’ (or accessories) should compliment what you are wearing and each other. For example, if your studs are black with silver edging, your cufflinks should ideally be silver, too.

Another point to note is that in America, it is referred to as ‘Tuxedo’ (see last week’s post as to why), whereas Brits will call it ‘Black Tie’ or ‘Dinner Jacket’: the latter is never written on invitations, only the former. In France, the notation “Jacquet” on an invitation denotes Black Tie.

What do you think? Do you dare break the colour rules? Have you found any better instructions on how to tie your bow tie? Let us know by commenting on this post.

William Hanson
Tutor, The English Manner


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