Dear Mrs Hughes,

I appreciate and applaud your concerns about the decline of professional communication and the rudeness of e-mails without any salutation at all. However, I must admit that the informal “Hi Emma” culture has always ranked very highly among the things I like best about living in the UK – although calling my tutors by their first names, rather than “Prof. Dr.”, did take some getting used to when I first came here as a student.

In Germany, nobody would dream of addressing you with “Hi Emma” in a business e-mail. Instead it would be “Sehr geehrte Frau Hughes” – quite a mouthful, isn’t it? In the time it took me to type that, I could have written an entire e-mail … well, not quite, but you get my drift. Especially in a rapid exchange of e-mails back and forth, this soon becomes tiresome and farcical, with the mutual salutations at the beginning and end of each e-mail taking up more space than the actual messages.

Germans then tend to resort to “Hallo Frau Hughes”, and that has always sounded really rude to me, far ruder than “Hi Emma”. It feels almost like shouting at each other across a crowded room. “Liebe Frau Hughes” (the equivalent of your preferred form of address, “Dear Mrs Hughes”) is reserved for people you actually know and like, and as for using first names, let alone “du” … usually you have to knock back a lot of schnapps together before you ever get that far. Germans will take business associates to the sauna and to the cabaret and still address them with the formal “Sie”.

Of course, these cultural differences pose various challenges for anybody doing business with people in other countries, and for translation companies in particular – in our dealings with clients and freelancers all over the world as well as when processing requests from other companies to translate any form of business correspondence or communication. Addressing customers, sub-contractors, suppliers or service providers in the German-speaking world with “Hi Günther” is simply considered inappropriate, and as a translator, it is my responsibility to advise clients accordingly and change the translation if required. (When in doubt, I find it’s best to err on the side of formality.)

Even among the UK’s closest European neighbours and trading partners, German is far from the only language to distinguish between the formal and the informal “you” – without even mentioning the offense you can cause in some Asian and Arabic countries by unwittingly addressing somebody in the wrong register. Translators also act as cultural ambassadors, which means that our own e-mail etiquette needs to be impeccable in all respects.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments (but make sure to do so in an appropriate manner).

Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Kind regards,
Silke Lührmann

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  • Hi Silke

    Agree entirely, a good translator is a cultural ambassador and I’ve found that for many clients the nuanced non-obligatory changes in the structure of a translated language due to culture and style carry at least as much importance as obligatory grammatical changes. If they believe such nuances are what make their language and their national character what it is, then naturally they will react badly to its mishandling. I once had a Japanese client who warned me that his boss, the CEO of a bank, considered informality in business conversation to be as insulting as someone ripping up his national flag. When I subsequently met this man he was thoroughly pleasant and an excellent host, but the wrong form of address would doubtless have triggered a very different response.

    As with all localisation issues, when in Rome…