Salutations. Bad manners, bad language and bad business

It’s literally the first thing you read in a letter, and it sure sets the tone. “Dear Sirs”. This is a dead give-away. If you are a woman, the writer (and company in question) trying to get your attention has just clearly announced that obviously you are not the intended audience, as they can’t even be bothered addressing you. If you’re a man, you’ve just been told that your female colleagues and female supervisors are of little importance — perhaps they are too busy getting the coffee and taking notes to have a seat at the table? Is that really the signal that anyone wants their company to send to the wider world, in this day and age?

We know that gender-equality is good for business. And that goes for gender-neutral language too: Among other things, it’ll attract 43% more applicants to your job advertisements

And yet, so many are still stuck in the 1950s. According to a review by a London associate of Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer of the last 10 public offerings of private company shares, 81 law firms and banks in London still only use “Dear Sirs”, reflecting the industry standard. Why? It boggles the mind! If your firm were to address the highest political leader in the land today, “Dear Sir” would be plainly wrong. That would also have been the case for most of the 80s, and soon it might be the reality in the US as well. So why are so many companies so stubbornly slow to change?

As a routine greeting, salutations are often automatic, reassuringly old-fashioned, or something we just want to get over with, preferably without thinking too much about them, as we quickly rush to the actual content. If we do give them a passing thought, we might decide that it’s a bit awkward, a bit embarrassing even, to make a fuss about it. Why stray from the tried and tested formulas, if you’re not absolutely sure there is a woman among your intended readers? Or, perhaps we fear being “one those irritating women”, making a big deal about formalities, words, humourlessly imposing political correctness on every single aspect of life.

But words matter, and the way we change the words that matter might matter even more. We have to do so with courage and conviction, and not a shred of apology.

In my practice, McAllister Olivarius, we have never considered doing anything but addressing both men and women, as clients, colleagues and peers. I cannot remember a single time that this has cost us, but I am convinced that every woman who’s read our correspondence and seen herself included has felt better about working with us.

It’s part and parcel of who we are as a firm, of the values we fight to uphold and the battles we wage in the courtroom. Right from the beginning we have addressed all our clients as “Dear Sirs and Madams”. Sometimes, with particularly stuffy law firms, we just write “Dear Madams,” but they probably don’t get the tweak. This week, Freshfields, Bruckhaus Deringer decided to change its standard greeting to gender-neutral language. I’m glad to see my legal colleagues catching up with us and joining us in not alienating or ignoring half of their potential clients, colleagues and peers. We have a ways to go, considering that Parliament still uses only “he” when writing legislation, but until that rusty old oil-tanker is turned around, in our company correspondence, let’s make sure our language has caught up to reality. Women are colleagues, women are clients, and only a fool would continue to ignore them.

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