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This is one bit of academic etiquette I'm not sure about. When I write to another researcher, a peer (we're both professors). I've never exchanged with before and never met him but I know of him (and he probably knows of me).

Erring on the side of formality, I write to him “Dear professor Mortimer”. I sign with my first name, because that's how I've always signed my emails (there's a formal signature block below, with full name and contact details) and I think it indicates a willingness to be called by my first name (which I prefer, but I don't want to force people one way or the other).

Is that going to be well received? Will people take the hint? Or should I just start using first names from the start? (it does sound weird to write “dear Philipp” to someone you don't know)

  • I tend to check on their webpage to see if they use any title in their contact info, otherwise I use Dear Firstname Lastname, and, as you do, sign with my first name only. – user102 Oct 17 '13 at 14:08
  • You might refer to my answer to a similar question. – earthling Oct 17 '13 at 14:17
  • 1
    @earthling indeed, we follow the same convention… but does it work? do people usually take your hint? – F'x Oct 17 '13 at 14:23
  • @F'x I find it depends on the culture but for the most part, yes, people do take the hint. – earthling Oct 18 '13 at 5:53
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It is of course never wrong to use the title of the person to whom you write. In general I think it is fine to use Dr. since that is the degree most have. This may not work so well in cultures where titles are more of an obsession or where hierarchy is still well established. If the person writing is a professor, then you are of course writing from the top position and so you will either direct letters to someone at the same level or lower. This simplifies things compared to if you, yourself were not at the professor level.

As an editor of a journal I often use the term Colleague instead of Dr. this or Professor that. This is because the tile may not be completely obvious from the manuscript and I do not permit myself time to Google every author to find out. Since I am also a professor, it feels relatively safe to call everyone a colleague.

To sign off I often use my first name except if the mail has some formal aspect where, if it was a letter, I would have used my full name. In all my e-mail correspondence, I have found almost without exception, that once I sign with my first name, the mail reply will inevitably greet me by first name and be signed by a first name. I try to be a little sensitive about it but not overly so; I have "my" culture, the person I correspond with his or hers and none is above the other in my view. So In any correspondence I will open the first mail with Dear Colleague or Dear Dr. So-and-so. If the response is signed by first name then: titles away. Otherwise I will countersign correspondence with first name to break the ice.

It seems e-mail is often more forgiving than regular letters or traditional contacts. I think internet has an informal context which implicitly signals to everyone that it is less formal. I have not seen research on this but I can see, for example how students can ask quite blunt questions over e-mail while almost trembling and excusing themselves when standing at my office door (not that I am in any way trying to be intimidating).

3

Using titles may sometimes be not that easy. E.g. in Germany you would write "Sehr geehrter Herr Prof. Dr. Smith" while in other countries one never uses the "Dr." if a "Prof." is present. Moreover, I've heard that some people would even prefer to see their kind of Dr. (e.g. Dr.Ing.).

In cases I am not sure about the title I usually go for the full name, i.e. start with "Dear James Smith,". If you know the full name this is not wrong and I think only very few people will mind if no titles are given.

  • There are people who would mind you using Dr. instead of Dr.Ing., but who would not mind you not using titles at all? The mind boggles… – F'x Oct 17 '13 at 14:11
  • Actually, in Germany, both "Frau Professor Smith" and "Frau Prof. Dr. Smith" could equally be used without problem. – aeismail Oct 17 '13 at 16:00
  • @aeismail That's true, indeed. – Dirk Oct 17 '13 at 20:23
  • @F'x Indeed confusing. However, omission of some postfix of a title may get percieved as "he thinks I am a ordinary Dr. but I am a Dr.Whatever.!" – Dirk Oct 17 '13 at 20:27

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