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I wrote an email recently to the author of a book. I'm working on the master's degree in Hungary, the author is a professor in Canada. I'm not a native English speaker. My letter looked like the following:

Dear Dr. [professor's full name],

[body of the email including an introduction with my full name]

With best regards:
[my first name]

When I write to someone for the first time, I make the salutation and the self-introduction formal. But I tend to write my first name as the signature because I feel this shows that I don't insist on keeping the high level of formality I started the email with. In subsequent emails I choose the level of formality to be the same as it happens to be in the reply to my first email.
However, the reply to my quoted email seems to me to be so informal that I don't dare to imitate its level of formality without asking for the international academic community's, i.e. your suggestions. Their letter looked like the following:

Hi [my first name],

[body of the email]

Best, [professor's first name in diminutive (!) form]

So is a signature usually indicative of the intended level of formality? Would it be appropriate to start my reply like this: "Dear [professor's first name]," or "Dear [professor's first name in diminutive form],"? Or can my habit of "imitation" backfire often and make me seem insulting?

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    Reflecting back their level of formality is exactly what you would do in person. Generally, if they used a form of their name in their email they are asking for it to be used going forward.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 15, 2020 at 23:15
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    I would err on being just a tad more formal, but, as others have said, by and large reflect what you see. If Hungary‘s level of formality is anything like the German language one, you might be surprised how informal academia is in the English speaking world. In the case at hand, in a first reply I’d probably go with something like “Dear (first name)” and “Best regards (your first name).” Oct 16, 2020 at 1:29
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    (Dear Dr. [professor's full name] should surely be Dear Professor [professor's full name].)
    – user2768
    Oct 16, 2020 at 10:17
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    @benjaminaaron_m The title "Dr" is awarded on completion of a PhD, whereas "Professor" is a high-ranking, academic job title. A professor typically has a PhD, but not everyone with a PhD is a professor. (Usage may vary between countries.)
    – user2768
    Oct 17, 2020 at 11:38
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    @user2768 I don't have a full understanding of the Canadian system, but definitely in the UK system, and I think in the US system, only Full Professors have the right to use the Prof. title. Oct 17, 2020 at 14:17

2 Answers 2

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In my experience, the salutation often indicates something about the level of formality, while the signature typically conveys much less.

The signature is effectively meaningless because many people automate the signature on their emails, so it is literally not something that they are thinking about. Sometimes it will indeed convey a person's preferred level of formality, but since it's so often automated, that's not a safe assumption to make.

The salutation, on the other hand, is something that people definitely use to indicate their assumptions about the nature of a relationship. You don't really have a choice here, because pretty much every culture uses choice of salutation to indicate assumptions about level of formality, and even omitting the salutation has a meaning. Most readers will at least notice level of formality, even if the more cosmopolitan are unlikely to take offense. Similar things apply in other choices as well for languages where relationship is strongly reflected in pronouns (e.g., usted vs. tu in Spanish) or other linguistic options.

If you are in doubt, it's usually better to assume a higher level of formality. People are generally appreciative of attempts to be polite, whether or not they are needed.

Thus, for example, in the particular case that you cite, Canada is a fairly informal culture, and the professor has almost certainly indicated that they are comfortable with you using more informal language. If you are not comfortable with that and continue to say "Dr.", however, they will likely just take it to mean that you are from a more formal culture and trying to be polite.

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Most professors do not put much thought into their salutations and signatures. They just use the same thing, or nothing, in every situation.

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    But I feel I should put some thought into them if I don't want to seem rude and potentially burn bridges. How should I continue the conversation in the quoted case if it's mistaken to infer intention from the professor's word choice?
    – rokamama
    Oct 16, 2020 at 1:23
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