Business English Module: EFFECTIVE EMAILS (B2)

3. Formality and Friendliness

a. Let’s look in more detail at these two aspects of tone. We could think of them as two axes on a graph:

So, the top left quadrant of the graph represents situations in which we should make sure our tone is friendly AND formal. Can you think of such a situation?

b. What kind of tone might you need in these situations?

  • (i) You’re emailing your boss a presentation that s/he knows you’ve been working on.
  • (ii) You’re contacting a senior academic in your industry to ask if you can speak with them about a specialist topic which you need to study for your career. You spoke with this person once at a conference, but they might not remember you.
  • (iii) You had a really enjoyable job interview last week with the HR manager and a vice-president of a company you’d like to work for, and they’ve emailed you asking when you’re available next week for a final interview with the president. Their emails to you are quite friendly.
  • (iv) A former colleague emails you at your work address “just to ask how things are going”. You’re not sure what they really want from you. It could be that they’re trying to find out inside information about your workplace, or it could be that they will invite you to a networking event or meetup. You decide to reply.

c. How does language relate to tone?

Here’s an example: how can you thank someone for sending a pdf document in a tone that is…

  • formal and distant?
  • informal and friendly?
  • informal and distant?
  • formal and friendly?
  • neutral (in the middle of the graph)?

d. Read and analyse the four example email texts from worksheet 3d.

  • What are they about?
  • How friendly and how formal is each one?

(Your teacher can send these texts to you as a pdf worksheet)

Additional Tasks

e. With a partner, pick one of the example emails and brainstorm how its tone could be changed.

  • If it’s formal, how could it be rewritten in an informal way?
  • If it’s informal, how could it be made more formal?
  • If it’s friendly, how could the writer change it to make it more distant?
  • If it’s distant, what words and phrases could you change to make it sound more friendly?

f. Pick a different example email and type a reply to it.

  • Make sure that the level of formality and friendliness is appropriate to the context.

g. Discuss the questions.

  • (i) When English-speakers are asking for a big favour, even from someone they know well, they often use some formal phrases (e.g. “I was wondering if it would be possible for you to proof-read the book I’ve been writing”). Why?
  • (ii) What other formal phrases can we use to make a request?
  • (iii) Brainstorm and try to agree on 3 other situations where people might feel they need to use formal language to email someone they know well.

The photo above is by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

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