Having emailed fellow researchers around the world, I noted some differences in ways of addressing people that for some might be offensive and for others very polite. I often struggle when trying to decide how to address someone and over the time have derived the one main rule that allows me to finish any mail at all: However my email correspondent signs is how I call them. I don’t mean their fancy signature with all honorary degrees, but the words that are usually preceded by “Best, …” or “Regards, …”. Surprisingly often for my German sensibilities, this is a first name. Of course, there is this dreaded first email to someone you have not been introduced to (otherwise the introducer would take care of name choices, phew).
I recently received one of those first mails, and it prompted me to write this post. A couple of first year undergraduates were coming to the lab for a week to find out what cognitive science research looks like. They wrote the nicest email to introduce themselves and coordinate everything, but they ruined it for a second because they addressed me – in English – as “Mrs Bergmann“.
I was a bit taken aback and thought I spent all this time on getting to being a Dr. and then this happens. And indeed, in Germany (and I hear in the US, too, because of the assumption about me being married) writing to me in an academic context and calling me Mrs would be very impolite. Rather, you would in a first email add ALL titles and use a very formal address: “Sehr geehrte Dr. Bergmann“, which means most honoured Dr. Bergmann. For a professor, you might even go for “Prof. Dr.“. There are even more shades of academic titles, but those are the ones you’d be expected to know. I think. I have been away for some time already, though.
But before I responded to the email of these otherwise (and as it turned out also in person) very nice students, I asked a few colleagues who either have lived here a long time or are French. I learned that things work differently in France because it is frowned upon to use a title in emails and conversations. Instead you go for the more ‘esteemed’ address of Madame to honor all accomplishments and to add a level of seniority. Alternatively, you could write “Chère (dear) Christina Bergmann“. In this case, one might think you’re too lazy to look the title up, but wouldn’t be offended, I guess.
Funnily enough, in the international context, people seem to prefer to err on the side of caution, I have been receiving emails for a certain Dr. Bergmann and even a letter for Prof. Bergmann years before I even had a defense date! This strategy seems a good one. After all, have you ever been offended by someone adding titles to your name?