Formal Vs. Casual Emails: How To Keep The Professionalism In Your Correspondences


It’s safe to say, we probably text or email more than we talk face-to-face. In fact I would say most of my communication (whether with friends, family or co-workers) is done online.

Because we are so accustomed to this form of human interaction, we often add our own personal emotions in our texts or emails; usually in the form of emoticons, acronyms (lol), slangs, or even writing how we speak, “heyyyy”.

Most of us understand that this type of informal language is inappropriate when emailing a cover letter, making a business pitch, applying for a job, or when introducing yourself to someone of a higher status in the job industry.

But after a relationship grows between you and your boss and co-workers, it can be difficult to know where the line gets drawn for casual emails in the workplace. How do (or should) you maintain your level of professionalism in your day-to-day email correspondences at work?

Elements of a formal vs. Informal email

The main difference between these two types of emails is that formal writing is straight to the point, less detailed, and informative sentences are written in a passive tone. Informal writing, on the other hand, uses descriptive words and is written with an active voice.

  • Passive voice (formal): “Krystal’s reservation has been confirmed for Friday.”
  • Active voice (informal): “Krystal received a confirmation email saying that her reservation has been confirmed for Friday.”

Formal emails should begin with a salutation, such as

  • Dear
  • To Whom it May Concern (if it is a letter)
  • or Hi, Name, as opposed to “Hey” or “Hello”, Name.

Formal emails should also sign off nicely with “Regards”, or “Thank you”, with your contact information in the signature.

Some things to avoid when writing formal emails

  • Colloquial words: “wanna” (want to), Y’all (You all)
  • Contractions: Can’t, Didn’t, Haven’t
  • Clichés: I will have email you the report in a jiffy. Vs. I will email you the report as soon as possible.
  • Abbreviated words: ASAP, lol, P.S
  • Imperative words or sentences: Stop, Do this, Go ahead

Deciding WHEN to use the appropriate form of email can get tricky, especially in the workplace when relationships develop. In most cases the below is the best advice when deciding to whom to send each type of email to.

Formal Recipients

  • Hiring manager when applying for a job: This is your only chance to make a great first impression. It is a deciding factor on whether or not you get a job.
  • Your boss or supervisor: If you want your superiors to have respect for you, it is best to illustrate as much as possible that you are a professional and that you take your job seriously.
  • When responding to a work inquiry: Work and business related issues should be handled respectively and timely in a formal manner.
  • Co-workers: Even though you may develop a comfortable relationship with your co-workers and feel the need to be yourself and drop the formalities in your day-to-day responses with each other, you need to keep in mind that many companies or your boss can occasionally request for an email trail if an issue arises in the business. If this happens, you don’t want to be seen as though you do not take your job seriously.

Although a formal and professional tone is most often used in relation to business inquiries, some professions such as in the sales industry, or in recruitment use a slightly more informal tone in their emails to come off as more friendly and open to costumers or clients.

Informal Recipients

  • Friends: No need for formalities when e-mailing friends…unless of course you are emailing your friend your resume to forward off.
  • Family: Your mom probably won’t penalize you for your improper use of “their”.

    The decision to use formal or informal language in an email not only depends on the recipient but also on the context of the email. Is it a quick response? Are you asking for something? Are you pitching an idea? If the content is academic of any sort or a business communication, formal emails should always be used.

    Causal emails are only appropriate when communicating information outside of work, such as asking your co-worker if they want to grab lunch with you, or planning a surprise birthday dinner with your colleagues. Choose the style of writing keeping in mind what and whom the email is for or about.

    The use of Emoticons in emails

    Try to avoid using emoticons as much as possible! I’ll admit I sometimes throw in a “:)” here and there, and it is sometimes hard to avoid because you want to connect with the person you are emailing, letting them know that your tone is happy in nature, and not serious.

    However, it may actually make it seem as though you are childish and unprofessional. Also if you want to gain respect from your co-workers and boss, it is best to avoid using them as much as possible…as hard as it may be “:P”

    Final notes

    Most importantly, everything boils down to your work culture. If you are noticing that your boss and co-workers correspond with you in a causal manner, then it is best to fit in and mimic their tone. If the work environment is more on the strict corporate side, then communicate as professionally and as formally as possible.

    To be honest I blame the fine line between formal and casual writing to constant everyday viral communication. Responding on our mobile devices doesn’t help as we sometimes get comfortable and respond as though it is a text message and not a proper email. At the end of the day it comes down to two main elements: your purpose and your audience, keeping in mind how you want to get your message across to the reader, and how you want that message to reflect on you. When in doubt, stay classy and keep it professional.

    Do you have an interesting story where you accidentally sent the wrong email to your boss or colleague? Comment and let us know!