Dear Miriam | What’s in a Nickname?

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Dear Miriam,

I am interviewing for a new job, and I’ve been in touch several times over email with a potential new colleague. The person has signed all of her emails with a very informal nickname of the sort I wouldn’t be comfortable calling someone I don’t know well. When I reply, do I use the nickname, which she seems to use exclusively, or do I continue to use a more formal address?

Signed,


Not That Nickname

Dear Nickname,

While email gives us the ease of contacting anyone we want quickly and efficiently, the nuance of in-person introductions is totally lost. There’s no “please call me Becky,” or “actually, I prefer Kitty.” And since you typically only use someone’s name once per message — at the beginning — the name you use sets the tone but also doesn’t add anything to the exchange.

I’m assuming that up until this point, you’ve used either Dr./Ms./Rabbi Last Name, or her full first name. I’m guessing that only because 1) you don’t say otherwise, and 2) that’s what I would have done. Opting for the more formal option in the case of an interview situation makes sense, but you also want to show that you are a perceptive, responsive person. I’ve been on the receiving end of emails where someone addresses me more than once as “Ms. Steinberg-Egeth” and, depending on the context, I’ve wondered whether the recipient is paying attention to my message.

Look for this person’s bio on the organization’s website, or author lines on books or papers, and see if she uses this nickname professionally. If so, you are definitely in the clear to use it when you next write to her. If she doesn’t, after more than three emails back and forth, you should at least switch from Title Last Name to First Name and, if the emails continue, then it’s appropriate to use the nickname.

If you’ve already had this many emails, hopefully you’re a serious candidate, and presuming you get to interview stage with this person, listen closely for how she introduces herself, and address her that way when you talk with her. What you say in real time matters much more than your email salutation, and if you’re not sure in a conversational setting, the best thing you can do is ask, “What do you prefer to be called?”

Be well,

Miriam

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