The correct, judicious forms of address in a bureaucracy



TWELVE years ago, a Philippine foreign service officer in London wrote me to express concern over what he felt was the loose and inconsistent way official correspondence was being done even by high-ranking government and business officials. This prompted me to write a column on the proper and improper forms of address, which I think is as relevant as ever today. That essay having not made it to any of my three English-usage books, however, I’m taking the opportunity to recompose and update it for today’s users and learners of English.

I’ll admit that I’ve never been part of the government bureaucracy, so I’m not that much of a stickler for protocol. But I had worked in a large corporation for over 18 years, and in whatever end I was in the communication loop, I also found it terribly disconcerting to see protocols broken or trifled with by managers and rank-and-file alike. Indeed, in the deep of night, I sometimes would wake up in a cold sweat imagining that I had stupidly blown a promotion by addressing someone of much higher rank simply as “Dear Frank” instead of “Dear Sir,” and ending with just “Sincerely” instead of the more formal “Respectfully yours.”

There’s obviously a need to observe protocol judiciously in formal written communication in the bureaucracy. From start to finish, the writer has to very carefully consider the rank or station of the position holder being addressed, and for this purpose I believe that it’s good etiquette to stick to one of the three well-accepted groupings of complimentary closes as well.

In deference to people of much higher rank, it’s only proper to acknowledge their higher station by closing with
“Yours respectfully” or “Respectfully yours.” When talking purely business with our superiors and higher-ranking people elsewhere, closing with “Very truly yours” or “Yours truly” is more appropriate. But for formal letters to company equals and peer group members, we’ll hit just the right language register by closing with “Sincerely,” “Yours sincerely,” or “Sincerely yours.”

But obviously more crucial in formal correspondence is addressing people of a much higher station. This requires etiquette in its most refined, delicate, and—shall we say? — stratified forms. Thus, even if we’ll rarely ever get to write to such people, it will be socially illuminating to familiarize ourselves with the correct ways of addressing them.

Here are some of the prevailing formal forms of address in our country:

Our own country’s President: “Dear Mr. President,” not “Your Excellency” (as specifically directed by incumbent President Rodrigo R. Duterte); a foreign king or queen: “Your Majesty”; a foreign prince or princess: “Your Royal Highness”; a foreign head of state: “Excellency” or “Dear Mr. [Madame] Prime Minister”; the Supreme Court chief justice: “Dear Mr. [Madame] Chief Justice:” a senator: “Dear Senator [surname]:” a congressman: “Dear Rep. [surname]:” Mayor: “Dear Mayor [surname];” a judge: “Dear Judge [surname]”; our ambassador to another country: “Dear Mr. [Madame] Ambassador”; a foreign ambassador to our country: “Excellency” or “Dear Mr. [Madame] Ambassador”; a military officer: “Dear [full rank + last name]” (as in “Dear Gen. Año”).

The Pope: “Your Holiness” or “Most Holy Father”; a cardinal: “His Eminence”; a Roman Catholic bishop: “Your Excellency”; a Protestant bishop: “Dear Bishop [surname]”; a Roman Catholic priest: “Dear Reverend Father” or “Dear Father”; a Protestant clergyman/woman: “Dear Mr./Mrs. [surname]”; and a college or university president: “Dear President [surname].”

That’s about all we need to know about salutations and complimentary closes, which isn’t to say that they are a small matter. They are the hallmarks of elementary courtesy in formal communication. They not only separate us from the barbarians but make us appear much more agreeable, and they make those reading us more receptive to what we have in mind and what we want them to do.

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