Dear Sirs or not Dear Sirs – that is the question!
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, Sharon Short from our Legal team explores how language has evolved over the last few decades in a society where Equality, Diversity and Inclusion have finally taken centre stage.
Why are we asking whether “Dear Sirs” remains an appropriate formal greeting now? The truth is the question has been asked many times over the last few years at least, and we had indeed debated its use within our Legal team before, so when one of our prospective clients suggested that using “Dear Sirs” on our assignment letter was somewhat outdated, we listened, and more importantly we acted. It may seem to some as a small step, or to more traditionalist minds a shock horror, but we are proud to be able to say that we have now amended these documents to make them more inclusive.
As individuals, we are constantly evolving and changing, and this is also true of us as a business. At Ultimate Finance we have emphasised EDI values over the last few years through not only regular training but also regular sessions where we encourage our teams to share, learn and discover more about why equality matters. To that effect, we challenge what we do, how we do it, and how we communicate with each other internally or with our clients, prospects, and Introducers so we continue to evolve and improve.
So why is Dear Sirs used as the main manner of address in business? Research suggests the reason “Dear Sirs” exists is because, back in the day, one would write to a partnership rather than to an individual – particularly when it came to law firms. And, of course, for a long time mostly only men were allowed to be partners in law firms. That’s because until as recently as 1919 women were forbidden by law to work in a law firm in the UK, with the first female lawyer in England appearing in 1922, a mere 100 years ago – thus, Dear Sirs made “sense”. That’s why it is written in its plural form, and it’s also why we started marking things to people’s attention, rather than directing the letter to them.
Dear Sirs at the time would have been the correct address as most likely 99.9% (there is always the exception) of the time it would have been men in management roles in businesses and therefore the assumption that the recipient and decision maker would be a man would have been a fair one. But what of today?
Let’s take this riddle from an article* I read recently on gender roles and stereotypes many may still find themselves unconsciously guilty of perpetuating.
A father and his son were travelling north on a motorway when their car unfortunately crashed. The father died instantly, and the son was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. When the son arrived at the hospital, the surgeon said, ‘I can’t operate on him, he’s my son’. How can this be?
This riddle aims to explore gender stereotypes people may hold in respect of specific careers. Now surprisingly, only about 16% of people guess the correct answer. The researcher who considered this riddle concluded that most people would think of unrealistic answers (such as the father arose from the dead, or it was a mistake, and the father wasn’t really dead so he went to the hospital to save his son) before they even considered that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother (that is the answer by the way)!
I think it is true to say that in what seems to be the not too distance past (at least for some of us), there was still the assumption that professional people were most likely to be men.
However, the world has changed considerably over the last 100 years, not least the fact we no longer dip a quill into an inkwell in order write a letter, or that it can no longer be a fair assumption that the respondent is “most likely to be male”, so why do we as a society still cling onto “Dear Sirs”?
Maybe it is as simple as laziness? Perhaps it feels easier to carry on using something if it is still doing the job – there is the adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, and most other companies still use it too. But it is broken, and it is time to fix it – standing in the way of inclusion out of laziness or discomfort is no longer acceptable in a modern society where progressive minds have been campaigning to right wrongs brought upon by decades (sometimes centuries) of inequalities and privilege.
I mentioned that using the term Dear Sirs being outdated was raised by a client but what I didn’t say is that, interestingly and importantly, the point was raised by a man. We live and work in a diverse society and can no longer sit by “old school” terminology. We must instead represent the world we live in today and each of us plays an integral part to promoting inclusion in our workplace and day-to-day lives. Dismissing language progression such as addressing the use of Dear Sirs as trivial perpetuates old-fashioned issues of exclusion, which in turns creates a risk for businesses appearing to be out of touch with their times, staff, and audiences.