Monthly Archives: April 2014

Query: writing a formal letter

Dear EtiKate
How do I write a formal letter?
-via Facebook

Dear Readers

Writing a formal letter is relatively straightforward as there is an accepted structure in place.

The letterhead should include your address, e-mail and if appropriate, your telephone.  Never include your name on the letterhead. The letterhead is normally centre aligned, but a right hand alignment is also acceptable. This is a matter of personal choice.

With a few exemptions, such as an audit trail, the date of the letter is normally the day you intend to post it.

It is best to write to an actual known person. This way, you have a better chance of your letter being answered rather than forwarded to different departments.
If really do not know the name of the person to whom you are writing, Dear Sir (or Dear Madam) is the appropriate substitute. Dear Sir or Madam is used if you do not know the name or gender of the person to whom you are writing. Although this should make you examine why you are writing the letter in the first place. I prefer to use a collective or third person greeting in cases such as these, for example, Dear HR Department or Dear Sirs.

Photo credit: The British Council

Photo credit: The British Council

There are only two choices for closing a formal letter: Yours sincerely or Yours faithfully. ‘Kind regards’ or ‘Best wishes’ should be reserved for e-mails or less formal letters. End with ‘Yours sincerely’ when you are writing to a named person. ‘Yours faithfully’ is for when you start a letter with ‘Dear Sir’. A good mnemonic device for this is “to put your faith in the unknown.” So if the person is not known to you, close the letter with ‘Yours faithfully’.

Always make sure you pen the actual signature. Real ink, in blue or black is the traditional medium.

I hope this helps with your formal correspondence.

Yours faithfully,


We are more than happy to answer all your etiquette related questions. Submit your problems, dilemmas or queries in the Dear EtiKate section.

How to address an envelope

I know some of my readers discovered this blog when they Googled “how to address an envelope” and were redirected to last year’s controversial piece, How to Place a Card in an Envelope. I do mean controversial in all seriousness as it is still the topic of some debate in certain circles. For the readers who want to know how to address a letter, here it is.

Recipient’s address
Use blue or black ink. It is not necessary to write the word “To:” before the person’s name and title.  Should you make any mistake, discard and start again on a new envelope.
The address should be written clearly and neatly in bold letters. An illegible hand increases the chance of the letter ending up in the wrong postbox. Proceed with caution.
Nowadays, commas are no longer employed to separate the street name from the town between lines of the address. Whatever your preference, a comma is not used right before the postcode.

Sender’s address
A return address serves two purposes: it provides an alternative address should the letter not reach the recipient, and it tells the recipient where to send their response. My postmistress told me that, in the UK at least, the return address is normally written on the back of the envelope. This is because the top left hand corner is where the post office places the barcode for signed for letters.
As such, write the return address clearly on the back of the envelope. The sender’s name does not need to be provided. Of course, if one wishes to give an air of mystery, the return address can be omitted altogether.

Photo credit

Photo credit:

Stamps should always be First Class.
Last Christmas, the local postmaster (unofficially) told me I might as well send my cards Second Class as he thinks there is no distinction between Royal Mail’s service during the busy holiday period. After hesitating for two seconds, I took out the cards for my boyfriend’s family and sent those via First Class post. I just couldn’t bear giving Granny the impression that I scrimped on 17p for her card.
Stamps must not be stuck on wonky. This is a chance to make a good first impression. A stamp stuck on askew does not look as good as one stuck on straight. There is nothing more to that.

I am a great believer in finding pleasure in the little things. And if you can find it on an envelope, lucky you!

Arriving late: comedian Jason Manford buys audience drinks to apologise

Jason Manford bought audience drinks as an apology. Photo credit:

Jason Manford bought audience drinks as an apology. Photo credit:

Last week, Jason Manford bought a round of drinks for his 835-strong audience as an apology for keeping them waiting. The comedian was stuck in traffic for two hours and eventually made it to the stage 40 minutes late. I imagine the audience were very appreciative of his generosity as he took to the stage, and ultimately did not mind the late hour.

Is it the casual, modern way to be relaxed about punctuality? I certainly believe it’s impolite to be more than half an hour late for no good reason. Text messages saying, “So sorry, I’m running a little late. Be with you soon.” hardly makes up for it.

Waiting patiently. Photo credit:

Waiting patiently. Photo credit:

I’m not talking about Mr Manford here. He had a genuine reason for being late and made up for it. I’m talking about habitual offenders who constantly make their friends wait. I myself favour being on time, and feel positively embarrassed if I have kept someone waiting.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

On this matter, I defer to the more expert hand of Thomas Blaikie, etiquette writer for The Lady magazine. He advocates being ruthless with friends who keep us waiting in public places. “If they are more than 15 minutes late for the third time, don’t wait another minute… Go off and amuse yourself elsewhere. With some people, lateness is a symptom of deep-seated unreliability and selfishness…But sometimes they reform. Always give them a chance if they promise to do better.”

However, Mr Blaikie advises arriving a little late for parties and dinners at other people’s houses. I do agree that it seems rather curious about guests who arrive on the dot. It gives the impression that they have been lurking just beyond your house, waiting for the exact moment to ring the bell. Often, hosts are grateful for the extra ten minutes after the stated time in which the guests don’t arrive. But do not be more than 15 minutes late without giving prior notice.

As a host, I sometimes have a quiet word with the notorious latecomers beforehand. I would give them an earlier start time than the rest of my guests. That way, I know the event will not overrun as a consequence of needless waiting. If they still arrive late, try starting without them. This happened to me in my early teens, and I’ve remembered the lesson ever since. I know it’s extreme, but it obliges us to respect other people’s time.

There may be an unspoken understanding in society that “if you are important, people will wait.” To some extent, this is practiced. However, do keep in mind that waiting for one person is discourteous to everyone else who made the effort to arrive on time.

Late for a date. Photo credit:

Late for a date. Photo credit:

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Commuter etiquette: train journeys

Photo credit Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling

Photo credit Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling

Travelling by train to Oxford at the weekend has given me the opportunity to reflect on travel etiquette. I thought this theme is apropos as I imagine many of our readers commute to work or school. You might even at some point have taken a table to do some work on the way. Here are my thoughts on train travel decorum.


1. Mobile phones

Think of travelling as being in transit. It’s not the time or place to carry out lengthy conversations. Perhaps save long phone calls when you are in your own space, where you might better express your thoughts rather than being harried by the demands of travel. Bear in mind that phone signals could be intermittent, so repeating “Hello, can you hear me?” can be annoying for your fellow passengers.

Brief phone calls are acceptable; a short, “I’m on my way, see you in a bit,” can be commonly heard. It’s not necessary to turn your phone to silent while on the train. But having the volume on too loud and failing to answer it immediately when it rings can cause embarrassment. When in the quiet coach, the courtesy of turning all devices to silent must be observed. 

2. Luggage on seats

Ladies are often culpable of leaving their handbags on the seat next to them. When the trains are especially busy, it is polite to make sure available seats are free of bags. This way, other passengers can sit without having to ask if it is available. If not, one risks being asked, bluntly, “Is that your bag on my seat?”

Food on the go. Photo:

Food on the go. Photo:

3. Train food

Once, on the train from York to London, I sat with two ladies who were on their way to see a West End show. They decided to make a weekend of it, starting with their train journey. From their picnic bags, they unearthed little Victoria sandwiches, and to drink, individual champagne bottles. It was such a treat to see.

Train food must not be messy, but above all, it should not be malodorous. Fast food such as burger and chips (fries for the North American vernacular) are ubiquitous at train stations. But the oily smell that lingers in contained spaces is unpleasant. Avoid food that may drip and is awkward to eat.  

worktrain4. Working on the train

Many people use their daily commute to get work done. If you find you have to do work on one of the tables, try to keep your things within your space. People would generally try a different seat when they find someone is working at the table. However, if the train is very busy and someone sits at your table, make a kind gesture by gathering your things in a pile. If they don’t need the table space, often they would say so.

The novelty of passing countryside has long worn off for seasoned commuters. One would be hard-pressed to make this enforced journey pleasant, but in the least, we can help make it bearable. Good manners is, after all, nothing more than making sure everyone around us is as comfortable as possible.

Bon voyage,

This piece was first published in 20 February 2014 on the website Stilettos on the Glass Ceiling.