Hey, let’s chat! The evolution of greetings

April 7, 2021

B2B chatbots that greet me with ‘hey!” irk me to no end, so I decided to find out why.

First, let’s get my age out of the way. I’m an “elder millennial”, but I ain’t no Boomer, even though I may wear my harrumphing hat for this piece.

Let’s explore how technology has changed the way we start our conversations and its impact on chatbot welcome messages – and collectively breathe a sigh of thanks that we’re not all starting our conversations with “Ahoy-hoy!”

Formality vs. Informality in Business Writing

Examining my reaction, I think it stems from some sort of pushback to the informality that live chat has brought to online sales and customer service interactions. Past interactions with my mobile services provider and bank were always scripted and run through a distant call center; stilted conversations I could only access after 20 minutes on hold.

But now for work, I’m chatting with the same dedicated tech support reps at lean startups, and they’re checking with their dev team to get real-time answers to my questions. I know the person helping me by their name and photo, though we’ll never meet in person. I can look back at all our past chats if I need to review information. I’m sure portions of our conversations are copy-pasted from their database or stock replies, but it sure feels like I have a more personal connection with these people.

“Business communication spent a whole century getting less ornate, from memos to emails to chat,” writes Gretchen McCulloch in her fantastic book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. Collectively, our language use over the past few decades has rapidly evolved to match the intimacy of one-to-one lightspeed communication and our sudden need to convey both words and emotion via text.

According to McCulloch, a website is a formal piece of writing, as it is copiously edited, whereas chat is informal, personal writing that is the most similar to everyday speech.

The ironic part comes when you think that a chatbot greeting is technically a formal piece of writing that has been tested until perfect to get maximum clicks but still needs to read like informal writing. And this little snippet of a greeting pops up against the backdrop of the formal homepage.

So you can understand why I’m a bit thrown off when I get a ‘hey’ instead of a ‘hello’.

Linguistically Speaking, What’s a Greeting Even For?

Greetings are conversational phrases called phatic expressions that are used to acknowledge another person and initiate a conversation. The literal meaning of the words takes a backseat to their social purpose because greetings don’t seek or offer any information of value. For example, “how’s it going?” is now seen as a phatic expression.

Depending on the phatic expressions chosen, a hierarchical relationship or intent is conveyed – such as, will this be a formal or informal conversation?

Phatic expressions still serve a purpose in chatbot writing. According to a recent study, “chatbot’s greeting can provide an opportunity to establish a lasting first impression, as the initial greeting of a chatbot can set a character for its personality and set possibilities on what the chatbot can and cannot do.”

The Invention of Hello

Today’s ubiquitous greeting ‘hello’ was actually proposed by Thomas Edison in the late 1870s (the earliest recorded instance of his use of the word) as a way to summon the other party to the phone instead of a call bell. Rival telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell tried to spur the adoption of ‘ahoy-hoy’ as the correct way to answer a phone. Other commonly used phrases included ‘What is wanted?’, ‘Are you there?’ and ‘Are you ready to talk?’

According to McCulloch, at that time ‘hello’ was replacing more traditional greetings that specifically acknowledged who you were addressing and the time of day, like “Good morning, Mary”, or “Good evening, Doctor Smith”. It also began transitioning from a way to attract attention on the phone to an all-purpose greeting.

“But there was a period of friction, when “hello” was spreading beyond its summoning origins to become a general-purpose greeting, and not everyone was a fan,” McCulloch says. “Etiquette books as late as the 1940s were still advising against “hello”.”

The Rise of Hey

So my gut reaction to ‘hey’ as a bit rude is not unfounded. McCulloch noted that the decline of hello as the dominant greeting in the 1960s to the predominance of ‘hey’ in the early 2000s led to a similar disagreement, as ‘hey you’ is also a summoner.

“Our collective societal relationship to technologically mediated communication is also changing. At the moment, there’s still a generational gap,” she writes. And that gap derives from “whether you dismiss the expressive capacity of informal writing or whether you assume it.”

So, What Does This Mean for Conversational Writers?

In the end, ‘hey’ is a perfectly acceptable greeting in B2B informal writing. However, it might be worth considering your audience’s age demographics and remaining with a more formal ‘hello’ or ‘hi’ for older customers – that monosyllabic phatic expression carries more weight than you might think.

That is all. (Another phatic expression I’m glad didn’t stick around.)

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