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How Writing Is Like Taking Blood

On Friday I donated blood at a popup blood center. In the process I had to share information—about my sex partners, pregnancies, travel history, and illnesses. I had to repeatedly give my full name and birthdate. A personal exchange? Nope. It was completely impersonal. I felt like a commodity.

No one (no one!) introduced themselves or called me by my name. Nothing like “Hi Lynn. I’m Catherine.” Yes, some of the team members were wearing ID badges that hung from their necks, but those were not easy to see. And an ID badge is hardly an introduction.

Having given my unit of B+, I drank my juice, ate my cookies, and walked out.

An imagine showing a pen dripping with blood to correspond with the title of the article: "business writing is like giving blood"
Business Writing Is Like Giving Blood

Here’s what I wish had happened: I wish the person at the reception table had said “Hi Lynn” after she learned my name. I wish the intake person had greeted me and told me her name before she took my very personal information. I wish the phlebotomist had told me her name before she searched for my vein. I wish someone had said “Thanks, Lynn” before I left.

I’m still going to donate blood, but I wish it were a friendlier experience.

This blog is about business writing and communication. How is writing like taking blood?

Both are exchanges between human beings.

In my survey of 686 adults working in the United States, 45 percent of respondents said they prefer that the individual emails they receive (not group messages) include a greeting and their name; 49 percent don’t care. Respondents commented that an initial email should include a greeting, but the greeting can be dropped in back-and-forth exchanges. I agree.

In person and in writing, I’m among the 45 percent who like to be greeted and called by name.

Compare these brief sentences:

Good morning!

Good morning, Lynn!

See you next week.

See you next week, Jonathan.

We’re happy to have you on the team.

Kaya, we’re happy to have you on the team.


Those are examples of using the reader’s name. But the same goes for using your own first name as a writer. When you write a message, including your first name at the end is a friendly way of signing off—the way you would sign a note. That’s warmer than an automatic signature block or no name at all. It’s the equivalent of “Hi, I’m Catherine” at the blood bank.

Yes, I like to be on a first name basis when giving blood—and when being asked in a message to agree to a meeting, reply to a question,  approve an action plan, edit a manuscript or resume, etc.

Are you, like me, in the 45 percent who like to greeted by name?

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “How Writing Is Like Taking Blood”

  • I agree, especially you are going for the most humble human donation; greetings, saying your name repeatedly…m will confort you and make a good memory of the scene .

  • Then there’s the question of what name to use. In Europe, this is tricky. In Germany, I have known people I couldn’t imagine calling anything but Herr Schmidt in German but whom I had to call Hans when meeting with them in English with Americans. Once the Americans had left, I went back to German and Herr Schmidt. Over the decades I’ve been visiting France, the Monsieur Dupont (or no name at all) I once used in non-familiar relationships has morphed into Jacques – but only partially. The French now tend to open their emails with a nameless “Bonjour” but, as Lynn recommends, I write “Bonjour Monsieur Dupont” or “Bonjour Jacques” to better engage the reader.

  • And then there is the question of using first names instead of Mr., Mrs., Miss., . . . lastname. (I’m sure I butchered the punctuation there). Should we be more formal or is the use of a first name now so common that using the first name with a stranger is just acceptable? I prefer to use the formal Mr./Mrs./Miss xxx until granted permission to use the first name – or is that old school 🙂

  • Thank you, Lina, Bart, RAM, George, Lionel, and Martha! I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    Lina, I like the way you expressed your point–it’s clear and catchy.

    Bart, at first I thought you were comparing me to a dog! But, of course, you weren’t. Thanks for making that logical, interesting point.

    RAM, I like your thought on making a good memory of the experience.

    George, what an interesting anecdote–the one about Herr Schmidt. Switching to Hans and then back to Herr Schmidt shows a clear understanding of and respect for what is appropriate in a particular context. Thanks for telling us about it.

    Lionel, your choice is not old school. If people want you to be more familiar, they will let you know. I live in the very familiar Pacific Northwest of the United States, where we typically use first names. But when I meet Black people of middle age or older, I always address them with a courtesy title (for example, Mr. Garrett, Miss Eloise, Pastor Patricia) to show respect. I assume that if our relationship develops, our way of addressing each other will change.

    Martha, you make a good point. I don’t want any of the team to get into trouble, but maybe I can find a way to communicate discreetly. Interestingly, the organization emailed me a survey to complete, but it didn’t include any way to comment. Not much of a feedback mechanism! In any case, thanks for the suggestion.


  • Thanks for donating blood, Lynn! I do it a couple of times a year as well. It’s not fun but it makes me feel good to give a secret gift to someone. I’m sorry to hear that they treated you so coldly.
    It’s true, being greeted by name sends a warm welcome.
    I wonder if you could provide some feedback to the folks in Seattle about your experience, just like you wrote in your blog. It’s written without emotion – and is an astute observation that may provide benefit to their organization.
    Here in Portland and Vancouver (WA), I donate to Bloodworks NW and they have always been friendly and kind, no matter if we’re in a bloodmobile or in a building. I feel fortunate now that I’ve heard your story. I just thought that blood donors were always treated warmly.
    All the best!

  • Hi, Lynn!

    I find the different levels of formality between languages really interesting. Finland is a fairly informal country. We’re a bit more formal than, say, Sweden, but I have addressed my teachers by their first name since preschool/kindergarten, anything else would have been unthinkable. That said, when I went on student exchange to France as a slightly older student, I found it completely impossible to address a young professor who was more or less my age (I was a few years older than most of my peers) as anything other than Madame X. Even when she found it awkward and would have preferred me to do it! The only person in authority that I was able to address with the informal tu instead of the formal vous was one of the student office admins who had a some connection to Finland and spoke a few words of the language. Even then, I could only do it when I was talking to her in private or there were only other Finns around. She seemed to understand that we Finns didn’t want to make our non-Finnish peers feel weird because they were on more formal terms with the admin.

    At the start of the millennium, an American sit-down restaurant chain got a lot of pushback from customers when they wanted their waitstaff to visit the tables and ask customers if they were enjoying their meal. Totally normal, you’d think, but here a lot of people found it intrusive. It’s becoming a lot more common in other restaurants, too, but certainly few people would feel their service was lacking without that question. (A crucial difference is that waitstaff, while not well-paid by any means, are paid a more-or-less living wage, so anything that gives a vibe of fishing for tips is a no-no. Tipping is not expected, and in most places staff aren’t even allowed to keep any tips themselves. Decent places share any tips with their staff, but it’s completely legal for the owner to keep any extra cash that comes in.)

  • Hi Lynn,

    I’ve often read here and there that people love to hear their name – I reckon this applies to reading it, too. Even to those who don’t admit it!

    It recently happened to me to receive a cold email from the admin dept of the town police, it started with “Good day, bla bla bla”. The whole back-and-forth communication that followed was catastrofic, but I’ll keep it for another time, since it would be off-topic here.

    It really put me off, because the person perfectly knew my name: I had sent them a form to get a parking permit. It felt rude.

    As a result, my reply to that message was even colder, but I at least had the decency to start with the name of the person.

  • Maria, thanks so much for sharing your story of the use of names in Finland. I had no idea that Finland and Sweden used first names so widely. I am intrigued by your story of code-switching in France when talking with the admin. It reminded me of George’s story of talking with Heir Schmidt and changing names depending on the audience.

    I also enjoyed reading about the service in restaurants in Finland. As you know, waitstaff rely on tips in the US. It’s interesting to learn how the rest of the world works.

    Thank you!


  • Deborah, thank you for your example. It sounds as though the police department could have easily warmed up the message by responding to you by name. Instead, someone made the situation worse and engaged you in an offputting way.

    A little warmth and kindness can go far.


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