By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009
It feels like the 18th century all over again. All that daily correspondence, all those long hours spent hunched over a desk, composing some thoughtful missive about one's dowry or the Jacobite rebellions. Signed, "Yr humble servant."
Same deal now, basically, except (obviously) we're not clutching quills; we're writing a passel of e-mails and clicking send on ye olde BlackBerry until our fingers bleed. And something else isn't quite the same: Unlike the heroes and heroines of epistolary novels, we aren't blessed with time-tested formal guidance on the correct way to sign off.
For Daniel Morrison, CEO of the D.C.-based international relief nonprofit 1Well, the wrong sign-off posed an impediment to deeper romance. "I sent an e-mail to a girlfriend, and she was very put off by me signing off with 'Regards,' saying that I sounded very 'emotionally detached,' " Morrison says via e-mail. "We did break up shortly thereafter, so maybe she was right."
Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of "Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better," warns, "You can really do a lot of damage, even with a careless closing. And one of the terrifying things about e-mail is: You may never know."
But you may well feel the chill.
"If you have been writing to someone 'Best' this and 'Best' that, and you get an e-mail that is a little colder, a little hostile, and they sign 'Sincerely,' that does mean things aren't so good," Schwalbe says. " 'Sincerely' is the one that says, 'There's a problem here.' "
And, one may well wonder, does "Cordially" ever mean anything other than "My hostility is only thinly veiled"?
And when, e-mail-wise, is it too early for "Love"? Does "Fondly" ever belong in business? Is "Cheers" too mock-Brit? Too alcoholic?
Will something that seems totally clever turn out to be totally obnoxious? Such as: "Off like a prom dress"?
So many questions, so few answers.
Craig Brownstein, vice president of media relations at the PR firm Edelman, is a devotee of "Best" and its variants. He says he started seeing "Best" in e-mails a few years ago and has since picked it up. But that professional close can quickly escalate into greater e-intimacies.
"Likely, if it's someone I know, they get a whole mess of 'Kisses' and 'Hugs,' " Brownstein sighs. "I'm the sweet flack on K Street."
Brownstein asked his research team, StrategyOne, to catalogue the most common e-mail closing lines with an online poll. (The sample of about a thousand Internet users came from a nonrandom pool of respondents, so these numbers are rather more food for thought than hard data.)
Although "Best" seems ubiquitous in certain e-mail circles (Brownstein's and Schwalbe's, for instance), for some reason it was barely a blip on this survey's radar.
Twenty-five percent of participants said they close their professional e-mails with "Sincerely," while 20 percent use some variant of "Thank you," and 17 percent use no closing at all. "Love" is the most common personal e-mail closing, followed by no closing.
This all might come as no great surprise to Peter Post, author of "Essential Manners for Men," and one of manner maven Emily Post's great-grandchildren. Post swears by "Sincerely," which he describes as an all-purpose, "safe" e-mail close -- the little black dress of sign-offs, if you will. "Yours truly" and "Regards" can also work, Post says, but "Best" is more dangerous territory.
"I think it's more important with 'Best' that you know the person," Post says. "I think it would be very awkward to do that to a person that you only knew very slightly or hadn't yet met."
But in their book, Schwalbe and Shipley recommend "Best" and "Best wishes" as "among the most common in e-mail -- safe, all-purpose ways of bringing a note to an end." Schwalbe himself often ratchets "Best" up to "Best!" -- with the exclamation point added to warm up a medium in which everything can unfortunately sound a wee bit frigid and humorless.
Huffington Post editor in chief Arianna Huffington, likewise, says that one can do better than "Sincerely."
"The problem," Huffington says, "with traditional sign-offs like 'Sincerely' is not so much that they're too cold as that they're like vestiges of another medium: letters. . . . I've always used 'Best' or 'All the best,' because that's always been standard for me, even for letters. And I never liked 'Sincerely' -- I always found it very cold."
Huffington -- who signs off with "Fondly" when she's writing to older correspondents and closes e-mails to her daughters with kisses and hugs -- says that she drops the closing with the writers, editors and friends with whom she's in near-constant communication, describing these sorts of e-mails as part of an ongoing conversation that encompasses everything from face-time to instant-message exchanges.
Musing on the ever-mutating art of the sign-off, Huffington says, "One thing that is kind of interesting is how more and more people are actually signing off by telling you where they are. . . . Like, 'Sent while being yelled at by a flight attendant to turn off all electronic devices,' or 'Sent while killing time in traffic,' which we should not be doing."
Murky waters, these, unless you're fortunate enough to be, say, in the military, where specific closings are standard fare. Matthew Cox, a senior staff writer at the Army Times, says that members of the Navy and the Air Force often close their e-mails with "V/R" ("Very respectfully"). For the Marines, it's "S/F" (Semper Fi), while Army Rangers sign off with "RLTW" ("Rangers Lead the Way").
Emily Gould, a New York writer, blogger, former Gawker staffer and not a member of the military, avoids both "Best" and "Sincerely." She finds "Best" unsavory, as it frequently appears at the end of the rejection letters. And "Sincerely," she says, "sounds grade school." So she uses "Thanks" whenever possible.
"But the sad truth," she says, "is that if I am on speaking terms with someone, or if I feel at all warmly towards them -- basically if I have met them and don't actively dislike them -- I will often close with 'XOXO.' Like Gossip Girl. I'm ashamed to admit this."
The easy-to-type-ness and communicating-of-warmth-ness of "XOXO" have proved handy, too, for MSNBC's chief D.C. correspondent Norah O'Donnell. She writes in an e-mail that she started closing notes to friends with "XOXO" after she realized she'd been neglecting to sign off at all. (Her e-mail response, even to yours truly, ended with "XOXO.")
Or, O'Donnell says, she'll close with "Warmly," since " 'Sincerely' seems so formal and outdated." Her husband, local restaurateur Geoff Tracy, invariably uses "Cheers!"
Gould and O'Donnell are not alone in their proclivity for "XOXO," which also has a much-truncated alter ego, "x." Schwalbe says that "x" began as a text-message closer (useful for its brevity) and has since migrated to e-mail.
Freelance writer Alyssa Shelasky says she usually signs off with "xxAlyssa" (the "x" isn't necessarily indicative of blue material anymore).
Spike Mendelsohn, Shelasky's boyfriend and owner of Good Stuff Eatery in Southeast Washington, says, "I used to sign e-mails totally erratically. Like, I'd write, 'From Spike,' and intentionally put a comma after my name just to rebel against grammar." Perhaps TV fame has mellowed him (yes, he's that Spike, the one who wore a series of hats throughout "Top Chef"), as he now simply signs off with "Love and Bacon."
Whether you love bacon or puppies or flowers, a person can choose particular-to-me closings, the likes of which we've spotted since the familiar blue triangle of AOL began its cyber rule at the dawn of the '90s. Post, for one, fondly recalls that his sister used to sign to letters (and now signs e-mails) with "WLAFR"--"With love and fondest regards." The Rev. James Schall, a professor of government at Georgetown University, says he closes all his informal correspondence with "Pray for me." ("One does," he says, "get funny reactions.") Peter Baker, a "Best wishes" sort and an English professor at the University of Virginia, reports having spotted an Old English sign-off at the end of a colleague's e-mail -- "swa a," which apparently means "as ever."
Participants in the StrategyOne survey reported all manner of strange e-mail closings that tumble forth from correspondents reveling in the intoxicating mania of near-instantaneous communication. Among them: "In brotherhood," "That's me yo," "Hope you live through the night," "Safety first," "Make love not war, that's what Army cots are for,"' "Wonka wonka" and "Seacrest out."
Until e-mail etiquette starts being taught in elementary school (is it?), perhaps we've little choice left but to hit send first and ask forgiveness later. Cheers & Ciao, Yr Obdt Srvt.