Tuesday, November 28, 2006

E-mail etiquette

From a New York Times article on signing off in e-mails:

Chad Troutwine, an entrepreneur in Malibu, Calif., was negotiating a commercial lease earlier this year for a building he owns in the Midwest. Though talks began well, they soon grew rocky. The telltale sign that things had truly devolved? The sign-offs on the e-mail exchanges with his prospective tenant.

"As negotiations started to break down, the sign-offs started to get decidedly shorter and cooler," Mr. Troutwine recalled. "In the beginning it was like, 'I look forward to speaking with you soon' and 'Warmest regards,' and by the end it was just 'Best.'" The deal was eventually completed, but Mr. Troutwine still felt as if he had been snubbed.

What’s in an e-mail sign-off? A lot, apparently. Those final few words above your name are where relationships and hierarchies are established, and where what is written in the body of the message can be clarified or undermined. In the days before electronic communication, the formalities of a letter, either business or personal, were taught to every third-grader; sign-offs -- from “Sincerely” to “Yours truly” to “Love” -- came to mind without much effort.

But e-mail is a casual medium, and its conventions are scarcely a decade old. They are still evolving, often awkwardly.
The Troutwine scenario seems tricky. If negotiations are breaking down, wouldn't "Warmest regards" likely sound snotty and sarcastic? And given the frequency with which e-mails fly back and forth, wouldn't even the best-intentioned correspondents soon weary of such repetition?

I'm with Jason Kottke: I think that "Best" is entirely appropriate and courteous when writing to someone other than a friend or relation. "Best wishes" is good too. "Best regards" also seems appropriate. ("Regards" though sounds a bit remote.) "All the best" has long seemed strange to me, probably because I have a book signed by William S. Burroughs that wishes me exactly that. "Thanks" works well if you've made a request. Any variation on "See you next week" is always fine. "Cheers," which is fairly widespread in academia, seems to strike people as either perfectly all right or perfectly pretentious, so perhaps it's best avoided.

It's fascinating to watch the conventions of e-mail evolve. For now, I look forward to developing our acquaintance in the posts that follow.

Best,

Michael Leddy

"Yours Truly," the E-Variations (New York Times)

Related post
How to e-mail a professor

comments: 8

Rachel Leddy said...

Interesting post!

Your Daughter,
Rachel

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, kiddo.

"Warmest regards,"

Dad

Norman said...

Most e-mails I receive in English end either with no closing (i.e. just the name of the sender) or with "Best" or "Cheers". The latter does not seem to me to be pretentious, since it is inter alia British for "Ta-ta for now". Maybe I have lived too long on this side of the Atlantic.

Maybe not.

Cheers,

Norman

Michael Leddy said...

Hi Norman,

I like "Cheers" too; it seems to me to carry, like "Best wishes," a trace of earlier times. I suppose that any closing, if it's coming from the wrong person or in an unpleasant context, might grate.

Anonymous said...

I often sign off with "All best wishes," if it is someone whom I truly do wish well. I received a letter from a British friend when I was pregnant 21 years ago and she signed off with that phrase. I liked it (knowing that she meant it sincerely), and I have used it for friendly letters of all sorts ever since.

Michael Leddy said...

Genevieve, I think that "All best wishes" is going to be my new closing.

Daughter Number Three said...

I remember hearing about this brouhaha, probably when the Times article came out. I wasn't reading your blog yet, though, so missed this post! Thanks for your thoughts on this.

I was shocked to find out I was being rude by closing most of my work emails with just my name and contact info. All of this made me very self-conscious and I have since closed (usually) with Thanks, even when it isn't completely appropriate.

Somehow, to me, all the other options feel forced when emitted from my virtual mouth. I don't mind them when others use them, but I can't make myself follow suit.

Michael Leddy said...

That’s how I feel about “Best” — fine for other people, but not for me. I do like “All best wishes,” esp. when writing one-off e-mails.