November 26, 2006
‘Yours Truly,’ the E-Variations
By LOLA OGUNNAIKE
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. It is common for business messages to appear entirely in lower case, and many rapid-fire correspondences evolve from formal to intimate in a few back-and-forths.
Although salutations that begin messages can be tricky — there is a world of difference, it seems, between a “Hi,” a “Hello” and a “Dear” — the sign-off is the place where many writers attempt to express themselves, even when expressing personality, as in business correspondence, is not always welcome.
In other words, it is a land mine. Etiquette and communications experts agree that it is becoming increasingly difficult to say goodbye.
“So many people are not clear communicators,” said Judith Kallos, creator of NetManners.com, a site dedicated to online etiquette, and author of “Because Netiquette Matters.” To be clear about what an e-mail message is trying to say, and about what is implied as well as what is stated, “the reader is left looking at everything from the greeting to the closing for clues,” she said.
Mr. Troutwine is not alone in thinking that an e-mail sender who writes “Best,” then a name, is offering something close to a brush-off. He said he chooses his own business sign-offs in a descending order of cordiality, from “Warmest regards” to “All the best” to a curt “Sincerely.”
When Kim Bondy, a former CNN executive, e-mailed a suitor after a dinner date, she used one of her preferred closings: “Chat soon.” It was her way of saying, “The date went well, let’s do it again,” she said.
She may have been the only one who thought that. The return message closed with the dreaded “Best.” It left her feeling as though she had misread the evening. “I felt like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of formal. I don’t think he liked me,’ ” she said, laughing. “A chill came with the ‘Best.’ ” They have not gone out since.
“Best” does have its fans, especially in the workplace, where it can be an all-purpose step up in warmth from messages that end with no sign-off at all, just the sender coolly appending his or her name.
“I use ‘Best’ for all of my professional e-mails,” said Kelly Brady, a perky publicist in New York. “It’s friendly, quick and to the point.”
Because people read so much into a sign-off, said Richard Kirshenbaum, chief creative officer of the advertising firm Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, he has thought deeply about his preferred closing to professional correspondence, “Warmly, RK.” He did not want something too emotional, like “Love,” or too formal, like “Sincerely.” “ ‘Warmly’ fell comfortably in between,” he said. “I want to convey a sense of warmth and passion, but also be appropriate.”
Which is just what a professional e-mail message should be, many executives say. Surprisingly, the sign-off “xoxo,” offering hugs and kisses, has become common even for those in decidedly nonamorous relationships. Ms. Bondy, who received from 300 to 500 e-mail messages a day while at CNN, was no fan of the “xoxo” farewell, especially when it came from a stranger pitching a story idea. “They’re trying to be warm and familiar when they shouldn’t be,” she said. “It’s inappropriate, and that’s probably the e-mail I’m not going to return.”
Robert Verdi, a fashion stylist and a host of “Surprise by Design,” a makeover reality show on the Discovery Channel, is a self-described “xoxo offender.” “Never in the first or second communication,” he clarified. But after a few friendly phone conversations or e-mail exchanges, he feels comfortable with the affectionate and casual sign-off, though he generally waits for the other party to make the first move. “The other person gives you the cues,” he said. “They send a ‘You’re the best! Love, Alison,’ and you send a ‘Hugs and kisses’ and all of a sudden you’re over that awkward hump and you’re best friends.”
Ms. Kallos said Mr. Verdi’s approach is the correct one. “In business you want to maintain the highest level of formality until the other person indicates otherwise,” she said. “Mirroring isn’t a bad thing to do. You’re letting the other side set the level of familiarity.”
It is also important that the closing is in keeping with the spirit of the message or it may create some sort of cognitive dissonance, said Mary Mitchell, the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette.” “If you’re complaining to a company about a product and you sign off with ‘Warmly,’ you are miscommunicating,” she said.
Many e-mail users don’t bother with a sign-off, and Letitia Baldridge, the manners expert, finds that annoying. “It’s so abrupt,” she said, “and it’s very unfriendly. We need grace in our lives, and I’m not talking about heavenly grace. I’m talking about human grace. We should try and be warm and friendly.”
But it is important not to have too much fun with sign-offs, Ms. Baldridge cautioned, before recalling a closing from a man in his early 20s that read, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” It was “so pedestrian and boring and such an unattractive image to leave with people,” she said. “You want to leave an attractive warm image. Bedbugs are disgusting.”
Not to mention they prove a point Ms. Mitchell makes about e-mail correspondence. “While on the one hand e-mail encourages people to write,” she said, “on the other hand it discourages people to write thoughtfully.”