| Net manners
New York, Nov. 26: Chad Troutwine, an entrepreneur in Malibu, California, was negotiating a commercial lease earlier this year for a building he owns. Though talks began well, they soon grew rocky.
The telltale sign that things had truly devolved' The sign-offs on the email exchanges with his prospective tenant.
“As negotiations started to break down, the sign-offs started to get decidedly shorter and cooler,” 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 Troutwine still felt as if he had been snubbed.
What’s in an email sign-off' A lot, apparently. Those final few words above your name are where relations and hierarchies are established.
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 email 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 the 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 and author of Because Netiquette Matters.
To be clear about what an email 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.
Troutwine is not alone in thinking that an email 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, emailed 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”. “A chill came with the ‘Best’,” she said. They haven’t 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.
“I use ‘Best’ for all of my professional emails,” 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 an advertising firm, 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 email message should be, many executives say. Surprisingly, the sign-off “xoxo”, offering hugs and kisses, has become common even for those in decidedly non-amorous relationships.
Robert Verdi, a fashion stylist, is a self-described “xoxo offender”. “Never in the first or second communication,” he clarified. But after a few friendly exchanges, he feels comfortable with the affectionate and casual sign-off, though he generally waits for the other party to make the first move. Kallos said Verdi’s approach is the correct one. Many email 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. We should try and be warm and friendly.”