Communications December 2012

Kisses and Hugs in the Office

How a once-intimate sign-off is feminizing the workplace, for better or worse
Cody Haltom

The phone call was friendly, the kind any two professional contacts might have. A colleague had put Amanda McCall, a comedy writer in New York, in touch with a producer in Los Angeles. The two women had admired each other’s work from afar. They chatted about whether they might want to collaborate on a project. They made plans to talk again.

The next morning, McCall received an e‑mail from the producer. “Absolutely LOVED talking,” the woman wrote, followed by a seemingly endless string of X’s and O’s. That afternoon, a follow-up to the follow-up arrived, subject line “xo.” The body read simply: “xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo.”

McCall was mystified. Should she e‑mail back? Should she ask her what it meant? Was she weird for thinking this was weird? “I’d never seen so many hugs or kisses in any kind of correspondence, even from my parents or boyfriends,” she says, laughing. “In which case: Was this person actually in love with me? And if I didn’t respond with equal love, was it going to hurt her feelings?”

This e‑mail was extreme, yes—yet it’s an example of a tic that’s come to plague professional correspondence, especially among women. The use of xo to denote hugs and kisses dates back to at least 1763, when The Oxford English Dictionary first defined X as “kiss,” but e‑mail and social media have provided a newly fertile habitat.

“I feel like xo has taken on its own kind of life,” says Karli Kasonik, a Washington-based consultant.

“I do it, most women I know do it,” says Asie Mohtarez, a writer and social-media editor, noting that she prefers a single x to the full xo.

“In my field, you almost have to use it,” says Kristin Esposito, a yoga instructor in New York.

And no, xo is not a habit unique to 20‑somethings reared on Gossip Girl. It has surfaced in the digital correspondence of everyone from Arianna Huffington to Nora Ephron. Wendy Williams, the talk-show host, says she wishes she could stop using it, but admits that she can’t. Anne-Marie Slaughter—foreign-policy wonk, Princeton professor, and she who still can’t have it all—doesn’t xo, but knows several professional women who do. In Diane Sawyer’s newsroom, staffers say, the anchor uses xo so frequently that its omission can spark panic.

As e‑mail has evolved further and further from its postal roots, our sign-offs have become increasingly glib. While Sincerely or With best wishes might have been the ending of choice for a letter or a business memo, these expressions feel oddly formal when pinged back and forth in immediate, high-volume e‑mail exchanges. And so Sincerely begat Best begat Cheers and so on, until, somewhere along the line, xo slipped in.

At first, its virtual identity was clear: a pithy farewell, sweeter than See you later, less personal than Love. Men could xo their wives. Girlfriends could xo girlfriends. It was a digital kiss—meant, of course, for somebody you’d actually kiss. But soon enough, nonstop e‑mails and IMs and tweets began to dilute its intimacy factor. “You could compare [it] to how the epistolary greeting Dear changed over time, originally just for addressing loved ones but eventually becoming neutral,” says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicologist.

Today, xo is so common that researchers at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford have studied its use in social media, and confirmed what most everyone on the Internet already knows: xo is a female phenomenon. Among Twitter users, 11 percent of women xo in tweets, compared with only 2.5 percent of men.

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