Communications December 2012

Kisses and Hugs in the Office

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

This gender divide has spawned a new breed of etiquette dilemmas, especially in the workplace. Can xo-ing colleagues shore up office alliances, or does the practice cross a line? Does one run the risk of being labeled a bitch for refusing to reciprocate? And what happens if a woman accidentally xo’s her male boss?

He almost certainly wouldn’t xo back, for fear of coming off as unauthoritative, unprofessional, or just plain creepy. Zimmer says he would never dare xo anyone but his wife (though the female editor of his Boston Globe column xx’s him frequently). Most men say xo has become so feminized, they wouldn’t even consider using it. “I’ve never signed an e‑mail, letter, text, stone tablet, smoke signal, or any other form of communication with xo,” says Brett Webster, a television producer in L.A. “Rightfully or wrongfully so, I would assume a guy who includes xo in correspondence is gay. Or a football coach.”

Why, then, has xo become such a fashionable accessory for women? Why, after all the strides we’ve made to be taken seriously at work, must we end our e‑mails with the digital equivalent of a pink Gelly Roll pen?

Certainly, the feminine utilities of xo are multifold. Insert it casually as a symbol of closeness, authentic or not, with a friend or colleague—or, as Slaughter sees it, as a small high-five of professional sisterhood. Use it à la Sawyer, to inspire loyalty (or fear) among staffers. Or simply resort to it as easy filler when you don’t want to put the effort into something longer. “It’s much faster to type the four-stroke xxoo than With warm wishes followed by a comma,” says Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, a writing expert and the founder of a company called Syntax Training. “If someone can type a smiley face in one second, why write a sentence like I appreciate your thoughtfulness?”

There’s also the matter of women’s tonal antennae, which pick up on even the smallest shifts. “In e‑mail, ending a command with a period can feel brusque,” says Anne Trubek, a professor of rhetoric at Oberlin College. So we use xo, along with other effusive indicators—exclamation points, ALL CAPS, repeating letters (Hiiii)—to signal emotional availability. According to Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist who studies gender, these habits tend to parallel the way women speak as compared with men: with intonation patterns that go up and down more, with more emphasis on certain words, and about more-personal topics.

In some settings, xo-ing may be a way to indirectly apologize for being direct—think of all those studies concluding that women must be authoritative in the office, but also nice. One such study, by a psychologist at NYU, determined that the best way for a woman to be perceived as likeable at work is to temper strong demands with “a little bit of sugar.” In that context, xo can be seen as a savvy means of navigating a persistent double standard.

Or maybe, as Trubek suggests, xo‑ing is just like actual hugging: women do it more often than men, some women do it more often than other women, and that’s that.

“As someone who’s regularly ended letters to her accountant with xxx, I refuse to feel any shame for this widespread woman-trait,” says Caitlin Moran, the British feminist and author of How to Be a Woman. “Statistics show we’re slowly taking over the world, and I’m happy for us to do it one xxx e‑mail at a time.”

Jessica Bennett, formerly of Newsweek, is the executive editor of Tumblr. Rachel Simmons is the author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl.
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