This Is Not the End of Email Etiquette

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It's been more than two days since The New York Times's Nick Bilton typed his tirade on digital etiquette, effectively declaring the end of nice when it comes to voicemails and emails and more, and now the thundering contrarian herds of mean are coming for your salutations. We have to say, politely, that these prescriptions on how not to communicate have gotten a little out of hand.

Today, for example, The Week's Chris Gayomali explained how benign email sign-offs make us all sound like terrible people. "Best," for example, can "feel abrupt"; "thank you" can "sound forced." Taking that a step further, Slate, as only Slate can, called for the abolition of email sign-offs, forever and always. "Heretofore, I do not want—nay, I will not accept—any manner of regards. Nor will I offer any. And I urge you to do the same," writes Mathew J.X. Malady, who doesn't even make an exception for such flourishes in the format that probably birthed email in the first place — the business exchange. And, really, that's just harsh for no good reason.

The Atlantic Wire already put together some guidelines for how to get by in this cruel online world, but the general upshot was simple: Being nice won't hurt anybody. And whether these latest attempts to usher in the age of evil stem from reactionary blog posts or literal rude awakenings, they're certainly more harmful than helpful. Why hate someone for adding on a "sincerely" or a "cheers" at the end of an email? So what if you're sick of the words — that's just adding negativity in a situation that doesn't need any. Indeed, while trying to kill kindness, Slate's Malady ends up making a pretty great case for niceties: "I finally realized the ridiculousness of spending even one second thinking about the totally unnecessary words that we tack on to the end of emails." The closing words of an email message don't matter all that much. It takes about one tenth of a second to glance at them, if a reader even decides to move her eyes that far down the screen. The attention span has already been killed; why so aggressively kill the sign-off along with it? Whither it may, but murder it does not deserve.

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But, okay, even if you assume that everyone reads and cares deeply about email send offs, there is still room for kindness. On the one hand, you risks offending Slate writers, who will harshly judge anyone who writes "my very best" before signing her name. Far more likely, should you follow his mean advice and abruptly terminate your email, is that the recipient of your email will notice the absence of a sign-off, and think: "This looks naked. How rude!" Which person would you rather antagonize: The jerk getting pissy over everyone following the presumed standards of human communication, or someone who actually cares about the email you're sending her? Ideally, neither kind of person would get all worked up and everyone could go on emailing as they please. 

Alas, in the most extreme case, it's kind of fun to mess with someone who has unreasonable expectations about the end... of the end of emails. Some of the most creative emailers might even get playful with sign-offs, as some of our Atlantic colleagues admitted doing on Twitter:

Here's the nice thing about all these mean people writing something to force people to stop writing the way they do: It will never work. Communication is evolutionary, not reactionary. Slate's Malady thinks the tradition of adding a salutation to the end of a letter — digital or otherwise — has become outdated because "the era when individuals sought to win the favor of the king via dedication letters and love notes ending with 'Your majesty's Most bounden and devoted'" has "long passed." But that's not the way language works: "Sincerely" and "best" and "yours truly" all mean something different in the right now. If they're destined for the graveyard of human vocabulary, these salutations will become extinct, because language embraces time, and words don't die on screens. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.