Thank Heavens for Email Clichés

Overused phrases—“I hope you’re well,” “Best,” etc.—are more valuable than they seem.

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I delete 95 percent of the PR emails I get within seconds of opening them. I couldn’t possibly read them all thoroughly—let alone reply to them all—and still get any work done, but sometimes I do feel bad, because the senders clearly spent so much time writing them.

A PR person’s job, really, is just to send people information about whatever they’re promoting. But there’s unfortunately another expectation—whether it’s explicit or implicit, I don’t know, not having worked at a PR firm—which is to perform friendliness and personalize the emails. So before the press release, there’s a lot of throat-clearing. If it’s near a holiday, it’s “How was your holiday?” Or perhaps it’s “I loved your recent story about X—I particularly loved this part. Since you’re interested in X, perhaps you’d be interested in Y?” (Where Y is the thing being promoted, and in all likelihood has no relation to X.)

This is emotional labor. It’s like expecting flight attendants to not only show you the safety instructions, but do it with a smile. It’s not strictly necessary to get the job done, but making people feel comfortable and doted upon has become part of the job. It must be exhausting to add those little flourishes to so many emails, messages which people like me immediately, callously delete. And it’s no surprise, then, that most public relations workers are women, whom society expects to soften every communication with flattery and kindness, whether on or off the clock.

To some degree, this is the expectation of all of us who send emails professionally—a kind greeting and a kind sign-off to sandwich the actual message. That’s not a bad thing, when the alternative is requests and demands splatted on your screen without a buffer of civility.

But people who work in offices get so many emails. Dear God, so many emails, cresting into your inbox like a wave of crying babies, all of which demand your attention. People likely send fewer emails than they receive, but the writing of email is still a time-devouring task. As my colleague Megan Garber wrote in 2013, the average person writes a novel’s worth of email a year—over 40,000 words.

And so, we find shortcuts. We create our own sort of form letters for the kinds of emails we typically write. I can type the phrase “I am a reporter at The Atlantic working on a story about X” faster than just about anything else, except perhaps “Thank you so much, all the best, Julie.”

And then, through natural selection (digital selection?) some of those shortcuts proliferate. One, “I hope you’re well,” drew recent scorn from Dayna Evans of New York magazine. “‘I hope you’re well’ is a scourge on email correspondence, a hollow greeting that has come to mean nothing,” she writes. Rebecca Greenfield wrote a similar manifesto against “Best” as a sign-off in Bloomberg last year, writing, “The problem with best is that it doesn’t signal anything at all.”

Well, sort of. Both phrases are definitely overused, but the reason they’re overused is because they do signal something. They don’t necessarily signal that the sender actually hopes you’re well, or actually is sending their best, that much is true. Rather, “Best” signals “I am ending this email politely,” and “I hope you’re well” signals “I am starting this email politely.” And because they’re so common, you can use them without any worry the signal will get lost. They’re just conversational markers—almost like punctuation. Wrap a sentence in quotation marks to indicate someone else said it; wrap your email in these phrases to indicate you’re being polite. Sincerity is not the point. I don’t believe someone who sent me an email actually cares if I’m well any more than I believe a cashier actually cares to hear the answer to “How are you?” But they care enough to perform the agreed-upon ritual of politeness, and that’s an important part of the social fabric.

Evans suggests that instead of “I hope you’re well,” email-writers take the time to write something a little more creative, like “Is life in Chicago as great as it looks?” or “Are you surviving this disgusting heatwave?” Those serve pretty much the same function as “I hope you’re well,” but they require more effort. Some emails certainly merit the effort of personalization, but it’s just not reasonable to do that every time. It’s like saying publishers shouldn’t use form rejection letters, but instead give specific feedback to each person—that would be nice, but it’s often not doable. Yes, “Best” and “I hope you’re well” are clichés, but so what? Every email doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. It just needs to serve its function.

Evans is smart to note that, “We used to treat emails like decorum-less notes in the early days of the electronic correspondence, but have come to adopt pleasantries as emails became the new letters.” This is perhaps exactly the problem. A good letter takes a long time to write! Personal emails may merit being treated like letters, but many professional ones would do better to emulate another outdated form of communication: the telegram. All those perfunctory notes, that could’ve been one sentence long, but that sentence looked so lonely alone, so cold, and you wouldn’t want to come off as cold, would you?—if we treated them like telegrams, they could just convey the information and leave it at that, and no one would be offended. I WILL CALL YOU AT 11:30 STOP; THE MEETING HAS BEEN PUSHED TO TOMORROW STOP

But alas, that is not the world we live in. And as long as we’re expected to lube up all of our emails with niceties, it makes sense to have some standard phrases to fall back on. “Best,” “I hope you’re well,” “Thanks so much for your time,” “Just checking in on X”—these are new cultural scripts for digital interaction, much like the exchange of “How are you?” is for IRL interaction. These new rituals are basically meaningless, but they offer a smooth point of entry into the conversation that’s safe, easy, and familiar. They get the job done without taking too much energy. And unless the email firehose lessens its pressure, we need them.