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.