Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: The closing words in most emails aren't worth the trouble

May 4, 2013

It might seem like much ado about nothing, but I’ve been looking closely at closings on emails.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, we wrote actual letters to people who would take considerable time reading them. Those letters had to stand in for the senders, representing them from afar, so a good deal of thought was put into the closing.

The closing is the long, often-flowery prose right above the actual signature. It’s a sign of our mood, and of how we regard the recipient, so we scrutinize them with care even if we don’t realize we’re doing so. The permutations are endless: “Regards,” “Yours Truly,” “Very Truly Yours,” “Cordially,” “Sincerely” and lots of others, each with its own shade of formality and perhaps even implied irony.

Leaving the closing off entirely is almost inconceivable in a letter, because it’s considered rude to do so. Letters should close civilly, quietly and with good taste.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, once wrote a letter to George Washington during Washington’s presidency and ended it with, “Your most obedient and most humble servant.” Now, Jefferson would never have been anybody’s servant, obedient, humble or otherwise, but the closing was appropriately florid and gentlemanly.

Emails, however, aren’t letters. In fact, they are often blamed for robbing the U.S. Postal Service of a meaningful existence. Yet they’re expected to have closings that do the same job as the closing in an actual letter. They don’t. Emails are rapid-fire give-and-take and most senders don’t give a lot of thought to them, so closings are often at odds with the rest of the text. An irate or rushed email that ends with “Regards” is actually silly. It’s obvious the sender had little regard for anything but giving the recipient a piece of his or her mind.

I say that we do away with closings in emails altogether. I know I’m going to get contrary opinions on this subject, but I can point to trends to bolster my point of view.

Emails most often arrive in my inbox stripped of finery like closings, which suits me fine. They may even begin with a nice closing, but as the back-and-forth game continues, niceties get dropped and the core subject stands out more starkly. The less I have to analyze for tone, the better I like it. We don’t put closings on our Post-It notes, and emails are much closer to Post-It notes than they are to letters.

I’m talking only about business emails, not personal ones. An email to one’s fiancée that ends with nothing more than a final period on the last sentence won’t advance the relationship much.

And my stance may not be acceptable everywhere in the world. Some cultures will still cling to older sensibilities. It’s doubtful that, if Thomas Jefferson were to be resurrected and given an email account, he would be comfortable ending his missives abruptly. But it’s a new day, and we Americans are in a much greater hurry than he was. The Louisiana Purchase took two years to consummate, after all.

Besides, closings are just another opportunity to misread emails. Research shows that the majority of email recipients can’t pick up the intended tone in an email often, even when the emails are slowly and carefully written.

Researchers who study the subject say email is much like face-to-face communication—staccato, informal and rushed—but that it lacks the voice intonation and facial expressions needed to smooth out the words. Written letters had mechanisms for filling in the linguistic gaps, but they don’t work well for emails. Neither do the cutesy contractions like “LOL” or constructed smileys, by the way.

Experts like Judith at Netmanners.com have considerable advice for those seeking email closure. She lists no fewer than 28 possible closings and advises matching closing to overall tone. Most of it relates to personal email that should, ideally, communicate a specific tone.

And in fairness, some emails are more like letters than others. An email to a prospective employer should still close with something letter-like, for the same reason banks today still favor architecture left over from ancient Greece. Tradition matters.

But for everyday business through email, I would argue for jettisoning the closing altogether. We don’t read business email for jollies. We read it the same way we do everything, to get a task done.

A closing often does more to muddle the meaning than to expand on it, so for efficiency’s sake, let’s clobber the closing. Save it for romantic proposals and friendly catch-ups where it does some good, and don’t bother with it in most business correspondence. Just imagine how much time you’ll save.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.
 

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