Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson‘s newsletter debates the proper etiquette, or lack thereof, when it comes to the art of the email sign off. In the age of e-letters, does the craft of formal writing still have a place?
While on our Epicurean retreat last month I was fascinated to learn that Epicurus, the founder of the Epicurean movement, ended his letters with the injunction “Live well”, which I thought was lovely. I am also fond of the elaborate 18th century conventions, where the sender would err on the side of caution as far as politeness goes and end with something like: “Until which time, I remain your most humble and obedient servant, Thos. Hodgkinson Esq.” This did not come naturally: the 18th century saw a proliferation of letter writing manuals with strict guidelines. These manuals helped people polish their epistolary style and actually recommended a certain level of flattery and deference. Above all they insisted on “civility”. When writing to her husband, Lady Elizabeth Montagu deviated a little from the formula, but only a little, writing: “I am, my dearest, your most affectionate and faithfull, E Montagu.”
Today an Italian acquaintance signed off an email to me with a charming Wodehousian “Toodle oo” to which I responded with a quick “Pip pip”. A comedian friend uses the very positive “Peace and love” while a noted anarchist friend always appends “Love, blessings and sweet joy” and a lot of “x”s to his emails. A spiritual teacher writes “In the loving remembrance of One” and opens with “Greetings of love!” In France they end with a polite “Cordialement” which I like and I notice that the editor of the Chap has been inspired by this Gallic habit and rounds off his emails with the word “Cordially”.
I tend to use the boring “All the best”, and I have noted that some, evidently important people who are in a hurry, will sometimes shorten this to “atb”. I have experimented with “Stay idle” and “Be idle” and I am now thinking of adopting the Epicurean “Live well”.
A more formal expression is “With kind regards” which I don’t mind at all, and in between you have “With best wishes”.
Then there is the vexing question of the “x”. I am always surprised when PRs who I have never met put an “x” or two at the end of their emails. I suppose it becomes a habit: I remember one artist friend telling me that he signed off with an “x” to a customer services manager at his bank.
The problem with email is that it by nature encourages a telegram-like brevity which can sometimes appear a little curt and even rude and can lead to misunderstandings. Therefore you should probably make an effort to introduce extra formalities, even if it feels awkward at first, for the sake both of civility and clarity.
And what about the opening or address? I like it, for example, when friends use the old form of address “Dear” rather than the modern “Hi”, though this can feel a little affected, and seems superfluous with subsequent emails in an exchange.
What is sad is that the whole field is now so wild and untamed. At school we were taught when to use “Yours faithfully” and when to use “Yours sincerely” and how to lay out a letter. These formalities had a purpose: they showed respect to the recipient, and we need to carve out a modern email etiquette, a list of rules which will take the stress out of the whole thing.
I plead for a modern day manual called “The Rules of Civility: How to Write Politely in the Digital Age”.
Any suggestions for useful formulae – dearest readers! – would be very welcome.
I look forward to hearing from and you and remain,
Your most humble, faithful and obedient servant,
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views.
Your email sent me scurrying to see how Plato signed off letters. It’s not recorded but he did open with, “Welfare!”
– Mark Vernon
A wonderful missive on email writing, Thomas.
Did you see how I don’t need to say dear or any other salutation in my opening? Informal, civil, and because it is specific proves it is not a bulk email.
PS: I only use TTFN for more mature people. I found I had to keep explaining Ta Ta For Now to under 30s.
– Rod Cowan
I think, “Toodle Pip”, does the job and I hate “Bestest”!
IYHO does the slang Ta for thank you derive from Thanks Awfully
– Watson Gregory
Government letters from Cuba post revolution were all signed off ‘Yours truly, Fatherland or death we shall win’. I normally close with ‘Best wishes’.
I like “Live well”.
– John Cenci
As an avid motorcyclist and retired rancher I always sign off with a quote from world famous Road racing motorcyclist Joey Dunlop. That way my kids know I’m riding safely.
“There is a grey blur, and a green blur. I try to stay on the grey one.”
– Rob Fensom
So funny that you should send this particular email today, as I have been struggling with this very question this afternoon.
I feel as if I’m running out of ways to start emails to people I know well professionally and have to contact frequently – in particular those missives where I am attaching an invoice. I don’t want to open with ‘Hello X. Please find attached my invoice for work completed this month’, as I find it too brusque and possibly even a little rude.
Lately I have been going with ‘Hello X. I hope the sun is shining where you are are today’, or (because there seem to have been so many recently) ‘Dear X. I hope you enjoyed the long weekend’, but I fear this approach may be a bit tired or even appear insincere, so I am finding this conundrum challenging to say the least.
I’ll be interested to hear what other people’s suggestions are.
In the meantime, keep on keepin’ on.
– Saša Jankovic
What I object to Tom, in your e-mail , is this:
A more formal expression is “With kind regards” which I don’t mind at all,
I hope you will at once start minding! What on earth is a “regard” in this context, and, whatever it is, how on earth can it be kind or unkind, or whatever?
– Nevile Gwynne
For largely the reasons you discuss, I don’t.
– Martin Danvers
“Love and sunshine to you”
As used by Elgar, I understand. Nothing new under the sun!
– Steve Bithell
Kind Regards, Hugs and Kisses, Gassho, All the Best, Cheers…
– Jackie Farley
I sing in a barbershop choir, and the convention amongst barbershop singers is to sign off with ‘in harmony’. Similarly I believe quakers use ‘in friendship’ which I also like.
In Ali Smith’s new book (Spring) some awful people sign off an email invitation to their mother’s funeral with ‘vbw’. The character decides this stands for ‘very big wankers’ and I can’t get this out of my head when people use this terrible abbreviation.
For now I’ll stick to:
– Mike Crossland
Please write the book. It should become a bestseller and could be added to the school curriculum, although I don’t believe formal letter writing is part of any curriculae (or is it i) now.
BTW, by the way, I recently received a Hi e mail with xxx from an unknown solicitor! IMHO (In my humble opinion) that was in bad form.
Thanks for bringing a smile to my Monday morning.
– Jay Dolphin
I rather like the Quaker sign off, which is simply
– John Roebuck
In business correspondence I will typically use a more formal salutation and closing (Dear/Sincerely yours), as I suspect that many of those engaged in commerce are still accustomed to such formalities, especially if they are of a certain age. For everyone else I typically sign off with Peace or Cheers.
– Kent Burnside
I quite like the informality of modern emails but admit that might be because one can rattle off a reply speedily, communicating some basic intention and humour without much framing. It’s the Americanisation of our culture isn’t it? Email philosophy is the equivalent of wearing jeans and open shirts – a snub to old structures and their dusty mannerisms.
The objection to all that is it’s laziness. Is this the same as lack of regard to civility? Thank God for spell check, automatic capitals etc otherwise my emails would look even more bedraggled. I admit if I see those haven’t worked in a previous sentence I now largley ignkre the error, knowing my audience will understand that it was technology’s fault, not mine.
Whattsapp message style has absorbed any final attempts to maintain a glossy exterior and has degraded all my other communication to snappy one liners with no beginning or end. As for actual writing, I find now that when I try to show my son how to form letters, I can barely stop my hand from trailing off mid curve, shaking with effort, as if the undead had suddenly risen and dragged me away.
Why I really replied to you is this. My favourite ending to letters are in those of Vincent van Gogh. Have you read them? He usually ends with something like ‘Goodbye, with a handshake’ or ‘a handshake in my thoughts’ which I like. And he often seems to carry on the sentence to include that bit at the end, for example (paraphrase):
‘Goodbye with a handshake and I will always be
Your loving brother
Et voila. What style!
– Nicholas Elliot
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