Office Appropriate Email Signatures

At a dinner party this past weekend, the topic turned to office-appropriate email sign offs. While we engaged in a spirited debate over the most appropriate (and inappropriate) signatures, we did reach consensus on a few issues and dismiss a few emerging trends as disturbing and unprofessional. 

Avoid the overly familiar

A recent Atlantic piece highlights a disturbing emerging trend: women are increasingly signing business emails with an xoxo. As someone who would have been embarrassed to sign a note to my middle school crush with an xoxo, I cannot imagine ever concluding a business email with hugs and kisses. 

In my personal life (with family and dear friends), I conclude most emails with “love, me” (the comma, of course, is essential otherwise it looks like a command). But I live in fear that on one very busy work day I will mindlessly sign a work email with a “love, me.” The fear is so pronounced that at the end of my busiest days, I have been known to scroll through my outbox to confirm that I have not committed the sin of concluding a work email with “love.” Since this is my worst nightmare, you can imagine that I’m not a fan of the voluntary xoxo. Indeed, 100% of dinner party attendees (three lawyers, a business owner, and a scientist) agreed that xoxo should never be used, despite the Atlantic’s claims that it’s all the rage.

It’s not just the xoxo, however, that presents a danger. I have received work emails that conclude with a “thanks hon,” or even with a smiley face. Both tend to make me shudder, and it turns out that I’m not alone on this issue.

Tailor the signature to the message

A friend and colleague has created an elaborate set of rules governing her sign offs. “If I’m trying to be nice,” she explains, “I’ll use ‘kind regards.’” Next on the list? “If I’m not trying to be nice, I’ll just use ‘regards.’” Finally, she uses “thanks” if she’s asking someone for assistance. Now that I know her hierarchy, of course, I will be on the lookout for her signature on the next email—do I warrant the “nice” signature or a simple “regards”?   

I have other friends who never tailor the signature, but create a kind of personal calling card. An old college friend used to sign all his emails “pax,” which seemed very cool at the time. After college, I tried to cultivate my own email calling card, deciding briefly on ciao, only to realize that in the business world ciao wasn’t going to cut it (unless, perhaps, I moved to Italy). In the legal world, it’s tough to find an appropriate universal signature.

Think about tone

Personally, I sign most of my emails with a simple “thanks,” but my technique came under fire at the dinner party. “What are you thanking people for?” a friend asked. “You’re usually answering their question.” But I would like to offer a defense of the “thanks.” When I sign an email with “thanks,” I am thanking people for their focused attention reading my email. Tone can be easily misconstrued in an email and “thanks” is a friendly conclusion that (hopefully) will ameliorate any other tonal errors that I’ve committed in the email. 

In fact, research shows that tone is misconstrued in half of all emails. To make matters worse, people “think they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.” Since my first rule of emailing is “do no harm,” I do not want my tone undermining my message. I hope a simple “thanks,” will do the job and repair any damage that I’ve created before the signature.

After we explored these issues, our dinner party conversation hit on other cutting-edge email issues like thanking people in a reply all (a don’t) and thanking people for their email (an issue still open for debate). Did we learn anything? It was nice to hear how much other people struggle with these same small issues. Our conversation also served as a reminder that while we may leave middle school, we never stop pouring over notes for subtext and hidden meaning. Perhaps because it’s fun.    

(photo: “xoxo” handwritten acronym from Shutterstock)

Lawyering Skills, Legal Technology

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  • http://jrwilliamslaw.com Josh

    If opposing counsel sends me a particularly snarky or rude email, I will begin my reply with “Thank you for your email,” to signal that I’m not going to allow myself to get sucked in to ad hominem attacks and other silliness.

    • http://www.jasonpaulhowie.com jason p howie

      I did see one response from the 1970s which I will update for email protocol:

      “I am sending you a copy of this email. I thought you should know that some a@@@ole is sending stupid emails under your name.”

      I don’t think we can get away with it anymore, but it does bring back some nostalgia.

      Cheers.

  • http://projectplay.net/ Sadie

    Worse than signing your email “Xoxox” is saying on the phone “bye, love you!” to a business contact.
    I sign all my emails “-Sadie” which I think is a holdover from my wanta-be hacker days, but I fear it now looks pretentious, as if I just quoted myself and want to make sure my email is correctly attributed. At least it avoids many of the pitfalls you outlined.

  • George

    I appreciate your colleague’s hierarchical approach (reducing her sentiment relative to the familial proximity of the recipient). Indeed, I too tend to fall back upon my habit of signing off ‘Best regards’ when formally communicating, and breaking down to ‘Best’ when either personally friends or replying in subsequent emails. However, there are occasions when signoffs should remain calculated based on content, particularly where opposing counsel has been less than professional, or, in the case of my university students, they have elected to wax lyrical about the insurmountablestress associated with balancing mid-term assignments against late night partying. In such circumstances, I often extend myself to: “I trust you understand my position in regards to the issues you have raised.” followed by my initials for first and middle names and then surname. (eg, JQ Public)

  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

    “Sincerely” will always be appropriate for anything.

    A nastygram signed “Very truly yours” always makes me giggle.

  • Rebecca

    I recently communicated with a Realtor and found it extremely off-putting when he would sign off with “I’m here for you” or other such nonsense. Perhaps others find it reassuring, I felt it was overly familiar and a bit creepy. Personally, I stick with “sincerely” “best” or “thanks” depending on the context of the email.

  • Allan

    Yes! So much embarassing gushing and flourishing in emails – “With deepest thanks”, “Take courage”, etc.

    Keep it professional. We’ve been using an Exclaimer to regulate everyone’s signature, I recommend them – I think more and more interaction is solely done through email, if it looks bad, we look bad.