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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)