Every once in a while there is a bit of a social media storm about how we sign our email messages. There are some humourous memes attributing passive-aggressive intent to various formal sign-offs. They are only funny if you don’t regularly worry about whether the way you sign your email is rude. As Aimée Morrison pointed out in one of these Twitter flurries:
Formulas grease the wheels of necessary formal interactions. That’s what manners are: a set of quick-guides to patterns of behaviors that allow everyone to feel comfortable and not offend.
However, it seems to me that there is no generally agreed upon quick-guide to email sign offs. Otherwise Samantha Walton wouldn’t have needed to say this:
Can we just agree that ‘Best wishes’/’All best’ as an email sign off isn’t actually rude? It’s v. exhausting to try to communicate authentic emotion at the end of the 7000 emails I send everyday
Gender and generation are major dividing lines both in patterns of email sign off, and in how much energy someone is inclined to expend on worrying about this kind of thing (HT Liz Gloyn).
As someone who was an academic at the point where email was first becoming a thing but when we still did a lot of correspondence (especially with people in our institution) on paper, I have a perspective to offer that I hope will be useful. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me. I offer this in case it helps you expend less cognitive and emotional labour worrying about how you sign off email. You have many better things to do with that energy.
Emails are mostly not letters
A formal letter requires a formal opening (e.g. Dear Title LastName) and a formal closing (e.g. Yours Sincerely) with your full name, title, and affiliation. Most of your email is not like this. The exceptions include job applications. This level of formality is probably also a good idea if you are corresponding with someone who you don’t know well or are not in regular communication with.
Treating email as a letter for routine correspondence between colleagues who work together in a department, or on a committee seems excessive. It also seems too formal for regular correspondence with your students or advisees, although it might be appropriate for initial introductions and formal communication of things like results.
A lot of your email deals with routine correspondence between colleagues who are collaborating on some kind of work. That might be research projects, writing projects, teaching, committee work, or the general communication required between colleagues in a department. There is some familiarity between the correspondents even if they are not friendly. Some people have now replaced this sort of communication with Slack or Teams channels.
This type of communication would have been a memorandum in pre email days. I did a quick google search and it seems that Microsoft Office and other software you use regularly might still include a template for this kind of thing. Something that looks very much like your email composing window would be a template for a document that would be printed out and put in someone’s pigeon-hole or sent in an envelope through inter-office mail.
Importantly for this discussion, the stuff that is in the To, CC, and Subject lines did not get repeated in the body of the memo. It was common to just end with your initials because your name was in the From line at the top. This is very likely the reason why your senior (male) colleagues sign their emails with their initials and might start writing without a salutation. Personally, I find “dear” anachronistic or too much like a letter so I tend to default to Hello or Hi (depending on who it is) if I think a salutation is necessary. My thinking is that it’s more like an oral mode (e.g. telephone call) than a letter. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
This type of semi-formal structure also seems suitable for ongoing correspondence with students and advisees, calibrated to whatever level of familiarity you find appropriate in your dealings with students. Because the power relationship is different here, a salutation might be appropriate, modelling what you’d like them to use with you.
Signature files are your friend
One advantage of email is that you can use the signature file to add whatever it is you think is appropriate. If you agree with Aimée Morrison’s point (above), then make one decision and put whatever you decide in the signature file along with your full name, affiliation, and whatever else you like to share there. Default responses save a lot of emotional and cognitive labour. If you feel like you have to adjust it every time, it’s not a formula.
Of course, it may be appropriate to use a different formula for different categories of communication. Most email programmes will allow you to have more than one signature file. Deciding on a few broad categories and creating a default response for each reduces your decision making when writing email to choosing a signature. Create a general one that works for your most common needs and set it as the default. Pick one of the others as appropriate.
This also avoids problems like the one Aniq shared:
Signed the mail with “Best Regrets” instead of Best regards, by mistake. Yeah I hope your regrets are the best! #AcademicTwitter
If you want to add your initials or a less formal sign off than your full name between the valediction and all the details, that’s easy to do. The signature text is just pasted text, you can edit it in the email. That means you can also use it as a template that includes the salutation and then write your text in the middle.
Stop being passive aggressive
I get that sometimes you are really annoyed with your correspondent. The fact that you are replying at all and not actually signing off “Fuck you, you entitled asshole” means you know that it’s not really appropriate to do that in a professional context. Subtly changing your usual sign-off is either not going to be noticed or it’s going to have the same effect as writing the inappropriate thing. In other words, you can think it, but just use your default signature file.
If you need someone to know that their behaviour is inappropriate and they need to stop or do something differently, you will have to do the cognitive and emotional labour to figure out how to have that difficult conversation with them, whether things are at a stage where a formal complaint might be necessary, or whatever.
That is a completely different topic. Passive-aggressive email sign-offs don’t help.
This post is part of a series on Email Overwhelm, where I tackle a variety of practical and emotional issues around email. The associated posts are listed below.
I would like to acknowledge Liz Gloyn, Aimée Morrison, Samantha Walton, Aniq and others for saying smart things about this on Twitter. I have not linked to specific tweets partly because this kind of thing comes up all the time and partly because no one needs to suddenly get mentions for something they said months ago.
Other Posts in this Series:
I’m usually more worried about overwhelm and the time and energy you spend on email. Fortunately other people have taken the time to write in more detail about professional norms for specific types of email.
- Proactive communication: newsletters and other stories – Katherine Firth of Research Insiders
- How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF) – Laura Portwood-Stacer
(Yes, it’s reasonable for you to teach students how to correspond with you.)
And some people actually did some research on this!
- You don’t need to answer right away! Receivers overestimate how quickly senders expect responses to non-urgent work emails by Laura M.Giurgea & Vanessa K.Bohns
Signing off: Enjoy your writing!