Like haiku, football commentary and Tannoy announcements on the Tube, office email has a culture and vernacular all its own. We agonise over cc etiquette; we fume over wordy or bewilderingly brief messages; we dream of inbox zero.
And like all widely used languages, office email also boasts its own tacit meanings: a body of commonly accepted words and phrases that, though sprayed in the aroma of good intentions, can emit an underlying whiff of impatience, stress or downright scorn.
Below are five such phrases – idioms that have become so commonplace, an email can seem sloppy, even hostile, without them. But what do they really mean? And if effective, sincere communications is our goal, is there any way we can improve on them?
1. “I hope you’re well.”
Why we use it: On first glance, only the biggest churl could object to this. It is, surely, unambiguously positive in intent, a pleasantry that acknowledges, however fleetingly, that your wellbeing should always trump mere work matters.
What’s the problem: If you begin every email you write by wishing the recipient well, whether you last saw them 10 years or 10 minutes ago, the phrase becomes less of a greeting and more of an auto-response, the email equivalent of saying “your call is important to us”.
The sad fact is emails are almost always a vehicle for asking for something. But jumping straight in and demanding new photocopier toner from a guy whose name you can scarcely spell isn’t going to cut it. So what is?
What’s the alternative: The “easiest” way to reclaim that sliver of concern that “I hope you’re well” might once have conveyed is to use the personal touch. “How are the salsa lessons going?” we might ask; “Are you off to Greece again this year?”, or “Is your son still working off his community service?”
OK, so perhaps not the last one, but touches of humanity such as these can melt even the hardest of procurement/HR/accounting hearts. The problem, of course, is that remembering something personal about all your email contacts is a truly superhuman task, achievable only by teenage polymaths and motivational speakers.
He hopes you’re well.
2. “I hope this helps.”
Why we use it: We’ve all been there. “I hope you’re well. Can you do such-and-such, but with x instead of y, and including z. Oh, and we need it by COB. Sorry.”
You think you have the answer – you may even have the right attachment to back it up – but you’re not quite sure. Undaunted, you send it back moments before the deadline, signing off with your devastating finale: “I hope this helps”. Your opponent, reeling, knows it’s game over.
Why? Because while the writer of this particular email may indeed hope that their response has helped in some way, the unspoken message is: This may not be exactly right but it’s the best I can do. Further emails on this won’t get you any further. Be off with you.
What’s the problem: If this is the message you want to convey, there is no problem. But if you are genuinely one of those kind-hearted souls who does want to help, your message may be submerged in the sea of passive-aggressive subtext.
What’s the alternative: Difficult to say. Perhaps if you really do hope it helps, and you’re willing to dig a little deeper, something like “Is this what you were looking for?” would do the trick.
“I hope this helps.”
3. “Please advise.”
Why we use it: Ostensibly, this linguistic brace is used for obvious reasons. Something like, I’m not sure what you wanted exactly, so please let me know if this is right.
As a phrase, it’s short, it’s got the p word, and it conveys a reassuring seriousness that shows the writer wants to get this done.
What’s the problem: Unfortunately, lurking beneath this businesslike façade is a veritable torrent of passive aggression. It may be just two innocuous words, but in the wrong hands they practically snap, “I have no idea what’s going on here! What the blinking flip are you playing at?!”
What’s the alternative: If the relationship is sound and mutually respectful, no alternative is required. If it’s less so – or if you’re dealing with pedants such as your comms team – perhaps, “Could you please clarify this for me?” or the like will work. Yes, it’s five more words, but it could prevent a whole world of hurt at an unrelated meeting or staff outing six months down the line.
4. “Happy New Year!” “Hope you had a great break!” etc.
Why we use it: Again, at first blush, the kind of well wishes that only the most incorrigible grump could object to. When being wished a Happy New Year becomes a niggly chore, then surely there is no hope for any of us.
What’s the problem: But, but, but… as with “I hope you’re well”, if the phrase is used too freely, for too long after the event, and is closely followed by a request for a 50-slide PowerPoint presentation by lunchtime, the recipient will come to associate such niceties with impending catastrophe.
What’s the alternative: As with “I hope you’re well”, a personal touch will go a long way. If in doubt, though, it’s probably best to leave it out altogether. And never – ever – jokingly extend your New Year’s greetings into Chinese New Year.
“Happy New Year!”
5. “Best regards.”
Why we use it: Of all the phrases in the office email canon, perhaps none is as omnipresent as this. And it’s easy to see why: Rather than struggle with situation-specific alternatives, this is a safe option for all your email requirements. If it feels a tad stuffy, or if you’re in a hurry, you can helpfully abbreviate it to “b regards” or just “br”.
What’s the problem: We’ll admit, this is quite a personal thing, but surely no sign-off drips with insincerity as profusely as “best regards” (apart from the similarly leaden “kind regards”). It’s trotted out with such unthinking regularity that it’s basically a part of the email signature, but bereft of any significance or usefulness.
Worse, its meaning isn’t clear on first glance, and becomes less so the more you stare at it. Regards to what? Or whom?
What’s the alternative: As it happens, there are quite a few: best wishes, many thanks, all the best and so on. For those more intimate moments, there’s even the proudly British “cheers”.
But none of these is without its pitfalls: “Best wishes” can sound a bit Christmas-card, “many thanks” surely requires something to be thankful for, and for all email’s informality, ending with “cheers” is, for many, a chumminess too far. (Indeed, in this post-Slack world, and with all sign-offs apparently fraught with danger, some are even suggesting that the only solution is to abandon these niceties altogether.)
So there you have it. Whatever their shortcomings and however fraught with double entendre they may be, these email staples seem unlikely to go anywhere soon. To paraphrase Churchill, these phrases may be the worst to use in your emails – apart from all the others.
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