Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2015
The Legal Writer
Kind Regards and Other Affronts:
Another Look at Professional Email
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost
The Legal Writer has covered professional correspondence in several ways over the years. But this month, the column is focused on the number one, absolute, most important aspect of an email: the stuff after all the substantive content.
After a writer finishes explaining, complaining and attaching, he’ll usually sign his name. Some sign off sincerely. And some send kind regards. Some include inspiring quotations, while others send company logos. With the wide variety of post-content content in emails in mind, I thought I’d poll some lawyers to learn about the impressions that content can make. I was surprised by how personally people take a salutation and how deeply they’ll psychoanalyze the sender based on just a few little words. Maybe their impressions will give you pause before sending your next email.
In my unscientific study, I sent a list of common email salutations to some lawyers and asked for their impressions. Here’s what they had to say about each one:
Very truly yours (oryours truly).These two didn’t go over so well, although several of the people I surveyed (including people who don’t like it) said they regularly use it in professional correspondence. Overall, both salutations created too personal an effect. According to one person, they seemed better suited for a love letter than professional correspondence. Another person noted that they’re perfect in just the right context: “When writing a letter to a pen pal from summer camp, ‘yours truly’ is a great choice.” Others described them as “overkill,” “saccharine” and “insincere.” Finally, one responder copped to the insincerity and admitted, “While I am neither true nor yours, my letter templates all default to this, so it must be acceptable in business settings.” Good enough.
Sincerely. Sincerely went over pretty well with this rancorous crowd. They said it’s “fine,” “acceptable” and “innocuous,” though one person noted it would be more appropriate for a letter than an email.
However, one person said sincerely suggests the writer “gave absolutely no thought to this salutation.” Someone else saw its unique potential for twisting the knife: “It’s not too friendly this was suggested as a virtue, and if used at the end of a particularly snarky email, it offers a nice touch of sarcasm.”
Best. Best received tepid approval from those I polled. In its favor, it was called an “adequate go-to sign-off.” Readers deemed it professional but “warm, without getting too personal.” One person supported best because it gave her no reason to criticize the sender. As I said, tepid approval.
But the news for best isn’t all that good. The warmth and professionalism was lost on some who read it as a lazy abbreviation. One person called it inappropriate shorthand. “But shorthand for what? Best what?” she asked. Best also seemed like an abbreviation to another recipient, who commented, “This makes me feel like I wasn’t good enough for the extra effort required to type ‘regards.’ It’s like another generation’s ‘thx.’ ” (Note to self: Never send someone my best again.)
Cheers. Those who “cheers” people in professional correspondence might want to rethink that approach. Cheers, as a salutation, was unanimously pooh-poohed by those surveyed. While cheers may be commonplace in conversation abroad, several people surveyed couldn’t get past its connection to drinking in the United States. They wondered, are we having a beer or discussing work? It seemed too casual and chummy for a professional email.
Others clearly recognized the foreign root of it, but didn’t see that as a saving grace. The sender didn’t create the worldly impression he might have hoped for; it seemed “wannabe worldly.” One person joked, “We’re not backpacking through Europe!” Another responder said that when she reads “cheers” in email, she hears, “I’m sophisticated! I studied abroad, and I hope you’ll ask me about it.” Of course, she also recognized that the writer might actually be from abroad, in which case, she said, “go for it.”
Kind Regards and its Shortform Kin, Regards. These two salutations — kind regardsand regards — were criticized in ways that, frankly, I didn’t see coming. Perhaps the most glowing praise was that they’re “generic” and “probably mostly acceptable.” But a surprising number of people thought they seemed dated, though the dates varied from “very ’80s” to “sent from Downton Abbey.”
Kind regards got weaker reviews than regards. One person thought the longer variation seemed sycophantic. Another person said it suggested, “I’m new around here, I don’t know you, and I really, really, really don’t want to offend you.” Another person noted, “It’s very nice, but better coming from a great aunt or mortuary.”
The people I surveyed were torn on plain old regards. To some, it seemed “cold,” “mechanical” and “like a form letter.” To others, it was “fine,” “standard” and “professional.” Fortunately, regards didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings or make anyone angry, so it ranks pretty high among the salutations so far.
Thank you, Thanks! andThanks. I asked about the impression each of these variations made on a reader. And oh boy, what a difference an exclamation point can make!
Some readers saw thanks! as “friendly” and “warm” but more appropriate for personal than professional correspondence. The exclamation point made the sender seem “eager to please.” One person took a stronger stance, proclaiming that the exclamation point has no place in professional correspondence. He elaborated that even the more formal thank you with an exclamation point is unacceptable because “you can’t dress up an exclamation point.”
One person read deep into the psychology behind the exclamation point, theorizing that the sender wants to convey to her reader that she’s “a cool boss.” Another reader took the opportunity to confess: “I do this. I know I do. But it always strikes me as a slippery slope from the exclamation point to the emoticon.” Worry not, my friend! J
Thanks (sans exclamation point) went over better with readers. They perceived it as more formal than thanks! It better balanced friendliness with professionalism. And inexplicably, readers found it more “humble” than the exclamation pointed version.
Thank you garnered much the same response as thanks. It seemed “professional,” “respectful” and “friendly” but less personal than its more casual cousin, thanks.
Even though people liked thank you and thanks, perhaps not every email should contain such gratitude. Readers thought signing off with thanks and thank you could be an appropriate, professional way to convey appreciation in an email. But when there was nothing in the content of the email to be thankful for — no requests, no favors, no questions of the recipient — it came off as snide or sarcastic. And a note of caution: One person said he hears the boss from “Office Space” every time an email ends with thanks.
Thx. I had to ask. And, unsurprisingly, thx earned a resounding, unanimous no. More specifically, responders said, “Hashtag NO,” and “Nope, no, no, no, nope, nuh-uh.”
One writer delved just a bit deeper into the motivation behind thx. He said, “It’s as though the reader is saying, ‘I care so little about you that I cannot be bothered to type the three extra letters it would take to get to a word.’ ” Reducing one’s gratitude so lazily into three letters says to the reader, “If I could tell you to ‘go pound sand’ in fewer characters, I would.”
Yikes. Type out your thanks, everyone.
And All that Miscellaneous Other Stuff
In my survey, I also asked about all the other default stuff that gets sent along in correspondence, like logos, contact information, quotes and so on. Most of the feedback I received suggested that the extra stuff is distracting, at best.
First, the lawyers I surveyed were particularly annoyed by those extras that get sent as attachments. For example, some emailers include a script signature or a corporate logo appended to all their emails, and some of those show up in inboxes as attachments. If every email comes through with an attachment though, it’s harder to sort through inboxes for important attachments. (There’s a way to resolve this problem, but it involves HTML and other concepts I am not fit to explain.)
Next, I asked about the inspirational quotes that some people append to emails. Have you gotten an email from a title company with a quote from Gandhi lately? As it turns out, those quotes aren’t so well received. Responses about whether to include inspirational quotes ranged from “oh, heavens no” to “never ever,” with nothing in between.
And finally, the contact information that people include in their email signatures could use a little trimming, according to my survey. The responders all noted that listing a phone number and direct extension is helpful. A physical or mailing address is a plus, but a fax number is anachronistic. Listing an email address is unnecessary because, you know, it’s right there in the email. And a link to a social media feed “won’t be used for any constructive reason,” so maybe it’s best to leave it out.
I learned some pretty startling things about the impressions our default language makes on recipients. (And more importantly, I learned that some of the lawyers on my contact list are a rancorous, judgmental bunch!) If you’re like me and have given little thought to the content of your emails that runs on automatic pilot, give it an extra moment. Consider the impression that each word can make, even the automatic ones.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches legal research and writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2015 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost