Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Analytically Yours

The SarcMark (top) joins an earlier attempt at creating a sarcasm symbol (middle) and the little-used irony mark (bottom).

Everyone knows that “Hello” and “Goodbye” are the standard accepted way to start and end phone calls and conversations. For some, the formalities of letter writing is less clear cut, although the standard way is usually to start with "Dear" and end with "Yours Sincerely/Faithfully". I have never quite understood why using “Sincerely” when you know a person’s name is more familiar and friendly sounding than “Faithfully” but you are taught from such an early age that it’s the correct formula to follow and you will be committing a serious faux pas in doing otherwise, that straying from the norm isn’t an option. Personally, I think “Faithfully” suggests a more loyal light-hearted friendship and a kind of trustworthiness that the more serious “Sincerely” doesn’t, sounding much colder – after all the word can be used when sternly chastising someone. But I guess to some extent, that reflects upon my own experiences and the connotations that surround those words.

In comparison to telephone calls and letters, e-mail and text message are still in their infancy, meaning that they lack these set of regulated rules, so embedded in society. Both e-mails and text messages normally include the name of the sender and recipient and it’s hard to separate the text body from its addressing information, making it even more difficult to decide whether a greeting and closure are necessary. This week I found myself in conversation with a friend grappling with this all-important decision. Having just had a blazing row with someone, she was struggling to decide on the best way to end a text message to this same person. Finding the balance between sounding appropriately cool without sounding hostile is difficult. After lengthy discussion on the merits of using “See you later”, “See you” and just “Later”, she finally suggested “Regards” and we agreed to disagree.

I have often marveled at some of the closures I have received in work related e-mails from strangers. I will never understand what “Kind/Warm/Fondest Regards” actually means and if I should feel insulted when receiving an e-mail just concluded with a simple “Regards”, clearly less friendly than when used in combination. The absence or presence of some form of salutation and the one chosen set the tone for the e-mail showing a level of warmth or distance, to some extent giving clues to the writer’s feelings about and relationship with the addressee, their social standing and their professional identity. However a person signs off their e-mails, can help to construct and maintain the type of relationship they will have in future communication. It is interesting that so few words can reveal so much.

The immortal linguist, David Crystal (2001), has also noted that between people who know each other, "Greetingless messages are usually promptly sent responses, where the responder sees the message as the second part of a two-part interaction (an adjacency pair), for which an introductory greeting is inappropriate."

Email is often seen as being less personal than face-to-face or telephone communication because without intonational clues, body language and physical presence, it is much harder to read underlying feelings and the intended tone. I guess this is why emoticons came into play and the sarcasm symbol or “Sarcmark” was invented. One definite advantage of using emails is the opportunity they present of having more control over their planning, composing, editing, and delivering than face-to-face communication or phone calls, enabling time to think things through and try to help create more polite messages.

The results of an analysis of requests made via email and voicemail made by Duthler in 2006 showed that overall email requests are more polite than voicemail requests. Sherblom (1988) studied the email files of a large organization and found that relative social position in the organizational hierarchy influenced the use of signatures. None of the messages sent down the organizational chain were signed, whereas one-third of those sent upwards had signatures. Jessmer and Anderson (2001) found that messages were viewed more favourably if they were polite and grammatically correct, interpreted as having been written by a more friendly and likeable person than impolite messages.

So now we find ourselves juggling a whole host of possibilities that could make or break a relationship. With the uncertainty e-mails create, some people favour using automatic sign offs, sometimes ending with a quote, proverb or animation, while others even pay for specially designed sign offs. For those particularly paranoid few, at http://www.clickz.com/3584001 you can even test the effectiveness of a salutation.

Finding the perfect greeting is a less difficult decision (Dear, Hi, Hello, Good Morning…), while the best solution to ending an e-mail is often trickier. Keen to broaden my options, after a little research I came across http://resourcesforwriters.suite101.com/article.cfm/list_of_letter_closings_and_salutations#ixzz0hrW49zk,with a whole plethora of suggestions grouped into formality levels.

The most formal were the dreaded:

• Best regards/ Wishes

• Confidently yours

• Kind regards/ Wishes

• Many thanks/ Thanks

• Respectfully yours

• Warm regards/ Regards

• With anticipation

• Yours respectfully/sincerely/truly

Ones expressing “the warmth of friendship” but still showing respect and a “well-wishing air” were:

• Cheerful greetings to all

• Hugs

• Kind thoughts

• Take care

• Wishing you the best

• Write soon

• Your friend

• Have a good day

• Yours in friendship

More colloquial conversational suggestions, adding “a little more life”, were:

• Be good/well

• Cheerio

• Cheers

• I’m out

• More to come

• Smiles

• Ta ta for now

• Take care

• Take it easy

• Until next time

And finally some examples of the outright zany letter closings and e-mail salutations, made popular from TV and film are:

• All you need is love

• Happy trails to you

• Hasta la vista, baby

• Keep your stick on the ice

• Kiss kiss bang bang

• Live long and prosper

• May the force be with you

• Over and out

• Over to you

• Peace, love, and unity

• Start the engines

• Stay tuned

• Tag! You’re it

• To be continued…

• Yabba dabba do

After all this, if you are still not sure, you can go to:


and see the handiwork of a particularly paranoid and analytical individual who has actually formulated a chart of what to use from the first message through to the fourth e-mail.

Personally, I will stick to the safest and most cowardly option in formal and first-time communications and always use the most formal linguistic marker to close the first line of communication and then mirror whatever the recipient sends back from there on out – however ridiculous and vague I think that may be. So after a possibly rather dull rant, I shall sign out with my “Kind Regards” to you all.

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