When is ‘best’ worst? In the weird world of email etiquette – The Guardian

“Excited to talk about tit! Best, Arwa”, is how I once signed off an email to a client. This, I hasten to add, is not because we were both bird enthusiasts, but because I was rushing to finish the email and made an innocent typo.

However, if a recent article in Bloomberg Business is to be believed, it wasn’t the typo that was the worst thing about my sign-off; it was the “best”. According to the article, titled “You’re ending your e-mails wrong”, we’re all signing off our emails incorrectly because so many of us end them with “best”.

Back in 2003, studies showed that only 5% of emails ended that way. But recently “best” has apparently become “completely and unnecessarily ubiquitous”. Much as “everyone” now writes spurious trend pieces based on select anecdata, “everyone” now signs off their office emails with best.

So what’s so wrong with that? Surely the ubiquity of the sign-off is a sign that it’s simply the best, better than all the rest, better than any other closing convention you’ve ever sent?

Actually, no. “Best is benign,” Judith Kallos, an email etiquette consultant (yes, this is an actual job), told Bloomberg. “It works when you apparently don’t know what else to use.” Unimaginative but inoffensive, formal but not too florid, the basic best has become the Starbucks of email signatures. It demonstrates a distinct lack of adjectival imagination. It screams that you can do bester. Worse still, according to one PR expert who chimed in on the matter, the ubiquity of the sign-off is part of a more malignant trend of “vulgarised and lazy” language in emails.

I don’t mean to sound vulgar and lazy, but WTF? Honestly, does anyone really care how you sign off a work email? While some industries and etiquette experts may still cling to analogue conventions when navigating digital platforms, much of the business world has moved on. Arguing over whether “yours sincerely” is a more fitting email sign-off than “best wishes” or “yours faithfully” or your spirit animal as represented in emoji is like fiddling while Rome burns its email servers and moves towards a new generation of messaging platforms such as Slack. These tend to be more conversational and informal by design and have their own idiosyncratic rules of etiquette.

Constant connectivity also means that we’re treating email more like instant messaging, and that’s also changing the conventions we associate with it. After all, you don’t need a sign-off when you’ve never really signed off. Indeed, many people are now eschewing ending conventions altogether. The Bloomberg article is of this camp, and suggests that the right way to end your emails is now simply with a full stop. While this makes sense, there’s also something rather sad and transactional about abandoning the complimentary closing altogether. Rather than becoming “vulgarised and lazy”, it appears that language in our emails is simply becoming more efficient and boring.

Besides, it won’t be too long before much of the content of our emails is being suggested for us by algorithms with content, tone and sign-off expertly tailored to the recipient. There is already a site called Crystal that runs “proprietary personality detection technology” to help you write the perfect email to anyone. When this sort of technology is implemented at scale, I’m afraid the email etiquette consultancy industry will be in for a devastating downturn.

So, while debates over the relative merits of a “best” versus a “regards” may seem like a semantic storm in an e-cup, I say enjoy this vulgarised laziness while it lasts. Pretty soon the robots will take over and we’ll be enjoying perfectly tailored sign-offs that are typo-free.

Brest, Arwa


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