Dear old email language, it’s time for you to retire.
From signing off with the most insincere ‘yours sincerely’ to ‘let me circle back’ when one has absolutely no intention of doing so, email language has not really kept up with the times.
If work-from-home has taught us anything, it is that our work systems are outdated, and clearly so is our language. So while the pandemic has introduced scientific jargon into daily conversations — SARS-CoV-2, R0 of Covid, herd immunity — it has also made many young workers realise we don’t need Victorian letters anymore. Or long meetings. As we go back to the office, ‘Work casuals’ is in again.
At a time when people are having entire conversations through emojis, the staid, cold, forced-polite language of email has simply crossed its best-before date.
It all started with ‘dear’
For some reason, beginning your email with ‘dear’ is the polite thing to do. Now imagine if someone started greeting you with ‘dear’ every time they met you. If it’s not okay in the real world, why is it accepted in the virtual one?
While a step above ‘respected ma’am/sir’, which was the norm taught in English lessons in schools, ‘dear’ is now outdated. For one, there is nothing polite about it. In 2021, moreover, the connotations associated with ‘dear’ are markedly different from when it first became the norm. And none of those connotations is actually positive. Ask every woman on social media and they’ll tell you how many ‘hi dear’ — or ‘how r u deer’ — they get in a month in their DMs on Instagram, Facebook, or even Twitter.
One also needs to question the need for a ‘Dear Rachel’ or ‘Dear Ms John’ at the beginning of an email when a hi or hello suffices. In fact, the idea that one needs to address people by their surnames also needs to be junked. With an ‘Americanisation’ of work culture and informality creeping in, it makes no sense to hold onto colonial-era behaviour, especially with increasing awareness of caste and gender implications of surnames.
But not everyone agrees with this, unfortunately. In January this year, a tweet by Professor Brittney Cooper from Rutgers University in the US sparked an internet debate on email salutations.
“Why don’t modern college kids know how to send a formal letter/email?” she asked, adding that she frequently is addressed with a ‘hi professor’ than ‘dear professor’.
Why don’t modern college kids know how to send a formal letter/email? I thought everyone knew to begin Dear Prof. X or Dear Dr. X. Instead these kids stay emailing me Hello There! Or Hello (no name): Why are they like this?
— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk) January 12, 2021
Without getting into specifics of this case, one thing that stands out in this tweet is the need to send a ‘formal’ email. As with anything formal, there are rules, rituals, traditions to follow and then some. And therein lies the problem — the structured and formulaic nature of emails.
A 2015 Harvard Business School study found that 98 per cent millennials check their emails every few hours at work — but the plain old email marketing techniques don’t work on them. They want you to get to the point because “less is more”.
One of the reasons why email is not that preferred among millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (those born between 1997 and early 2010s) these days is that it requires too much effort. One needs to think about emails much before you actually start writing them and this invokes an unnecessary form of anxiety. On top of that, there are the window dressings to the actual message — ‘hope this mail finds you well’, ‘as per my last email’, ‘gentle reminder’.
A running fear is that the person will misinterpret your tone and get offended. God forbid, you sound callous with a ‘hi’ or type too much or type too little, writing emails is an exhausting endeavour even for the simplest of reasons. The above-mentioned tweet by the professor is a case in point. There have been endless Instagram and TikTok reels from around the world during the pandemic about millennials’ love for the exclamation mark in emails.
Emails are cold, impersonal and make life difficult. From appropriate salutations, phrases such as ‘as per my last email’ or ‘just looping you in’ or the most annoying ‘to whomsoever it may concern’ to distinguishing between yours faithfully/yours sincerely/yours truly.
A recent New York Times article titled Could Gen Z Free the World From Email? talked about “inbox stress” and anxiety-inducing “inbox ping-pong” during the pandemic.
We live in an age where the entire facade of ‘formal’ is being done away with, and in this scenario, is there even a need for formal emails?
As this Twitter user puts it, millennial and Gen Z employers are also moving out of this staid communication medium.
Replying to emails professionally is for boomers. As a millennial CEO I can tell you I prefer informal language, excessive emojis and an inappropriate amount of exclamation marks!
— Emmy? (@conciergemaree) May 11, 2021
Covid and emails
One of the reasons why email has become so reviled is because, in the pandemic, it replaced too much — there was an email about everything, you were CC-ed on someone writing a ‘yes’ to someone else about something you had nothing to do with.
That, as The New York Times article pointed out, created an endless anxiety loop of emails coming in and piling up.
In such a scenario, it makes the most sense to bring about changes. Aside from banning the irritating phrases used in emails, other better practices can be incorporated as well.
One such practice, which also garnered a lot of praise on social media, is having a post-script message noting that one can take their time to reply to an email or informing others that they will take time to reply.
While it may not work in all situations, it is a good practice to inculcate because, above everything else, it conveys a respect for the recipient’s time and mental health — not to mention, work hours. Moreover, it’s a good alternative to ‘sorry for the late response’.
Like this postscript in email received: “My working hours may not be your working hours. Please read and reply only in your working hours.” ?
— Teacher (@Year5KS2) May 20, 2021
You can also schedule your emails. For instance, many are now scheduling their mails to reach at work hours only, even if you are pressing send at 1 am yourself.
End of email?
While email is not very popular, it is still indispensable in several sectors, especially in India.
While I personally think that there is no escape from email anytime soon, even if something like WhatsApp, Slack or Telegram is more convenient, what millennials and Gen Z could do is bring about a linguistic change. It’s perfectly polite to say a ‘hi’.
Who knows, something like ‘Handwashingly Yours’ could be the next official email sign off.
Views are personal.