It’s Time to Kill the Email Signoff

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March 12 2013 2:09 PM

You Say “Best.” I Say No.

It’s time to kill the email signoff.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

For the 20 years that I have used email, I have been a fool. For two decades, I never called bullshit when burly, bearded dudes from places like Pittsburgh and Park Slope bid me email adieu with the vaguely British “Cheers!” And I never batted an eye at the hundreds of “XOXO” email goodbyes from people I’d never met, much less hugged or kissed. When one of my best friends recently ended an email to me by using the priggish signoff, “Always,” I just rolled with it.  

But everyone has a breaking point. For me, it was the ridiculous variations on “Regards” that I received over the past holiday season. My transition from signoff submissive to signoff subversive began when a former colleague ended an email to me with “Warmest regards.”

Were these scalding hot regards superior to the ordinary “Regards” I had been receiving on a near-daily basis? Obviously they were better than the merely “Warm Regards” I got from a co-worker the following week. Then I received “Best Regards” in a solicitation email from the New Republic. Apparently when urging me to attend a panel discussion, the good people at the New Republic were regarding me in a way that simply could not be topped.

After 10 or 15 more “Regards” of varying magnitudes, I could take no more. I finally realized the ridiculousness of spending even one second thinking about the totally unnecessary words that we tack on to the end of emails. And I came to the following conclusion: It’s time to eliminate email signoffs completely. Henceforth, I do not want—nay, I will not accept—any manner of regards. Nor will I offer any. And I urge you to do the same.

Think about it. Email signoffs are holdovers from a bygone era when letter writing—the kind that required ink and paper—was a major means of communication. The handwritten letters people sent included information of great import and sometimes functioned as the only communication with family members and other loved ones for months. In that case, it made sense to go to town, to get flowery with it. Then, a formal signoff was entirely called for. If you were, say, a Boston resident writing to his mother back home in Ireland in the late 19th century, then ending a correspondence with “I remain your ever fond son in Christ Our Lord J.C.,” as James Chamberlain did in 1891, was entirely reasonable and appropriate.

But those times have long since passed. And so has the era when individuals sought to win the favor of the king via dedication letters and love notes ending with “Your majesty’s Most bounden and devoted,” or “Fare thee as well as I fare.” Also long gone are the days when explorers attempted to ensure continued support for their voyages from monarchs and benefactors via fawning formal correspondence related to the initial successes of this or that expedition. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had good reason to end his 1541 letter to King Charles I of Spain, relaying details about parts of what is now the southwestern United States, with a doozy that translates to “Your Majesty’s humble servant and vassal, who would kiss the royal feet and hands.”

But in 2013, when bots outnumber benefactors by a wide margin, the continued and consistent use of antiquated signoffs in email is impossible to justify. At this stage of the game, we should be able to interact with one another in ways that reflect the precise manner of communication being employed, rather than harkening back to old standbys popular during the age of the Pony Express.

I am not an important person. Nonetheless, each week, on average, I receive more than 300 emails. I send out about 500. These messages do not contain the stuff of old-timey letters. They’re about the pizza I had for lunch (horrendous) and must-see videos of corgis dressed in sweaters (delightful). I’m trading thoughts on various work-related matters with people who know me and don’t need to be “Best”-ed. Emails, over time, have become more like text messages than handwritten letters. And no one in their right mind uses signoffs in text messages.

What’s more, because no email signoff is exactly right for every occasion, it’s not uncommon for these add-ons to cause affirmative harm. Some people take offense to different iterations of “goodbye,” depending on the circumstances. Others, meanwhile, can’t help but wonder, “What did he mean by that?” or spend entire days worrying about the implications of a sudden shift from “See you soon!” in one email, to “Best wishes” in the next. So, naturally, we consider, and we overthink, and we agonize about how best to close out our emails. We ask others for advice on the matter, and we give advice on it when asked.  

The Internet is littered with articles that examine the strengths and weaknesses of various email signoffs and purport to offer guidance for those who just can’t close the deal. But rather than debating which to use and how best to avoid signoff-related disasters, can’t we all just agree to opt for “none of the above” and finally take comfort in ending our emails with the actual last thing that we want to say?

I realize that, at first, this new, message-minimalist fashion may feel unnatural. But we can do this—together. You see, all those holiday “regards” prompted yours truly to take a good, hard look in the mirror. And what I saw was someone who could not begrudge anyone on the signoff front. Up until this point, I have been far worse than your average offender when it comes to sign off stupidity.

I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but my go-to email signoff has always been: “My very best.” There’s no beating around the bush here: That’s awful. I intended it as shorthand for something like, “Until next time, I wish you my very best.” But by beginning the signoff with a word that references me, it comes off as rather self-centered—the exact opposite of what I intended. Plus, it’s confusing. Might some of my friends, co-workers, and acquaintances have believed that, for all these years, I meant not to wish them well but to imply that the preceding note was basically the best I could come up with on the topic at hand?

What a nightmare. But that’s all over now. Things will be different for me from here on out—especially if you join me in slaying the email signoff.

And while we’re at it, why stop at the signoff alone? Unless the person you are writing to doesn’t know you, or the two of you have never met, you can do away with your name at the bottom as well. And you can generally leave off your recipient’s name at the beginning, too. Including a formal greeting brings its own manifold headaches: Dear? Hi? Hey? Kill me now. The recipient saw your name in the sender field when she clicked on the email, and she knows her name, too, it’s generally safe to assume. There’s no need for repetition. Remember, we’re streamlining here. All our lives are about to get simpler.

Now, as with any long-overdue movement aimed at upsetting the status quo, our efforts will be met by protestations and bellyaching from the old guard. At the end of phone calls, you don’t just hang up after your final sentence, these sticks-in-the-mud might counter. But of course that’s because you need to know when a phone call is about to end. With an email, you can see the conclusion. No one needs to give you a warning.

Shouldn’t there be an exception for formal business communications, or for one’s first-ever correspondence with someone? Aren’t signoffs kind of nice? Don’t they make notes more personal? Without them, wouldn’t email become too detached and impersonal?

Maybe. But, to be blunt: Tough. We need a hard and fast rule here, people. We’ve been wishy-washy for far too long, and at a cost of time lost and awkwardness gained. We’ll all get used to scaling things back after a short time. In the end, it will make things easier on everyone. So let’s do this. I’ll go first.

A few days ago, I emailed this piece to my editor as an attachment. It felt good to write the corresponding message: “Here’s the piece on how email signoffs are the worst and why we should get rid of them for good. I hope you like it.” There was nothing more. No “Hello,” no “Take care,” or “Best,” or, heaven forbid, “My very best.” A few hours later, I received the following response: “Looks good. I think you’re onto something here. More soon.” And, for that moment at least, all was right with the world.

Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.