Several times a week I go through the ritual of typing an ‘x’, then deleting it – or, alternatively, adding another ‘x’ , staring at the two characters and wondering if I’m taking liberties.
I’m talking, of course, about the etiquette of signing off emails. Over the last few years, this process has become as complicated and hazardous as the rules governing how low you should bow when you meet a Japanese dignitary, or – here’s a good example – the decision whether to kiss an French or Swiss acquaintance two or three times (in both countries, it varies from region to region).
Remember how we laughed when we discovered that David Cameron, in his early years as Tory leader, signed off with ‘lol’, under the impression that it meant ‘lots of love’ rather than ‘laughs out loud’? (Incidentally, ‘lol’ has gone out of fashion, so now you look gauche if you use it correctly.)
These days we all know the conventions. But getting the formula right is another matter. A single ‘x’ suggests a degree of mild, friendly intimacy: it is, after all, an alphabetic kiss. Two kisses is something more. And three is pretty close to snogging, unless the recipient is a family member. My sister gets three kisses when I’ve forgotten to return her phone call.
In a more formal email, using words rather than symbols, there’s less chance of a hideous faux pas. Even so, striking exactly the right note isn’t easy. This was also true for old-fashioned letter-writers, who had a lexicon of flowery or solemn phrases to choose from. They had to learn the difference between ‘cordially’, ‘affectionately’, ‘every good wish’, ‘with warmest regards’ and so on. A mistake could be costly, since your choice of words depended partly on whether you were looking up or down the social ladder.
Correspondence with members of the Royal family was a particular minefield, since they had a habit of smothering their correspondents with endearments that it would have been impertinent to use in your reply.
Email sign-offs, by contrast, are greatly truncated. But that poses its own problems. Some people make do with ‘yours’. That strikes me as rude, verging on the passive-aggressive. A simple ‘best’ is polite and serviceable, but looks a bit ugly. ‘Best wishes’ is a boringly safe bet; likewise the slightly more avuncular ‘All the best’ – unless, that is, you’re answering an email that ended with a kiss. Then it looks like you’re reproaching your correspondent for overstepping the mark.
The shift from ‘best wishes’ to ‘x’, which happens so often in email chains, is a delicate business. A lot depends on whether you’re writing to a woman or a man. What are we to make of the fashion for men exchanging digital kisses? In my experience, gay-friendly guys love it; homophobic ones don’t, which can be a good reason for winding them up.
The real nightmare is summoning up the nerve to make the first move. It’s usually me who takes the plunge, if only because it shaves about five seconds off composing the email and I hate writing anything, which makes me wonder how I ended up in this career.
And talking of which, this article is – yet again – being submitted to the editor shamefully late. She has written a gentle reminder, ending with ‘best wishes’. Will it make matters better or worse if I deploy an ‘x’? Let’s find out…