Covid-19's most annoying phrase: 'Hope this email finds you well'

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A few weeks ago, a cheery email landed in inboxes around the world. “Hope this email finds you well!!” it began.

There’s a pandemic raging; more than 27 million people have been ill and nearly a million have died. The email’s double exclamation marks were irritating: when people are feeling fragile they don’t need tone-deaf emails.

“Stay safe and hang in there”, the generic email ended, perhaps to disarm hostile readers who might otherwise have slammed down the delete button.

This year has been a disaster everywhere, in nearly every facet of life, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rising unemployment, economies down the toilet, socially distanced lives, a future so unpredictable that making plans for next week seems unthinkable.

A vaccine is a dim light on the far horizon. If anything, the pandemic has stripped the need for pretension, so cheery greetings sound hollow and insincere.

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Randy Malamud’s book, titled Email, and Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, address the problem of internet communication.

“It’s surprising how pedestrian email is, how banal, given how intricately interwoven it is with our existence,” Malamud writes. “Or maybe it’s not surprising at all: Maybe it’s just the mirror held up to life, and we are precisely as trite as our email suggests.”

“Email is the most loathsome, artificial, degrading, reductive communication technology ever invented,” Malamud adds.

His book was published in September 2019 – and a few months later the world changed irrevocably.

Yet, as the pandemic has raged, email has become one of the most important channels of communication, both on a professional and personal level. When people can’t meet, they can email.

“Email greetings have changed,” says Simantini Ghosh, an assistant professor of psychology at Ashoka University in Delhi, India. “Rather than something generic, I now get emails that start with ‘hope you are safe’ or end with ‘be safe’.”

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“The tone has changed and there is a lot more consideration. Empathy is very important and people are under a lot of duress so it helps. It feels nice to know the other person is expressing concern and wishing well,” says Ghosh.

''Perhaps there are benefits to wishing others well and expressing loving kindness.

''A paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in March 2019 by academics at Iowa State University in the United States concluded that “those who wished others well … had lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy , and higher feelings of caring and connectedness”.

Berlin-based author and journalist Christine von Brühl is a fan of traditional letter writing and loves typing long and well-expressed emails.

“Since the pandemic started, I always ask my counterpart about her or his health and if everybody in the family is OK, especially elder members,” she says.

“I personalise each one and take into account their local situation.” When she gets an email with similar sentiments, she says she’s glad and feels touched.

Berlin-based author and journalist Christine von Brühl loves typing long and well-expressed emails.
PHOTO: Christine von Brühl

US writer Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of etiquette consulting firm the Protocol School of Palm Beach, says good manners are important in a greeting.

“I’ve always encouraged my clients to open an email with some sort of greeting, even from an etiquette standpoint,” she says.

“It softens it up a bit. Instead of saying ‘hey’, which is too casual and flippant, even a ‘good morning’ is warm enough. But now, it needs something more appropriate.

“Most people start by asking, ‘I hope you are well despite these changing times’. I have also seen, ‘I hope you are having as good a day as you can’. Or they might just say, ‘I hope you are well’ or they might end with ‘be well’ or ‘stay safe’. I find that more prevalent than ever.”

There’s always the potential to sound tone-deaf, smarmy or inane. There is no way of knowing the receiver’s state of mind or reality when the email lands, so it’s easy to fear too much will be read between the lines.

“It’s very important to understand the context and use appropriate language and tone,” says Ghosh.

“It is imperative to respect individual boundaries, and not assume anything. Sure, it depends largely on the relationship, but even in professional relationships, use words that convey concern but avoid being too casual or familiar.

''Every little thing has the potential of stressing the receiver, so put yourself in the other’s shoes and read the email before sending it out.”

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Rajesh Setty, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of micro-podcast advice app Audvisor, has also seen how the pandemic has changed communication.

“All the accepted forms of address now seem cold,” he says. “Now that most kinds of social interaction are gone, words are required to fill that gap.

''So it comes down to the choice of words. And the best way to do it is being present 110 per cent in the conversation, of being mindful.”

Setty wrote the newly published Six Foot World, which looks at how businesses are adapting and reinventing themselves to suit the needs and demands of a world changed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Based in Sunnyvale, in California’s Silicon Valley, he is in a good position to understand how global tech companies are adapting.

He argues that the pandemic is not a single event but a cluster of them with far-reaching consequences and the potential to significantly alter the way we live.

“You cannot be predictable or take help from old forms,” he says. “So you cannot compare things to pre-pandemic. Emails, too, need new language, new ways to express warmth and empathy and establish connections.”

Could bringing in a bit of levity cut it? And lighten the general mood of heaviness? The occasional mail with a touch of even black humour can certainly liven up the moment.

“Sent from my living room”, a riff on mobile email signatures, can evoke a chuckle; so does “Have a great socially distant day”. Possibly smile-inducing are, “Yours from afar”, “Handwashingly yours” and “Cautious cheers”.

Jessica Salfia was inspired by random emails she has received during the pandemic to compose a poem titled The First Lines of Emails I’ve Received While Quarantining.
PHOTO: Jessica Salfia

On Twitter , gallows humour and edgy signoffs can lead to guffaws, cracks like “sent from a ventilator”, “see you on the other side, hopefully” and “don’t die in the meantime”.

A teacher and writer from West Virginia, Jessica Salfia, was inspired by random emails she has received during the pandemic to compose a poem titled The First Lines of Emails I’ve Received While Quarantining and tweet it.

The 33-line poem includes marketing messages plugging tacos, jeans, personal care items and loan extensions, with the refrain “As you know, many people are struggling” – seemingly a common and remarkably hollow marketing sign-off these days.

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Humour can be a dicey thing. “I always say use humour appropriately and know your receiver,” says Whitmore. “Some people may not get it. Some people may be the sensitive type. Besides, what is humorous to you might not be humorous to me. It is cultural.

“I would be very cautious about using humour with someone from another country. When in doubt, leave it out. The only humour I might inject, maybe at the end, is to include an emoji with the little mask. It’s not offensive but rather cute.”

Almost like navigating a minefield, it’s worth taking precautions, such as having an emotional proofread of the mail.

“I recommend that you read and re-read,” Whitmore adds. “For grammar and spelling first and foremost, but also about how it reads.

I always say, ‘if your email has an angry tone, don’t send it at all’. Email is something that cannot convey emotion at all; it is emotionless. So be careful with it.”

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The changed world will clearly be here for a while, so the new normal requires changed rules too, even for emails.

“If a six-foot world is the new world, then we should evolve new rules for the new world,” says author Setty. “For everything. Even emails.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.