The (Not-so) Secret Message Your Email Sign-Off Is Sending
How do you make sure your final word will leave the lingering impression you intend? I asked a linguist, a business consultant, and two career experts to weigh in.
Keep reading for 4 expert-approved tips for choosing the appropriate email valediction.
1. Know your audience
According to Susan Garrett, a linguist and assistant professor at Goucher College, the number-one mistake most people make is using the same closing for every message. “There shouldn’t be a universal sign-off,” she says. “Sign-offs are rhetorical choices that are guided by register, audience, and context.”
Abby Kohut, owner of the career-advice website Absolutely Abby Speaks, agrees—and says she runs into the problem herself. Her own go-to sign off, cheers, has to be nixed whenever she's sending formal emails.
If you sign your messages to your BFF with xo and to your boss with thanks for your time, your intuition has already puzzled this one out. But the scenario is rarely as clear as bestie vs manager. According to Lauren Berger, CEO and founder of career-advice website Intern Queen, many factors—such as the culture of a workplace and the age group of the sender—influence the email sign-off. And a company's culture likely has more influence over people's email sign-off than their professional industry does, she says. "If a company has a more loose, fun culture, for example, that’s reflected in the signature." (In which case, Berger says, cheers is a great choice.)
Additionally, trending email valedictions may be spurred by the attitudes and goals of each generation, Berger suggests—which may explain why, for example, Well+Good has noticed its interns favor valedictions like warmly and kindly, whereas more senior editors rely heavily on best. "This next generation—they’re known as these passionate young people who care more about purpose than money…Maybe they’re looking for words that are a little bit more reflective of how they’re feeling," Berger hypothesizes.
2. Be “professional and pleasant”
According to Kohut, your email sign-off should “leave someone with a warm feeling about you.” Berger echoes that sentiment by saying it should be "professional and pleasant." What's more, she argues, is that the sign-off can be a powerful tool for keeping the peace in difficult emails.
"The truth of the matter is, not every email is a happy email. There’s a lot of sticky situations that everyone gets into all the time," Berger says (she has other tips for handling those email challenges). "That’s when the importance of the email signature comes in. If the email is passive aggressive or has a certain tone to it, then just drops off, that’s pretty awkward. So sometimes the email signature can save the day." You know how it feels when someone texts you "k" or "sure." (with a period)? Ending an email that contains bad news or negative feedback with just your name, initial, or a curt sign-off can feel like kinda like that.
3. Show gratitude (when appropriate!)
While industry, scenario, and personal preference (of the sender and receiver) clearly impact a sign-off’s effectiveness, some closings actually perform better than others, according to a 2017 study by Boomerang, a company that makes email productivity software. It analyzed emails from the archives of 20 online communities and pinpointed the most used valedictions (thanks, regards, cheers, best regards, thanks in advance, thank you, best, and kind regards) as well as their response rate.
Thanks in advance had the best response rate, at 65.7 percent; in fact, the sign-offs that expressed some form of gratitude (thanks, 63 percent; thank you, 57.9 percent) saw 36 percent more responses than the others. FWIW, best came in last place, with a 51.2 percent response rate.
Though thanks in advance may seem a bit presumptuous, Boomerang hypothesizes that its success is due to the fact that it's addressing a yet-to-be-written response, which perhaps encourages the receiver to follow through. But a 2017 meta-analysis of 91 studies published in Psychological Bulletin uncovered another potential explanation: a "moderately positive" correlation between gratitude and prosocial behavior, AKA voluntary behavior intended to benefit another. In other words, expressing thanks in emails is statistically more likely to elicit help or a response from others (and the study shows that the relationship is stronger during reciprocal outcomes, so try and return the favor someday!).
When I posed these same sign-offs and a few variations to my experts, they largely agreed with the survey: Variations on thank you (including thanks and thanks in advance) were go-tos of theirs, while regards (and kind regards, warm regards) was given a thumbs-down. Jury was out on the common best, though—Berger says this is one she regularly uses, while Kohut thinks it “seems cold.” Other sign-offs that get a hard pass from the experts: Yours truly and take care should be reserved for family members only, and sincerely “feels like I’m reading a Bat Mitzvah thank-you note,” says Berger.
4. Keep it short
Bob Graham, co-founder of Serious Soft Skills, a Baltimore-based employee training and consulting firm, has another take. If the goal is to make an email as concise and easy for the recipient to read as possible, he argues, then a shorter sign-off (or even none at all, if you know the recipient well) is the wiser choice.
Berger adds that in many cases, it’s the penultimate phrase that makes more of an impact, and the sign-off is more of a courtesy. “Whether it's ‘looking forward to hearing from you' or ‘again, my deepest apologies,' if you end the email with a really warm closing line, I think you can be more brief with the email signature,” she says. In which case…
Thanks for reading!
Tired of email altogether? If a bill in New York City goes into effect, some employees may have an excuse to never read emails after work. And sometimes cutting technology out of your life might actually make you feel happier.
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