Early last week, Sarahjane Sacchetti paused before sending an email to the staff of Cleo, the San Francisco-based benefits startup where she’s the chief executive. A people operations manager at the company had forwarded her information about California’s state-wide shelter-in-place order, and Sacchetti wanted to email the update to all company offices—which span nine states across the US—and go over best practices for working from home for everybody.
The pause lasted 35 minutes. Sacchetti says she wanted to acknowledge the stress that the coronavirus was causing, express empathy, and thank everyone for working so hard. She included a personal anecdote about her biggest achievement that week: Getting her three-year-old to be completely silent during a 45-minute work call. “The barrier to hit ‘send’ is certainly far higher for me right now,” Sacchetti says. “And the pleasantries have changed. It’s no longer, ‘Hope you had a good weekend.’ It’s ‘Hope you’re doing OK.’”
As Covid-19 tears its way through communities across the globe and as fears about the virus and its impact increase, emails have taken on a different tone. People who are in the fortunate position of being employed are thinking twice before they dash off a transactional email without acknowledging the coronavirus; as a result, our inboxes are now filled with well-wishes from mere acquaintances—or in some cases virtual strangers. As more and more people throw in “Hope you and your family are healthy,” it’s become as much of a boilerplate as previous email openers. But others say personal email threads have now become a kind of lifeline for them and their friends, in a way they haven’t been since the “golden age” of emails back in the 1990s; that emails, arguably, are better for posterity than IMs.
The question is whether these are lasting changes. One English professor, who last year published a book on email, firmly believes that our email styles or “philosophies” are unlikely to change long-term. The reason? Most people are still not very emotionally invested in email.
“When I think of all of the things that are going to change in the world after coronavirus, culturally and politically, I don’t think email is in the top one hundred,” says Randy Malamud, author of Email (Object Lessons). Still, he says, there are ways we could all be writing better emails right now.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
“Hope you’re well.”
“Hope this email finds you healthy.”
“Hope you and your family are healthy and safe during these uncertain and unprecedented times.”
If you keep an active email account, you’ve likely received a note that includes a phrase like this over the past few weeks. And you’ve probably sent one too. “In business, we’ve always had ways to try to relate to people. There are many things where you wish people well or empathize, whether it’s a loss in the family or a birth in the family,” Sacchetti says. “But now we have this ubiquitous experience that all of us are going through, on a spectrum.”
“Emails now be like: I hope you are staying safe, sheltered in place, stocked with toilet paper, and healthy during these absolutely unprecedented, wild, chaotic, terrifying times. Just wanted to follow up—” tweeted a Yale law student, in a tweet that has over 200,000 likes.
You might even feel like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t include these acknowledgements. “You kind of feel like you have to start every email with that, and if you don’t you feel guilty,” says Clare Goggin Sivit, a digital marketing consultant based in Portland, Oregon. “It’s so much more emphatic than it was in previous times. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more genuine, but it does seem darker now, a little bit more apocalyptic.”
Goggin Sivit, who sometimes freelance writes for beer publications, described a recent exchange in which she emailed an editor and forgot to include well wishes. The editor replied that she hoped Goggin Sivit was doing well, staying healthy, and staying inside. “I thought, ‘Oh man, I totally left that out of the email that I sent her,’” Goggin Sivit says.
Others are already over the new formalities. “Can we please put a moratorium on emails starting with, ‘Hope you’re doing well in these crazy times!’…We don’t need to be reminded all the time. A simple, ‘We hope you’re doing well’ will suffice,” a Deadline editor tweeted. An Australian tech and business journalist echoed this: “Great the new unsolicited email intro seems to be, ‘I hope this email finds you well and safe from Covid-19.’ Frankly I need morning reminders that we are in the midst of a terrifying global pandemic about as much as whatever magical blockchain solution you’re trying to push.”
At the same time, emails from brands are flooding our inboxes, dangling sales, promoting live-streamed events, and sharing every measure a business is taking to address the fallout from coronavirus. Some offer helpful updates, while others have the potential to be tone-deaf, rather than strike the right tone. A sampling from this author’s inbox: A clothing brand sends out an email titled, “Daydreaming done right,” encouraging customers to buy clothes that they’ll wear on beach days … whenever those might be. A sunglasses maker offers 25 percent off for the “sunny days ahead.” An email from a tech accelerator in New York City acknowledges that people might be “distracted by recent events,” but insists that it’s an “attractive time for starting companies.”
“Most people don’t have an authentic bone in their corporate body,” says David Heinmeier Hansson. “And humans are actually really good at sniffing out inauthenticity.” Heinmeier Hansson is the creator of Ruby on Rails and an outspoken advocate for better emailing protocols, so much so that he’s been building a not-yet-launched email service called Hey.
Email’s utility shines right now as an app for intimate connections, rather than business transactions, he believes. “When email is best, it allows us to form that deeper connection that is so important in a time like this,” he insists. “There aren’t many people I’d have an intimate conversation about the state of the world over iMessage with, but there’s a pretty broad group with which I love to do that over email.” He added that going back and reading old emails can be a meaningful experience, especially if you’ve been exchanging electronic mail since the “golden age” of the mid-to-late nineties.
In other words, you might not remember “Hope you’re well” if it comes from a brand marketer selling patio furniture, but you might appreciate the sincere expression of it when you look back on your communication with friends and family during a global pandemic.
The Write Stuff
So what is the best way to approach email in the time of coronavirus, when we “log on to the most incredible communication network that humanity has ever created and send forth our interminable missives”?
That’s how Randy Malamud, an English professor at Georgia State University and the author of the aforementioned book about email, describes it. Malamud acknowledges he’s not the “greatest fan of email.” He views it pragmatically, and in his opinion, it’s being blown out of the water by text messaging, video chat apps, and Facebook as a communication tool.
In his book, Malamud describes the various philosophies people have when it comes to email—whether they realize it or not. “Most people feel confident that their own email demeanor is sensible and appropriate, while everyone else is too sloppy or too stiffly formal, too long winded or too elliptical, too fast or too slow,” he writes. Even now, those philosophies are unlikely to change, he says. And emails have the potential to feel like tasks at a time when people are already feeling burdened. One of his own relatives started an email chain asking for updates from family members, and assigned a deadline of April 25. “It’s all going to be obsolete by then anyway,” Malamud says.
He admits that he’s been moved by some of the emails he’s received—notes about restaurants closing and theater productions moving online—and that he’s trying to add more personal touches to his emails with students. The biggest piece of advice he offers for sending meaningful emails is to send fewer of them. After that, try to avoid cliched phrases that make emails so “drab and boilerplate.” And finally, write thoughtfully.
“You can do a draft, and put it aside for a few minutes, and come back and edit. You want to think about the person you’re writing to, picture her face and think about what her face will look like when she sees what you’re writing. There are ways to personalize this, and to get beyond the rote, conventional, formulaic modes of discourse,” Malamud says.
You have to step outside of yourself in some way, he continues. Email is not the most beautiful medium in the world. Adding “Hope you’re well” to it won’t make it so, or make anyone well who is not. But you can still work consciously to fight against the current of email blather, what Malamud calls “gigabyte upon gigabyte of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
More From WIRED on Covid-19
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- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here