I clearly remember the mortification as I desperately hit ‘Recall email’. I’d just sent a polite, professional email to my (male) boss…and signed it with not just one, but three, kisses: xxx
(It was never mentioned by me or my boss again.)
But this was years ago. Now we’ve endured years of remote working, sharing our bedrooms and domestic bedlam over Zoom, surely we’re more relaxed about email etiquette?
It seems not. I recently conducted a (not scientific but perhaps indicative) poll of 482 LinkedIn users on the subject. A whopping 83% of people answered ‘No way – they’re inappropriate’ when asked if they used kisses in work emails.
Like the use of emojis, exclamation marks and ALL CAPS WORDS, the humble ‘x’ creates strong feelings. Respondees commented: ‘Argh no!’, ‘Never. No way.’ and ‘Inappropriate, irrespective of the recipient’.
So why the strong reaction? There seem to be a few reasons.
Firstly, cultural. Surprisingly, perhaps, given our reputation for keeping our emotions in check, we Brits are the nation most likely to use kisses in emails. For most other cultures, however, they’re completely alien and unwelcome.
Secondly, misinterpretation. With email, we aren’t able (as much as we might try) to understand people’s motives. What might be meant by the sender as a gesture of friendship might be misinterpreted by the reader as sexual harassment (especially if it’s a manager to subordinate).
Thirdly, lack of professionalism. Unlike messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Slack, we tend to see our work email as a formal platform, more like a business letter than a casual text. Kisses, for many, smack of sloppiness.
So what does that all mean for our emails? Should we abandon the use of kisses altogether and end every email with 'Faithfully yours, esteemed colleague'?
After all, there’s a wide variation across industries, with kisses more the norm in fashion, media and PR. And, in the absence of face-to-face meetings, many report they’re a good way to express warmth towards their reader.
So my advice is this: a one-size-fits-all approach to email doesn’t work. Most problems with email happen when we fire out 20 emails without a second’s thought, using identikit greetings, sign-offs and style for everyone from our partner or boss to our clients and colleagues.
The ease and speed of email can work against us – all too often we email on autopilot and don’t stop to think before we hit send.
When we write any email, we need to consider the 3Cs to figure out what tone and content to use:
- Character. Who are you writing to? How well do you know them? How formal/informal are they?
- Context. What are you writing about? If your email were reproduced in an audit trail, how would you feel?
- Culture. What culture and industry does your recipient work in? What subtleties do you need to consider?
But when in doubt, leave kisses out. Find other ways to express friendliness through your emails with, for example, a warmer sign off like ‘Best wishes’ instead of a blanket ‘Kind regards’ (again, see your 3Cs for guidance.)
And, as one LinkedIn user commented, the best reason not to use kisses in emails is, of course, they leave terrible smudges on the screen.
Kim Arnold is a communications consultant and the author of Email Attraction