I thought you might like to know that Amol Rajan, the editor of The Independent, has been tweeting recently about PRs’ use of insincere language in unsolicited emails.
He isn’t happy.
Amol says he has blocked a large number of PRs who use what he calls the “lying obsequious stupidity of “Hope you’re well”.”
I know what he means. I imagine we all get dozens of emails every day that include the phrase and I imagine that many of us write them, too.
The history of the written message, though, is a history of insincerity. The earliest scrolls of Sumer almost certainly contained banal pleasantries and good wishes exchanged by people who loathed each other.
“Dear So-and-so”. “I remain your most humble and obedient servant” – we don’t mean a word of it. “Yours sincerely” is from someone who is neither sincere nor yours.
It is just form.
Ask yourself: how do we greet strangers in day-to-day life?
If we are Brits, we ask something like: “How are you?” (when I was a child, I was taught to ask “How do you do?” to adults I was introduced to. I did not care about their answer and they did not usually bother even to reply). It is unlikely that we want a genuine, sincere and comprehensive answer, even from friends, and certainly not from strangers. So why do we even ask?
The act of salutation (a word derived from Salve, the Roman greeting, which also means Good Health) is an attempt to establish tone in a conversation. The true message is this: I am open to talking to you even though you are a stranger who may be about to assault me; I am not going to assault you; I am interested in communication; I need to talk to you.
It may, by its tone, mean any number of things, including these: watch out, I may assault you if you aren’t careful in your response; I am very glad to see you; I am embarrassed to be in this position and I wish I hadn’t met you; I love you.
There are many tones, you see, that a salutation has to carry. To do so requires not just a choice of words, but a choice of volume, of pitch, of supporting gestures (a handshake or a hug, even), of eye movements, of head movements, of genuflection. Culture and convention help the recipient to interpret them.
Written salutations have to do the same sort of job, but without the advantage of hearing the tone or seeing any supporting gestures. When I was a newspaper reporter, I received very good advice from my esteemed (a genuine sentiment, I assure you) colleague Patrick Bishop that journalists should always remember that the keyboard has an italics setting, but not an ironics setting. You should write what you mean in a news story and not rely on the reader understanding that you are being insincere, sarcastic or ironic on purpose.
The same does not apply to letter or email writing (let us call it correspondence for short) because, unlike news stories, they are a substitute for conversation. The language has always been intended to take the place of the tone and the gesture.
“Dear” people are unlikely to be dear to us. In fact, in English, if you are writing to someone you love, it would be insulting to write to them as merely “Dear”. You cannot use the same salutation as you would to a stranger (“Dear Sir or Madam,” is my least favourite form of this abuse of affection), so you go out of your way to start correspondence with “Darling,” or “Dearest,”.
But we get to Amol’s bugbear – “hope you are well” – immediately and precisely because correspondence does not do tone. To blunder straight into the purpose of the correspondence would seem as rude as if one were to go straight from a handshake to a “Do you want to have dinner tonight?” or “Are you available to join my masonic lodge?” or “I thought you ought to know that I am building a nuclear power station at the bottom of your road.”
Frankly, you wouldn’t do that. You would use an icebreaker. You would say “How are you?” and only then introduce the meat of the conversation. And that is the purpose of “Hope you are well.”
I hate it too, but I do struggle to think of an alternative. I try variations: “Hope this finds you well; Hope you are thriving.” They all have the same weakness that, if Amol Rajan and others are going to take offence at an insincere expression, they are all just “good form” expressions.
Perhaps what we need is something bland and inoffensive. “God Save the Queen!” might fill the gap between salutation and conversation. But it could be misinterpreted.
How about “Weather is a bit brisk/close/breezy for the time of year, isn’t it?”, which plays to so many Briticisms. But still smacks of falsity. Maybe we need something odd:
My favourite in this field comes from Shakespeare, from Macbeth indeed, when Macduff, in exile, greets his countryman Ross with the question: “Stands Scotland where it did?”.
This meant something to them and to the Bard, but four centuries later is just the sort of barmy icebreaker to a conversation that we need. It doesn’t need to be answered and it creates a gap between the “Hi, Amol” and the attempt to interest him in whatever is the subject matter of the email. If it becomes accepted form, it doesn’t matter what it means and its sincerity is irrelevant (unless you happen to be an SNP supporter, in which case, invent your own alternative).
Alternatively, we could go meta: “Hi Amol, I hope you don’t mind me hoping you are well.”
Not that this is going to persuade Amol to publish more stories offered to him by PRs, but it might stop him blocking you.