the way we say goodbye
“You put the letterhead up top, and then below that you have the business name and address, and then your salutations. Dear Sir or Madam. To whom it may concern,” says Bette at the post office.
“And if it’s a friend?”
“Well then you just put Dear—their name.”
“And if it’s an email?”
“Same thing, honey. Dear—their name.”
People are lining up behind me. They have packages.
I say, “And how do you sign off?”
“Yours truly. Or sincerely. Sometimes in an email I just say, ‘See ya.’ Or I put a little smiley face, you know those little faces?”
A customer, a lady with a package, interrupts, “My students just do ‘Best.’ They don’t even bother with ‘Best Regards.’ Just ‘Best.’”
“Best?” says Bette.
“Yeah. It’s sharp.”
Later, a worker at the Brown Bookstore tells me she never uses “Best.” “It sounds phony, sort of. It sounds … disingenuous.” What does she sign off with? “Sincerely.” Is she always sincere when she signs with “Sincerely”? Well, she admits, no. Sometimes not.
Are people always sincere when they write “Sincerely”? That’s hardly a fair question, since signoffs, or valedictions, as they were once called, convey, like handshakes, a person’s simple nod to convention, not a speech act. The words we take our leave by are few, and ordinary—“Best,” “Regards,” “Sincerely.” Still, if a weak handshake can ruin an interview, couldn’t a poor sign-off—an aloof “Regards,” an overly suave “Later,” a crass emoticon—spoil an e-mail, upset a boss, or worse, bring crashing down the house of cards that is a love letter?
This last one maybe gives me away. In high school, I liked to write love letters, especially very sad ones, and I always liked searching for sign-offs—words, special words, that exerted a sort of restrained abandon. I signed with “Yours Truly” in seventh grade, then “Ever Yours,” “Always Yours” (which became “Always,” for effect), “Yours” (I still use this one), and once, in a break-up note—for some vicious reason—“Until Next Time.” There was one word I wouldn’t use, though. “Love” was for other people.
These valedictions all came from books, I think. Nobody I knew was talking like that. Very few people wrote letters after middle school. I do remember the “How to Write a Letter” lesson in fourth grade—where to put one’s own address, whether or not to lick the stamp (would it kill you? I forget. I never dared to ask and I never risked it). I remember writing letters to my cousins, and getting letters back.
Skip a few years, and suddenly I am using a Yahoo account. AIM followed, coinciding with middle school, which was very exciting. Then came Gmail chat. Some of the most damning conversations of my life happened over Gmail chat, and though they’ve ended, it’s strange to think I can read them now, line for line, exactly as we typed them, as if they happened yesterday.
These past few years, I’ve started to write letters again. I also write emails, constantly, it seems, to professors and acquaintances and other people (what do I call them? Two years ago, I would have said “adults”). I used to address all these e-mails the same way: “Hi Professor So-and-So!” This hasn’t changed, though I’ve dropped the “!”. It looks more composed, less young.
I never learned to begin with “Dear,” although most of my friends and about half the students I asked in the Ratty last Sunday use “Dear Professor So-and-So” when writing their teachers. The other half address with “Hello Professor,” “Hey Professor,” “Dear Mr./Mrs.,” “Dear Dr.,” “Hi Professor,” and—this one I like for its shortness—“Professor.”
Sign-off choices tend to say a little more. Two freshmen I spoke with sign with “Cheers”—one takes after his father, educated in Britain, and the other after a high school teacher who was “just the coolest guy.” A comp lit major signs with “As ever,” after seeing a favorite professor use it once to invite her to dinner. I heard “‘Truly,’ because my grandfather used it” and “‘Take Care,’ probably from my old man, he does that a lot.” A front desk worker at Human Resources signs work emails with “‘Best’—because we’re told to,” but personal emails with “Warmly,” a gesture to her home state, Hawaii.
Last week, I saw a piece in Slate called “You Say ‘Best.’ I Say No.” For years, the author wrote, he had been signing his emails with “My very best” until he suddenly noticed how self-centered the phrase was. It was also confusing—was he wishing the recipient well, or was the preceding e-mail basically the best thing he could come up with? So he urges readers to “join me in slaying the email signoff” because, after all, we are in the age of minimalism, and valedictions hold us down to the days of the Pony Express.
He could be on to something. At least, people are beginning to address and sign emails more simply, with only a name. I got an email the other day from a professor signed just “ProfT.” It felt clean and gracious, as if to say, “You and me, let’s dispense with all the fluff, shall we?”
But in my reply, I signed with a “Best Wishes.” It dates me, I guess—or no: Since I’m too young to be dated, it reveals a self-conscious leaning towards an era of letter-writing that was never mine to remember, anyways.
One of the few I’ve written down, from one of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler, to his editor, goes: “I do not write for you for money or for prestige, but for love, the strange lingering love of a world wherein men may think in cool subtleties and talk in the language of almost forgotten cultures. I like that world.” This letter was dated January 21, 1945. Chandler didn’t use a sign-off. I think he left it out on purpose, since he was the type who knew to use one only when it was important.