Even after writing a perfectly composed email at work, there’s one last challenge every professional must face: How to end it.
Like many employees, I spend my days emailing people for my job, and have obsessed over the proper professional email signoff. I’ve debated whether “regards” “or “sincerely” sounds too stiff and formal, if “best” is too bland, or if I am close enough to the colleague to use “warmly” or “cheers” above my signature.
William Schwalbe, who co-authored Send: Why People Email So Badly And How To Do It Better, with David Shipley, validated my concerns. “A signoff is, to some very great degree, the final indicator of what your relationship is and whether it’s changed,” he said.
With these high stakes, you want to align the intent of your email closer with your meaning.
‘Best’ is usually best
If you want to choose an email closing that covers the widest array of professional situations, a version of “best” is usually a winner, experts say.
“The reason I go with ‘best’ or ‘best wishes’ is they’re completely bland or inconspicuous or boring,” said Victoria Turk, the author of Digital Etiquette. “When you’re talking specifically about a professional scenario, that’s kind of perfect. It means it’s suitable for any situation, you’re not going to offend anyone, you’re not going to be misunderstood, it works.”
In the U.S., “some formulation of ‘best’ or best wishes, is pretty accepted, pretty neutral, and pretty safe,” Schwalbe said.
“I tend to use something a little bit more formal, like ‘best regards,’ or ‘all the best,’” said business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore.
“Best” usually works well when the email is going to a stranger. And if they emailed you first, the decision about the closer is easier: just follow their lead. “That is the etiquette shortcut for anything. If you are not sure, just copy everyone else,” Turk said.
Use ‘sincerely’ for formality
″‘Sincerely’ says to me, ‘We have a formal relationship,‘” Schwalbe said. A switch to a formal signoff has weighted meaning when it is a new ending you use in a conversation. “Change is important. If you’ve been ‘best,’ ‘best,’ ‘best’ back and forth, and all of a sudden I sent you a ‘sincerely,’ actually that means you’ve probably done something that irritates me, and I want to establish that we are not actually close.“
Sometimes it is better to err on the side of buttoned-up manners, especially in a situation where you want to make a professional first impression. Turk said that a formal closer like “sincerely” can work for job applications and cover letters.
“It never hurts to start a little more formal than you think is warranted and then mirror their reply,” Schwalbe said, citing situations in which you email someone out of the blue or are cold-applying for a position.
There’s presumption in ‘thanks’ and ‘thanks in advance’
In an analysis of 350,000 email threads by email scheduling app Boomerang, any variation of “thank you” got significantly more responses than emails ending with other popular closers like “cheers,” “regards” and “best.”
You may have a higher chance of getting a reply with a “thanks,” but it can backfire. Using a word of gratitude in your closer does not mean you are conveying the feeling, especially if the body of your email is a request. “It’s not how gratitude works. You don’t thank someone before they’ve agreed to do something,” Turk said. “I find it really presumptuous and kind of passive-aggressive.”
Thanking someone for a request that has not been completed can add coercive pressure.
“It’s thanking you for something you have not yet done, and therefore kind of insisting that you do it,” Schwalbe said.
Schwalbe offers the example of thanking a colleaguing for remembering to bring folders to a meeting: “If the meeting has taken place and you did bring the folders, that’s nice. If the meeting is tomorrow, it’s kind of obnoxious.”
The dangers of using ‘warmly’ and ‘cheers’
“Cheers” is a friendly goodbye that works with colleagues you are close to, but it shouldn’t be your go-to. Turk finds it “too informal for a lot of situations.”
The problem with friendlier language like “warmly” or “cheers” is that this intimacy can feel unearned and off-putting in the workplace. It is usually not worth the hassle of being misinterpreted.
“It feels awkward when someone is acting more familiar with you than you feel that you actually are with them,” Turk said.
‘As ever’ can have multiple meanings
If you want to go beyond the typical answer of “best,” try the consistent message of “as ever” if you are friendly with the recipient and have gone through exchanges before.
This is Schwalbe’s personal favorite because it covers personal and professional relationships and is “inherently reassuring.”
“It just means ‘Whatever we were before, we are still that. No worries, it’s all good,’” Schwalbe said.
Extolling the virtues of “as ever” in the Paris Review in 2012, writer Sadie Stein decribed it as “versatile, graceful, elliptical.”
“If I was writing to a loved one, the sign-off implied my affection was going strong. If I hated someone, well, it didn’t rule that out, either. It could be cool or warm, friendly or formal,” Stein writes. “Or it could be literal: I was still Sadie Stein, and there was very little arguing with that.“
Yes, email closers are still wanted
Ultimately, email closers cause headaches because the answer of which to us is situational: Is this someone you are contacting for the first time, a casual acquaintance, or a colleague you are asking for a favor?
But the payoff of using one can be better than leaving it off. The Boomerang analysis found that having an email signoff almost doubled the response rate.
Turk said a closer isn’t necessary if the email is part of an ongoing thread, but it is if it’s part of a new conversation. “It’s just a nice courtesy,” she said. “No one is too busy to write, ‘best.’ It’s four letters.“
Choosing the parting thought for a work email forces us to search for context cues on what the person is like and make judgment calls on our relationship. It is not always easy.
“Treat others as you think they would like to be treated,” Schwalbe advised.
All my best wishes to you with your choice!