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 3-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 100,” 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. “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 more than 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.”