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The Unspoken Rules of Email in the Time of Quarantine

Today, when I typed the word “hope” into the body of an email, the Gmail “Smart Compose” feature automatically suggested the words “you’re doing okay” to follow it. When I typed the word “stay,” it suggested “safe.” While I still have yet to fully adjust to the surreal experience of carrying on with life and work in the midst of a pandemic, my inbox seems to have adapted in a matter of days, submerging each exchange in a murky stew of verbiage: professionalism intermixed with vulnerability.

With each message I receive–in which sentences like “thinking of you and your family” or “how are you holding up?” replace once-common phrases like “circling back!” or “coverage check-in”–I think about the essay Molly Young wrote for Vulture in February that interrogated why corporations speak the way they do. She lists dozens of examples–“holding pattern,” “touchbase,” “creative sync,” “replatform”–referring to them as garbage language because “garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad.” I think about how much has changed in three weeks, the habituated garbage of our pre-quarantine communication replaced by something else entirely:

Heartfelt sign-offs (“I am writing you as a friend, what is appropriate here? Do you want to be pitched?”) and attempts at levity (I received one email with the subject line “Quarantreat”). Straight-talk (“We don’t want to hide behind our emails and pretend that nothing is happening right now”) and attempts to bridge the void of isolation (“I’m trying to stay positive and am thinking about you and your family”). Unprecedented influxes of virtual kisses (“xx”) and follow-ups so gentle they feel like a shoulder rub (“Just wanted to make sure this didn’t get lost in your inbox during what I’m sure is a difficult time”).

It’s touching and unfamiliar and awkward all at once, like a baby animal figuring out how to walk. And it sounds fumbling because it is. Fumbling for connection. Fumbling for permission to try and move forward with aspects of normalcy–a client looking for press, a freelancer suggesting a pitch–while understanding that normal looks and speaks differently right now. Fumbling for the right way to acknowledge that there is no right way to acknowledge what is happening in hospitals and homeless shelters and whole entire countries around the world. Fumbling to express the appropriate amount of gratitude that we’re still in a position to be emailing (emailing!) at all, particularly about something mundane or work-related.

In the same essay about corporate lingo, Young writes that “our attraction to certain words surely reflects an inner yearning.” This assertion rings true to a heightened extent as we tentatively navigate the language of digital interaction during quarantine. Already, a new lexicon is emerging–one where “hope all is well” is no longer a garbage formality, but rather evidence of a genuine desire to lead with humanity above all else.

Feature image inspired by this from @everyoutfitonsatc.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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