Emails have become the new scented letters. Victorian maidens who wanted to impress suitors used to sign off with a flourish on scented letters that were hand-delivered by coach boys. Now, we are left with intangible airwaves that carry our missives to friends and enemies. Today, we use email for birth announcements, birthday parties, thank-you notes and occasionally, to send stinkers. The “what-the-hell” messages and the “just-where-do-you-get-off-speaking-to-me-like-that” communiqués that used to be delivered by phone or in person have become the purview of email. Naturally, how we appear online is in some cases, more important than how we are in person. As for me, I think I have better online relationships than real-life ones. My kids might think I am Frankenstein, but on email, I can be polite, charming, even gay, without gritting my teeth, tapping my toes and looking at my watch. I can wait till I think of a witty response before hitting the reply button.
One thing I’ve noticed with email is how people sign off. The Aussies and the Brits prefer the impersonal yet cheery “Cheers,”; Indians like “Regards,” or “Warm regards,” which seems a lot more pleasant than the American “Best,” which has to be the coldest sign-off amongst nationalities.
Second life: Facebook has over 760,000 users located in India. Photograph: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Some people have quotations attached to their signatures. Most of them are forgettable. The only one I remember is, “Character is what you do when no one is looking”. I thought that was pretty cool. For a while I considered appending it to my emails. Then I thought it would be totally out of character, considering that most of the things I do are purely for the benefit of people who are watching. I don’t mind appearing like a shallow two-faced hypocrite but I draw the line at being a pseudo.
The body of the email draws on different styles of writing. My friend, Ann La Rue, writes the most plaintive emails: no hello, no greeting, and no sign-off. Just succinct messages sans segue as in, “Did you book the train tickets from Delhi to Agra? What do you think of the Obama cartoon in The New Yorker? I found the pink slipper you left behind in my house years ago.”
One corporate head honcho I know writes very civilized emails, complete with quaint paragraph indents, cordial greeting and warm sign-off. Most people write the first email with all the requisite civility and then resort to tapped-out replies. This is, as it should be, I think. It would be very boring to do the “Dear Sheela,” and “Warm regards,” each time.
When I reply to people I don’t know, I usually copy their format, especially when it comes to superiors. When an editor who I haven’t met writes to me, I basically mimic their approach. If they say, “Hi Shoba,” I say it right back. If they prefer a “Dear Shoba,” I’ll repeat it. If they sign off with the “Best” I detest, so be it from me.
Brand managers say that mimicking is a great way to suck up to clients. The theory is simple: You basically mimic the gestures of the person in front of you a few seconds later. If they gesture expansively with their hands, you do the same thing; if they nod in a certain way, you follow; if they scratch their ear, you echo the gesture. A few minutes of this and the person will take an inexplicable liking to you without realizing why. At least, that’s what the theory says. I haven’t tried practising it. I would like to do this but I am afraid nothing cogent will come out of my mouth if I am so caught up with the gesture-mimicry.
The thing I hate is stationery. Fonts I can handle; paragraph formatting is fine by me. But every now and then I will get an email using the “Sunshine splash” in-built stationery that Windows supplies. I was an offender too. For a while, all my emails went out with “Ivy” crawling up the left corner. I squirm now but I was trying way too hard to be cool, you see.
Fonts are another matter, especially the ones on my Apple OS X. I read Steve Jobs’ commencement address for Stanford’s graduating class and he talked about taking a calligraphy class, which came in handy when designing fonts for the computer. I personally like Apple Chancery and pretty much every font that looks like a Victorian maiden’s writing: Edwardian Script, for instance, is how I wish I could write. So occasionally, when I am composing stuff such as this, I compensate for the drivel by upping the ante with the font. Even though you, dear reader, are perusing these pages in the standard news print font, the words as they appear on my computer are full of flourish and up-curved brushstrokes. Again, much as I love them, I don’t try these fonts on email because they fall under the “trying too hard” category.
The worst thing about my current email existence is that people are continuously prodding, bumping, or throwing things at me. My niece registered me on Facebook and LinkedIn and we have both forgotten the password. So I routinely get emails stating that Anjali has written on my wall when I didn’t even build a wall, even online. I am amazed by the number of people who want to be my friend. What amazes me even more is that most of them are strangers. The only thing is that when I try to “approve” them, the darn thing doesn’t let me because I can’t remember the password. So for now, I am like a free-floating amoeba in cyberspace, gathering plankton and the odd moss, but unable and unwilling to commit.
Shoba Narayan has 73 connections that she is trying to approve Not. Write to her at email@example.com