At the time of writing, this breezy little article from Ben Pobjie on the social minefield that is signing off an email has 638 comments. For the readers of the article, Pobjie’s wry observations have clearly struck a nerve.

But there are few elements of modernity as vexing as the question of how to sign off from an email. It’s an easy task if you want to look like a passive-aggressive tosser, but if you don’t, it’s one of the most fraught decisions you’ll make – and you have to make it over and over again, every day, knowing that if you slip up you might find yourself on the end of a workplace harassment complaint or scathing mockery from colleagues.

The tone of the article is light, but the eager response from readers brings out an underlying anxiety. This is not a question of what is the proper way to end an email? but rather: what will my recipient think about me from the way I sign off this email?

I’m not suggesting that Pobjie or his readers are lying awake at night, fretting over whether they should write Regards or Best wishes, but I think that many of us have probably felt slightly clumsy when finishing an email. This is probably because, while we may have learned at school how to open and close a letter (I remember diligently learning the difference between Yours sincerely and Yours faithfully), for most of us email entered our lives as a more informal medium than paper and ink. We were not taught how to write emails. A quick google of “email etiquette”, meanwhile, brings up almost nothing about the composition of emails, but instead finds articles that focus on suggestions like don’t misuse the “reply all” feature and the difference between “to” and “cc”. Nothing on salutations and sign-offs, presumably because these are thought to be easy – make use of a stock phrase and be done with it.

The problem, of course, is that when salutations and sign-offs are done well, no one notices them. The eye skips over these stock phrases unless they are used inappropriately. I like to think I’m not stuffy, but I do raise my eyebrows gently when I get an email from someone I’ve never met before that opens with only Hi, and I shake my head a little when the occasional student forgets they aren’t writing to a friend and signs off with a xxx after their name. The reason they briefly jar is not because I expect to be treated with deference. Rather, it is because these openings and closings do not match the social relationship that I have with the sender.

Now for the medieval connection. Medieval letters were all about connections; ties of kinship, friendship, patronage and mutual obligation often provided the driving force behind the composition, reception, and sometimes even the very means of delivery of letters. The way letters were written, meanwhile, created connections between writer and recipient through the syntax as well as the content of the correspondence.

By the fifteenth century, the time period in which I’m particularly interested, letter-writing in Middle English was a pragmatic daily reality in the lives of the members of the gentry and merchant ranks. Letters were intended to transmit news, and most of them were to the point and primarily concerned with business. They were structured following a conventional template, which presumably made them quicker to write. This all sounds mundane; but letter-writing in English was now commonplace, at least amongst certain kinds of people, in a way it had not been a century before. Written communication had become the norm.

The structuring of medieval letters followed a well-established template. The rhetorical precepts of Latin oratory were adapted in the middle ages into a five-part epistolatory structure: the salutatio, which gave the names and titles of both addressee and author; the captatio benevolentiæ or exordium, the opening to the letter, intended to capture the goodwill of the recipient; the narratio, which laid out the context for the letter; the petitio, the request of the letter; and a conclusio. Now, these are the regulations for Latin letter-writing. Curiously, given how many Middle English letters survive, there is little evidence for the teaching of the art of letter-writing in English before the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, the standardised way that English letters were constructed strongly suggests that this was a skill taught at a fairly elementary level, and Middle English letters follow a modified structure of the Latin model indicated above.

In my (plug alert!) forthcoming book, I write on what we can learn about father-son relationships from the salutations of letters (a term I use to draw together the salutatio and exordium, since in English these cannot be so neatly divided as in Latin). Salutations have been typically disregarded as rote phrases with little meaning, and in early anthologies of letters were sometimes omitted altogether. Yet salutations of medieval letters tell us a great deal about social expectations, and locate writer and recipient in relation to one another. Most obviously, they may locate them spatially – for instance addressing a letter as having gone from one place and to another – but they may also locate them socially and empathetically. Social deixis, in linguistic terms, is language that emphasises social difference, whilst empathetic deixis creates and reflects an emotional tie between writer and recipient. What was particularly important in late medieval letter-writing was locating the recipient in relation to the writer in terms of social and kinship networks. Each of these relationships, it would seem, had a specific significance within medieval English society, which was being evoked – and invoked – by the writer of the letter. For instance, when John Russe wrote in 1465 to John Paston ‘my right honorabyll maister, I recomaund me to you in the most humble wise’, by addressing John as ‘master’ and referring to himself as ‘humble’, he created an impression of social distance, although calling him ‘my maister’ also generated a sense of connection.The empathetic connection was established at the same time as the hierarchical difference was maintained. This reflects a wider pattern of compositional norms in Middle English letters. Richard Cely junior’s letters to his brother George invariably began with a version of ‘Riught interly welbelouyd brother’, while William Maryon, writing to George, always made a note of their friendship: ‘Ryght reuerent syr and my specyall frende’.

What has all this got to do with writing emails? Well, late medieval England was a society with a much keener sense of hierarchy and social order than that of modern Britain, and so it’s unsurprising that the newest but increasingly significant medium for transmitting information – letters in English – would have resulted in scrupulous attention being paid to the composition of that medium. Medieval people adapted earlier forms of letter-writing to suit the purposes of their new written language. Meanwhile, while we may not have manuals on email-writing, our vague anxieties about how we open and close our messages reflects something that medieval people understood: that the way we frame our correspondence can say a great deal about our relationship with our recipients. What our salutations and sign-offs remind us is that our correspondence is as much about social ties as it is about the delivery of information: some close and binding, like family relationships, some loose, like acquaintances, and some in an awkward social no man’s land like the-colleague-I-like-but-wouldn’t-friend-on-facebook. So if you’ve ever felt silly for spending more than thirty seconds signing off an email, you’re in good company; centuries-worth of letter-writing manuals suggest your social anxiety has a solid historic pedigree.

Further Reading

Susan M. Fitzmaurice, The Familiar Letter in Early Modern English: a Pragmatic Approach (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002)

Malcolm Richardson, Middle-Class Writing in Late Medieval London (London:
Pickering & Chatto, 2011)

Sarah Rhiannon Williams, ‘English Vernacular Letters c. 1400 – c. 1600: Language, Literacy and Culture’ (PhD diss., University of York, 2002)

Linda Ehrsam Voigts, ‘A Letter from a Middle English Dictaminal Formulary in Harvard Law Library MS 43’, Speculum 56 (1981)