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I hope this finds you well

Readers of a certain age (in this case, I suspect this means anyone over 30 or so) will remember that there was a time when nobody started an email with the sentence “I hope this finds you well”.

Sometime in the last 5 or so years, some evil cabal has decided to tell secondary school pupils – and even (theoretically) fully-hatched people in the workplace – that all emails have to begin with this sentence.

My problem is not simply with the sentence itself, though I certainly have problems with it, as I shall tell you. The problem is also that the sentence serves as a useful proxy for how little people are thinking about the boundaries of thought, and what it is possible – what you are allowed – to think about.

First, on the sentence. Yes, of course it’s true – and really too banal to have to say – that it is intended as an expression of concern for one’s fellow human being. But, I already assume that you care in the standard sort of way, namely the way that is captured in the awkward “how are you?” exchanges we deal with many times a day (in the days when we saw people other than the people we’re in lockdown with).

And, we know that the “how are you?” is by and large meaningless. If you actually know the bartender or cashier, you’d say something else. You’d say “how is your pet axolotl – Joe, was it?” or “how is that tumor progressing?” (only if the person is not pregnant).

If we already know that a convention is meaningless, why replicate it in a different context, when there was no existing flaw of the relevant sort to address in that context?

It’s not like emails suddenly became awkward, with two people standing in front of each other wondering who would say what first, causing us to invent protocols like “hey, how are you!”. Emails were working fine without us pretending to know or care about each other.

In the past, when we first received an email from a stranger, we would not have expected them to ask how we are, because we would know they could not have a clue as to our what our situation is and how the email “finds” us.

But now everyone is saying “I hope this finds you well”, even in their very first email to absolute strangers. And, before Covid-19, these emails would have been received by people with one or more of

  • screeching children
  • sick parrots
  • fierce boredom
  • diabetes
  • cancer
  • silent children
  • murderous kittens
  • indigestion
  • dying relatives
  • joblessness or poverty

And now we can add Covid-19 to the mix. How do you think I am, or anyone else is, and how the hell does it make sense to you to ask this of a stranger?

Second, an even worse problem (as alluded to above), when I asked my students about this and why people do it, it turns out that the problem is not simply that people utter polite phrases without thinking about whether they are meaningful or even polite, but that they have already become incapable of considering alternative ways to express their humanity.

Students have said things like “it’s meant to indicate respect” (how? You don’t know the person, and they might be mortally ill, and all you’ve done is reminded them of it); or “‘it’s at least better than “I trust this finds you well'” (because that’s awfully complacent, and clearly just going through the motions while explicitly not caring).

What I haven’t seen, so far, is someone saying “damn, yes, that sentence serves no purpose, runs the risk of causing an affront, is something we happily got along without for decades, and is something nobody thought was lacking in email etiquette”.

Who is responsible for this, and can something be done?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.