It’s time to stop using “best.” The most succinct of e-mail signoffs, it seems harmless enough, appropriate for anyone with whom you might communicate. Best is safe, inoffensive. It’s also become completely and unnecessarily ubiquitous. That development is relatively recent: A University of Pennsylvania study from 2003 found that, out of hundreds of e-mailers, only 5 percent opted to close with best. It came in behind “thank you” and “regards.” But a quick search through your work account will quickly clear up two things: 1) No one says regards anymore; 2) everyone says best.
When e-mail first entered the office in the 1990s, most users wanted to abandon the formalities of letter writing altogether, so they omitted signoffs. “There was no salutation and no closing,” says Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette coach. “It was like a memo.” In a Los Angeles Times article from that era, Neil Smelser, a sociologist from the University of California at Berkeley, predicted that the rise of electronic communication would ultimately kill off the written goodbye altogether.
But as e-mails started to function (and look) more like letters, people reverted to formal, familiar behavior. Now, “there is a whole hierarchy of closings,” Pachter says. So how do you choose? “Yours” sounds too Hallmark. “Warmest regards” is too effusive. “Thanks” is fine, but it’s often used when there’s no gratitude necessary. “Sincerely” is just fake—how sincere do you really feel about sending along those attached files? “Cheers” is elitist. Unless you’re from the U.K., the chipper closing suggests you would’ve sided with the Loyalists.
The problem with best is that it doesn’t signal anything at all. “Best is benign,” says Judith Kallos, an e-mail etiquette consultant. “It works when you apparently don’t know what else to use.” Others have called it charmless, pallid, impersonal, or abrupt. Caity Weaver, writing for the Hairpin, said it’s like “the black tank-top tucked in the rear of the display” at Target. “A few years ago, best seemed kind of uncaring—like turning your shoulder to the person without thinking,” says Liz Danzico, the creative director at NPR, who occasionally blogs about e-mail communication. “Now, it’s like a virus.” And so it’s mutated: “All my best,” “all best,” “very best,” and so on.
“Best wishes” goes back centuries, but the standalone best first appeared in 1922. The earliest version of it in an American letter, per the Oxford English Dictionary, came from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Zelda sends best,” he said in a note to the literary critic Edmund Wilson. It crept further down the page throughout the 20th century; the first-known usage as a closing was in a 1968 missive to the writer Larry L. King that ended, “Best, Bill.” Even then it read cold: King criticized the idea, calling it “real buddy-buddy.”
Our tastes in valedictions have been trending bland for centuries, away from the elaborate farewells that first appeared in the Bible. “Ever since the 18th century, the English speaking have been busy pruning away all ornament of expression,” wrote Emily Post, the foremother of etiquette, in 1922. “Leaving us nothing but an abrupt ‘Yours truly.’ ” The trend has extended into digital communication. Fearful of coming off as too smug or affectionate, we’ve been bullied into using empty words. I made an (unscientific) online survey, and among my friends and colleagues, 75 percent use best or thanks, though many admitted that neither was ideal. “I hate best, but it’s what I go with,” one respondent lamented.
So if not best, then what?
Nothing. Don’t sign off at all. With the rise of Slack and other office chatting software, e-mail has begun functioning more like instant messaging anyway. “Texting has made e-mail even more informal than it is,” Pachter says. In conversations with people we know, complimentary closings have started to disappear. Tacking a best onto the end of an e-mail can read as archaic, like a mom-style voice mail. Signoffs interrupt the flow of a conversation, anyway, and that’s what e-mail is. “When you put the closing, it feels disingenuous or self-conscious each time,” Danzico argues. “It’s not reflective of the normal way we have conversation.” She ends all her e-mails, including professional ones, with the period on the last sentence—no signoff, no name, just a blank white screen.