There comes a time in every person’s life when she must stare directly into the abyss and, without thinking, write the words “I hope you’re well.” This can happen to anyone, and it can happen multiple times a day. No person is safe from spouting out this meaningless salutation, and emails have begun to feel incomplete without it. If an alien society discovered our dead Earth centuries from now, the first thing they’ll find is a bunch of fossils scrawled with “I hope you’re well,” and only then will they gain access to time capsules filled with CDs of Aquemini and printouts of Justin Bieber’s Instagram.
“I hope you’re well” is a scourge on email correspondence, a hollow greeting that has come to mean nothing. I’d sooner write the first line of Finnegan’s Wake backwards and in Pig Latin than “I hope you’re well.” The expression has rendered itself so benign in its overuse that our brains are now programmed to ignore it, skipping directly to the point of the email, which, if the text “I hope you’re well” is any indication, is probably a request for a favor.
What is considered standard and polite email communication has changed over the years, of course: We used to treat emails like decorum-less notes in the early days of the electronic correspondence, but have come to adopt pleasantries as emails became the new letters. Many people believe there is no need for bland benedictions and expressions in our email correspondence, especially at work, but there is also a hard-to-place feeling of hurt that comes from being on the receiving end of a one-line email with no thanks, no greeting, and no sign off. At least buy me a drink first, you know?
But the problem with “I hope you’re well” is similar to what Rebecca Greenfield at Bloomberg declared in her treatise against using “Best,” as a sign off. “Fearful of coming off as too smug or affectionate, we’ve been bullied into using empty words,” she wrote. It’s like if you sat down for a delicious dinner of spaghetti and meatballs but before getting to eat, you forced yourself to take a shot of Soylent first. Why would anyone do that? Just get right to the good part.
So what is the alternative? Especially if you know that you are about to ask for a favor, perhaps even an uncomfortable favor, or you know that you haven’t spoken to this person in a while, or that you actually do hope this person is well, why not default to the four words that everyone seems to agree on? Luckily, I can provide you two foolproof alternatives.
While looking back through emails I’d sent to close friends and loved ones, I couldn’t find a single “I hope you’re well,” providing further evidence that its use is one clear-cut way to prove you couldn’t give a shit about the person you are emailing. From now on, when you are sitting down to write a professional email, you have two options: Either say nothing at all and jump right into the subject of your email, or find something — literally anything — to prove that you are not a robot built for the mundane task of churning out rote correspondence. Sometimes I like to comment on how hot it is outside (“Are you surviving this disgusting heatwave?”) and sometimes I like to throw in some current cultural commentary (“Did you catch merman Phelps’s race last night?”). Or sometimes, when I am strapped for anything interesting to say at all, I find a slightly more nuanced way of suggesting that I hope this person is well without saying “I hope you’re well.” Perhaps you write, “Is life in Chicago as great as it looks?” or “Is the summer treating you nicely?” At the very least, the person on the receiving end of the email will know you have not copy-pasted this text from another email you just sent to another person asking for another favor. You are now part of the solution instead of the problem.
The most important thing to do when writing an email to anyone — be it work correspondence or a love letter or a threat to your enemies — is to ask yourself, do you actually hope this person is well? If you do, then find some sincere way to say that instead of a bottled expression that has come to mean anything but. If you don’t know the person enough to determine your interest in their well-being, then establish a narrative that could inform that for your future correspondence with them. Let’s say you start off with “Can you believe that summer is almost over?” and they respond, “Winter is the only season that I like.” Or you say, “Would you agree that Anti is Rihanna’s best record yet?” and they say “No.” In those cases, yes, you are free to despise this person and forevermore address them with “I hope you’re well.” But only then is it fair to throw that expression their way.
And if the thought of leaving out any introductory pleasantry at all makes you uncomfortable, an exclamation point in your greeting should do the trick. It’s nearly as hollow as “I hope you’re well” but takes up less than half the space. Fun!