Many people I don’t know begin emails with the grating greeting, “I hope you are well,” My usual response: “Yeah…I don’t know you and I’m well enough to delete your email without reading further.”
And, given the results of an informal survey, many people feel the same way.
Catharine Hamm, travel editor for the Los Angeles Times, who receives countless pitches from prospective contributors and PR agents, also dreads receiving “I hope you are well” emails. “It is by God’s grace that I am well, but what if I weren’t?” she asked. “I’m sure I’d be just as angry…To these people I say this: Building a relationship means helping me do my job, not asking me how I am. It means understanding my market, not trying to understand my psyche. It means identifying and addressing my journalistic needs, not helping me find my personal center.”
Barbara Teszler, CEO of Teszler PR in Santa Monica, Calif., says opening with “I hope this email finds you well” is right up there with a cold call that begins “Don’t hang up” or mail marked “important information” in red on the envelope (the important information being that you’ve been pre-approved for a credit card with a company about which you could not care less). “People opt for ‘I hope you are well’ in order to establish a personal connection—it makes it sound as if you have already met this person, and ignoring or rejecting someone you’ve met in person is more rude than ignoring a stranger you’ve never met, so your email in theory is more likely to get read this way—but it strikes me as contrived and insincere.”
Mike Plugh, associate professor of communication at Manhattan College, believes these greetings have more to do with the recipient’s interpretation than the sender. “If someone writes, ‘I hope you had a great week,’ or ‘I hope this finds you well,’ there’s a chance that you had a terrible week or that you’re far from ‘well,’ but the acknowledgment of our mutual humanity is the real message, rather than any concrete hopes,” says Plugh. “The reason these friendly pleasantries may seem insincere is because they stare at us from a white screen, which is inherently impersonal.”
According to McClain Watson, director of business communication programs in the Naveen Jindal School of Management at UT Dallas, people need to lighten up. “If the sentence ‘I hope you are well’ in an email elicits an emotional response from you, that sentence has done its job,” says Watson. “The tone of most of our daily e-mail is procedural, transactional, and sounds like it was written by zombies for zombies. A challenge for those of us—like me—who want to write an email for humans with a beating heart is to find a way to make a sympathetic connection with the reader so that our email is read in a human voice. ‘I hope you are well’ may not be the best way to accomplish that goal, but it does a decent job much of the time.”
Etiquette expert Brooke Straiton recommends writing your emails backwards. “Your first sentence should summarize your needs or the intent of the email,” she says. “This allows someone to know from the very beginning if this is an email that needs to be addressed urgently, filed away as informational, or whatever the appropriate action may be. If you want to add ‘niceties,’ leave them for the end.”
Jill Tipograph, co-founder of Early Stage Careers, a consultancy helping young people land internships or first jobs, admits that it’s tough to jump right into business, so figuring out the right approach is important. Your personality and genuineness needs to be established. You need to find something comfortable and acceptable in terms of approach. “It’s not one size fits all,” she says. “Every situation is different. The approach should reflect the stature and/or image you can find online.”
Pitch Perfect: Effective Ways to Start an Email
The Observer asked Jill Tipograph to offer tips to improve emails:
“I hope this email finds you well” should be reserved for a phone call or a follow up email to a personal introduction. If you don’t know the person yet, it’s best to use a different approach.
Genuineness must be real, or don’t go down that path. Be professional, not casual. Think of buying a card: Would you send an overzealous or overly sincere card to someone you don’t know?
Err on the conservative side in approach. Start an email with “Dear Mr./Ms./Dr.”; only move to personal names when a relationship or rapport has been established. “Hi” or “Hey” is way too casual. Use proper names: If their name is Robert, do not refer to them as Bob in an initial email.
Do mention the referrer (if you have their permission)—always start with that person’s name in subject and first line. That’s your asset. “Dear (blank)—I was referred by (blank), who thought you’d be someone good to contact about (blank).”
Approach people using their industry jargon—people in creative fields speak one way, while those in banking another. But in any case, it is wise not to be extreme. Different industries have different standards.
Use a killer email subject line—people won’t bother reading the actual email if the subject does not resonate. Make sure it is relevant, pithy, and gives someone a reason to open. So much goes to spam these days, so inserting a common interest, alma mater or person who recommended you is important and valuable.
Send a follow up email—first emails often do not get read. Differentiate it: “I hope you are having a great week, and wanted to follow up on my email last week.”
Avoid emojis as they can establish wrong first impression.
Don’t mention someone without their permission.
Don’t assign the person a nickname. Story: A recent college grad approached Jill online and said, “Hey Jilly.” “No one has called me Jilly since I was a child, with only my husband of many years calling me that endearingly from time to time,” she said. “I was very put off.”
Triple proof—it’s embarrassing to see misspellings and incorrect use of grammar—especially a person’s wrong name or company (think college applications, e.g., wrong college name in an essay).
Don’t request free advice or a job without offering something of value in exchange. That is overly assertive and a turn-off.