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April 24, 2020 5:08 PM EDT
Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent in San Francisco covering tech, politics, culture, language (and so on).

When the pandemic hit this March, the normal rules about social interaction went out the window. Mere acquaintances started asking each other how things were going and actually wanting to hear a detailed answer. Work colleagues, forced out of the office and onto Zoom, started swapping deeply personal details about their lives. As the sense of shared crisis ballooned, every communication, business or personal, became a sort of check-in. It was moving (at least at first). It also meant that the usual formalities had to be reassessed. Among them: email sign-offs.

It was clear that some would have to be benched. “Cheers” might be obnoxiously jaunty in the best of times. It certainly is during a pandemic. Do “Warmest regards” fail to sizzle? During a pandemic they do. Less clear was what should take the place of stock phrases that could now read as callously upbeat. “Even our most basic social formulas,” says sociolinguist Ben Zimmer, “are fraught these days.”

For those fortunate enough to remain employed – like white collar workers doing their jobs remotely — this has became a choice people are making more times per day than usual. Goodness knows lots of us have more pressing issues to attend to, but it raises the question: how do we execute this ritual amidst a global meltdown?

Despite perennial debate about the best way to close an email, the words we use in normal times don’t really matter much. “Email signoffs belong to a category of polite formalities that are more about the social function of the words than the exact meaning of the words,” says linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.

Yes, some people make it a calling card (“Hakuna Matata!”). But in general we register the fact of the farewell more than the details, in emails as in conversation. We may not even know why we use the words we do. When you say “Goodbye,” do you do it because this is a shortened form of “God be with ye?” Probably not. You’re just following the script like everyone else. Then there’s a crisis and phrases we usually don’t think much about, like “All best,” suddenly seem cold.

One of the functions of an email sign-off is to clarify the relationship between sender and receiver. (“All my love” means you’re family. “Sincerely” means I hope you hire me.) And the general relationship of everyone was obviously altered by the pandemic – we are all in some state of emergency now and everyone knows it – so failing to acknowledge this veers into the oblivious, if not the inhumane.

Yet the specifics of someone’s situation can still vary wildly, which makes it hard to pick one new phrase and use it in every message you send. “Stay sane” might land if that person’s biggest problem is being bored. It might not if that person is grieving.

We are also in a rapidly evolving situation, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention like to say. As we have moved from Week One of sheltering in place to Week Whatever This Is, the collective mood has shifted. The rawness and urgency to check in with everyone have subsided (which is good, because it was getting a little exhausting, right?). Yet the need for sensitivity hasn’t. The possibility that you’re sending a cold email to some who is unemployed or sick or bereaved has increased. At the same time, the need for catharsis – and people’s willingness to achieve it through making jokes about the whole surreal situation – is on the upswing too.

“Whatever is good advice today might be totally different in a week,” McCulloch says. Still, there is at least one approach that will likely be relevant come summer: wishing someone well.

As new guidance about social distancing has come out, some people have ginned up sign-offs that combine well-wishing with reminders about what everyone is supposed to do: “Stay safe and stay home!” or “Stay safe and wash those hands!”

Some have incorporated the PSA more subtly, with a side of privilege acknowledgement. “With clean hands and appreciation,” read the valediction of a list-serv for fintech founders in mid-April. Others have done it while parodying the very stock phrases that no longer feel responsive enough. Out is “Warmly” and in is “Handwashingly.”

Many people have embraced some version of “Stay safe” or “Be well” or “Take care.” Some already using one of them on the regular have even doubled up: “Take care and best wishes” (emphasis mine). And they’re safe bets: These phrases have been around a long time because they send a clear, solicitous message.

But the fact that these were options people turned to early, leading more people to turn to them — including PR folk taking part in the great coronavirus email-marketing blitz — has taken steam out of their well-wishing power. At this point, these sign-offs can already feel rote, much like “thoughts and prayers” expressed after the latest tragedy. It’s not the wrong thing to say. It might not feel very helpful either.

Well-wishing, explains Zimmer, falls into a category of language known as a speech act. It’s language that does something when the words are uttered, like an officiant who says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” and thereby makes you husband and wife. For a speech act to work, he says, two things must happen: you have to mean it and it has to have the proper effect on its audience. Whether well-wishing achieves this “may depend on whether it feels like a genuine sentiment or has become a cliché,” Zimmer explains. If it’s the latter, “it can lack the force that we might want it to have in the world.”

Sign-offs like “Stay safe” may even seem condescending, however kindly they are meant. Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University who has studied well-wishing, says that along with good hopes, such phrases also function as an admonition. In his eyes, it can convey the benign bossiness of parents telling their teenager to “stay safe” as the child heads out on a Friday night, the implication being that they might not be as conscientious as they should be.

“It’s telling you to pay attention, be alert, protect yourself,” Gentile says. And while that’s a fine message to spread, it’s not quite the same as the “loving-kindness” that his research has focused on. And it may feel emptier the more times someone hears it.

For a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies last year, Gentile and his colleagues put subjects in one of three conditions (along with a control group): some were told to wander around a building for 12 minutes, notice people and silently, sincerely wish for them to be happy. Others were told to contemplate deep levels of connection or similarities they might have with people. A third group was told to engage in downward social comparison, a strategy familiar to anyone who has ever used Instagram, i.e. focusing on ways they might be better off than others. They measured everyone’s feelings before and after.

The results should be inspiring to anyone who hasn’t already bought into the benefits of loving-kindness through traditions that have been championing them for millennia. The folks in comparison condition got no benefit. “That helped them not a little bit,” Gentile says. The people pondering similarities did report feeling more connected but there was no change in their mood. The people who wished others well, meanwhile, reported not only more feelings of connectedness but greater happiness, greater empathy and lower levels of anxiety.

And, Gentile says, email signoffs have the ability to yield the same effects. The key? “You want to look at how much intention is going into it,” he says. This may sound hippie dippie, but he echoes the rules about speech acts: for it to work, you have to mean it.

What about that other part, making sure it has the proper effect on one’s audience? Zimmer says one option is being more personal, avoiding cliches and expressing hopes that are specific to the person or, at least, not a combination of words that people are mocking as “like the OFFICIAL Covid-19 email greeting/sign-off, right?”

It’s amazing to think that taking one minute to do this might make the person you’re communicating with feel seen and, even if it doesn’t, help quell your own anxiety. It’s a coping strategy that can be used on the clock, at no cost, without leaving the house, with zero risk of hangover or no longer being able to button your jeans.

Even if done for selfish reasons, well-wishing can end up having a positive effect on others. “Thousands of years of human wisdom traditions tell us that thoughts and prayers matter. They don’t matter in the way that most people want them to, but they matter because if you are sitting there wishing someone else well, that changes you,” Gentile says. In what way? “If you’re less anxious, you’re less of a jerk.” And everyone you come into contact with benefits from that.

As the weeks go on, and the rawness continues to wane, and the tedium mounts, and the quarantine becomes the new normal, it’s likely that the old generic sign-offs will creep back in. That’s okay. And it’s okay if people adhere to the new “Stay safe!” script too. Who has the energy to go around conveying originally-phrased deep hopes every hour of the day?

But using this ritual as an opportunity to meditate and say something particular, even sometimes, might just help us get through this thing. And so: I wish that whatever you are dealing with, you are finding a way to deal. I hope you figure out a way to live with anything that cannot be fixed. And I wish for you to find succor absolutely anywhere, in your kids (awake or asleep), a good book or howling madly out your window into empty streets.

Write to Katy Steinmetz at katy.steinmetz@time.com.

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