I hope this column finds you (genuinely!) well in these increasingly uncertain times. I also hope that you and your loved ones are keeping safe throughout this unprecedented situation. It’s an extraordinary period that we’re living through, isn’t it? I hope you are staying sane despite the crazy reality we’re living. How are you getting food? Do you have masks? Is everyone in your home practising social distancing?
When lockdown started, email etiquette quickly became yet another monotonous part of our lives. Since mid-March, inboxes have been filled with nearly identical messages – a whole new set of Covid-19 clichés. Our message previews now look like one long list of the same virus-referencing phrases – all somehow managing to induce both eyes-glazed-over boredom and deep anxiety.
While there are more creative options in the coronavirus email canon, there are also the greatest hits. Hoping that someone is actually well – or as well as they can be! – in these “strange”, “unprecedented”, or even “apocalyptic” times is one classic. Other common openings will enquire whether someone is staying safe, sane or secure during this pandemic (the twee among us may refer to Covid-19 as “the C-word”). Now everyone’s digital correspondence begins like that of a Victorian gentleman: trusting that their message finds the recipient, and their family, in good health. It seems inevitable that Gmail will make it a suggested auto-response within the coming weeks.
The response required from the previous staple of “how was your weekend?” looks mercifully easy compared to today’s mandatory coronavirus small talk. Instead of simply saying our weekend was good or that, yes, we are glad that it’s finally Friday, we must detail every element of our living situations – where we are, how we’re doing, who is immunocompromised in our household, and how we’re finding working from home. Our outboxes have become Dickensian chronicles of the dullest facets of our lives.
You might be wondering why these conventions have been adopted so quickly. The likely answer is that emailing is, even at the best of times, a mundane task. Trying not to sound trite has always been a challenge, causing many of us to labour over the perfect ratio of exclamation points or how to make common phrases like “no worries if not!” appear less banal. It’s a lethal combination of boring and pressing, and its capacity to trigger self-loathing is astronomically disproportionate to what the job actually is: communicating basic information over approximately three sentences.
This is exacerbated by our present reality – while we’re stuck indoors, the minutiae of our lives is amplified. When your whole existence becomes restricted to your home, running out of milk or a meeting running over can feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to you. What were once irritating but ultimately minor tasks become a Sisyphean hellscape. It may feel like a fresh email is landing in your inbox every moment, each one demanding an immediate response. Sometimes it’s easier to give in to the clichés than to fight them – especially when our collective brainpower under lockdown is trending towards zero.
While the more creative types may avoid leaning on these crutches, shirking them comes with its own set of conundrums. If I try to devise a unique, pandemic-referencing opener, will I look like a try-hard? If I don’t mention it at all, will I seem insensitive or uncaring? Will doing either reveal that I might be overthinking it? Perhaps in the form of a column, printed in a national magazine?
Many people will always find writing emails painful. And now, with so little pleasure to be had day-to-day, having to do it may feel even worse. But while these coronavirus tropes could be seen as a menace, adding to the repetitive nature of our current lives, using them wisely could also be an opportunity – finally, a way to autopilot through a long-dreaded chore.
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show