Wishing well

Unlike most people, I rather like spam. I don’t remember acting upon any of it;  I have acquired no Russian spouses, nor African benefactors, nor enhanced body parts. But I do like to spot trends in the way spam is written, dig out unusual words, and ponder the ways in which it differs from legitimate business communications.

I am not talking about the crude sexual come-ons that use various typographical tricks to by-pass the internet providers’ spam filters and slip into the junk box on my computer. (I only get it from my gmail account, incidentally. I wonder why.) I’m really talking about spam that presents itself as cold-calling business email. Of course, untargeted business mail is exactly that; it’s a fine distinction.

Such emails make various attempts at creating a friendly, approachable tone of voice (the default mode of the Internet), while also appearing businesslike. There may be a bogus invoice number or similar call-to-action attached.

Anyway, I have recently observed an odd thing: the number of times complete strangers, or imaginary people, open the correspondence like this: “Hope you are well.” Clearly, this is an instance of business writing imitating the way friends begin emails to each other.

In that context, it’s perfectly natural and pleasant. It’s not new, either. The Romans greeted each other in the street like this: Salve, meaning “Be well”. In writing they used salutem, meaning “greetings” or “good health”. You might argue that the reason it is so common now is simply fashion: we like to respond in kind to the language we receive. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of some deeper anxiety in society about health, one of the few things we fear we can do nothing about.

The point, though, is context. “Hope you are well,” is fine among friends. It’s OK with genuine business contacts: people whose names you know, people who have voluntarily made contact with you, people with whom you already have a relationship. It is less so with strangers, especially the older generation, and to them it may appear impertinent, over-familiar, and plain cheeky.

As always, the secret of successful communication is knowing your audience. That takes a bit of thought and an acute awareness of the tone of voice projected by your writing. It is worth it.