Do you sign off work emails with an 'x'? What if someone has 'x'd you? If you forgo the 'x', will they be mortally offended? I like to finish emails with an 'S' so if an 'x' is added, my autocorrect gets confused, meaning I’ve signed off with 'Thanks, Sex' more times than I’d like to admit (that would be nine times). More and more people are opting in (and out) of the 'x' and it's becoming a nightmare.
To help navigate the email-kiss minefield, I conducted an incredibly scientific poll on Instagram entitled "Do you put an x on work emails?" and of the 900 people who responded, 83% said they’d never sign off a work email with a kiss. But speaking to people revealed a little more complexity.
"For me, it’s more about how long we’ve been communicating," said Tolmeia, an animator. "If we’ve built up a relationship for a while, then I’ll likely add one to quick emails."
Anna Berrington, who works in the media, told me: "I only do it for people I’m friends with or if they’ve put one on their email to me because I don’t want to look rude."
On the other hand, lawyer Ed Lane said: "Sadly most people would trust their lawyer a little less if they got an 'x' at the end of their legal advice." Fashion journalist and podcaster Pandora Sykes responded with a fairly blunt: "Literally hate an x unless they are a pal."
So what are we supposed to do? Etiquette specialist William Hanson advises: "If you'd kiss the person in real life, then put a digital kiss on the end of the text, tweet or email." But that feels a little archaic in today’s world of one-line emails, work WhatsApps and increasing informality.
To figure this out, let’s start at the beginning. Originally, the humble 'x' was how illiterate people would sign their name on documents and letters, at one point making the transition into a sign of affection. Marcel Danesi, author of The History of the Kiss! The Birth of Popular Culture, suggests this is possibly thanks to religion: "The x has always been a Christian symbol, and it is the first Greek letter in the name of Christ," he says. "As far as I can tell, official letters in the medieval period and even after were literally sealed with the x — sealed with a kiss of faith, I guess." Over time, and with an increasingly secular society, the symbolism shifted from the kiss of faith to actual snogs.
Brits have used kisses to sign off their letters and greeting cards as far back as 1763, with the Oxford English Dictionary citing a letter from Gilbert White as the earliest example. Winston Churchill was an early adopter too, closing a letter in 1894 with: "Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC."
But with the rise of emails and the decline of letters, the 'x' has experienced another shift. "Email itself has changed, with shorter and less-structured notes back and forth becoming more common," Dana Schwartz, cofounder and head of fashion PR agency The Hours said in a recent interview. "This has allowed quick expressions like 'xx' to gain popularity and take on a new meaning."
If you’re bombarded with over 200 work emails a day, all of which need to be replied to, of course you don’t have time for a once-mandatory "To Whom It May Concern". Most work emails I get begin with "Hi Stevie", "Stevie" or "You want big penis?" (I get lots of spam) and as our emails get shorter, the need to communicate friendliness quickly becomes more important.
Unlike corporate industries, creative jobs rely a little more on genuine human connection and even friendship – from PRs palling up with journalists to guarantee their products are featured in a magazine, to theatre directors trying to pull in favours with a venue. With this greater need for softeners at the end of short emails, the 'x' (and even, horrifically, emoji) has a role to play.
"I have two different jobs – one in theatre, one in politics," says Sarah. "I have to be taken super seriously in politics and a kiss makes me look too 'nice'. Maybe naive. Whereas in theatre, I feel like it’s seen more like I care for the people I’m working with."
Politics is famously anti-kiss, with MP Jess Phillips getting rebuked by a court judge back in 2016 for signing off an email with an 'x'. According to the judge, it was difficult to view the email as evidence because "the fact that Ms Phillips places a kiss after her name indicate[s] a relationship of affection and friendship which goes beyond the parameters of a merely professional relationship."
In other, more creative industries, the email kiss is encouraged. "Last company I worked at (with lots of middle aged white women), not putting an 'x' at the end of an email was basically considered an act of aggression," @whimsicella tweeted me. "Now I work somewhere a bit more diverse with a range of ages, no one signs off with an 'x' internal or otherwise. It's great!"
I worked for women's magazines for years and the kisses were constant unless I was emailing an expert for comment or, oddly, any man in the building. Many people I spoke to found work kisses to be non-gendered. London-based artist Samuel B. Thorne told me he signs off emails with a kiss "almost exclusively to my close male colleagues" and Sam Gray, a male graphic designer, does it on "about 80% of emails, but do stop myself if it's a 'cold' email". On the other hand, director Tom Levinge told me: "Sometimes a new male colleague will sign off a text with an 'x' and I assume they do that for everyone but it gives me a funny, uneasy feeling. Like it’s supposed to be an intimate thing."
It clearly depends on the individual and the culture of each office, rather than anything broader. Gone are the days of old-fashioned letter-writing rules, meaning it's probably fine for you to sign off with a kiss if the person who emailed you did too. It’s also okay if you know the recipient, or have developed some sort of professional but friendly relationship. Give it a miss if you’re emailing someone for the first time because you can't possibly know their email-kiss preferences, and similarly avoid an 'x' if you wish to maintain a certain professional boundary (i.e. you are the person’s accountant, lawyer, etc). Or if you just don't fancy it. You are the king of your (kissing) castle.
These seem to be the new 'x' rules but, crucially, if you get it wrong, there’s no need to resign and move to Spain. We’re living in an era where mistakes range from a colleague who recently wrote "C*nt attend" in a subject line to a friend who sent legal advice regarding Mr Cock’s estate, instead of Mr Cook (Mr Cook had recently passed away). Countless friends have downed bottles of wine after dashing off bitchy emails to the person they are bitching about, and let us never forget the greatest professional text message exchange of all time (pictured above).
As with most things involving etiquette, the best you can do if you 'x' the wrong person is to move on and pretend it never happened. Nobody is likely to have noticed, and if they did, they’ll presume it was a typo. Technology is moving quicker than language so just take each 'x' as it comes, and maybe look into switching off autocorrect on your computer.