5 Phrases You Should Never Use In An Email

If you want to sound like an intelligent person rather than a cliché robot, that is.

It's way easier to rely on clichés and claptrap in your writing than to expend the energy on an original thought--one reason why the 70 emails you send a day all sound the same.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily: It depends on the function of the message. If you're just communicating with colleagues or friends, there's no need to find new phrasing--though we've been told to please keep it to five sentences, thank you.

However, if you're trying to make a good impression--for example, when you're trying to start a working relationship with someone--then sounding thoughtful, rather than thoughtless, is a bonus. Remember: Emails are just text and lack the richness of the human voice that you get in a phone call or the wealth of body language and eye contact that you get face to face. All the other person has to go from is your words. So let's learn to choose them a little more wisely.

If we're looking to learn how to initiate relationships, we'd do well to go to those who do it for a living--salespeople. And if we're looking to learn about sales, we should go to the best writer on the topic, Geoffrey James. Who just helped us see which phrases to avoid.

1) "I hope you are well."

"This 'hope' is always followed by a page of boilerplate," James says. "In any case, if you don't know me, don't pretend you care about me."

So how can we do better than pretending to care about someone? Maybe by actually caring, actually getting to know the other person. Speaking to a journalist, PR folks that have just asked me to have a cup of coffee with them have been able to form an actual human bond rather than a forced relatedness. So when they holler at me, I holler back.

2) "I thought I would reach out."

"That expression--which has suddenly gotten popular--always makes me imagine a baby reaching out of a stroller," James writes.

And we don't want to infantalize ourselves. So instead of leaning on this passive, vacuous construction, we can simply say what we mean to say about the topic and how it relates to the recipient. We can dispense with the cloudy and opt for the clear.

To quote E.B. White in the Elements of Style:

[T]he proper correction is likely to be not the replacement of one word or set of words by another but the replacement of a vague generality with a definite statement.

So instead of thinking that you would reach out--which is obvious by your writing the message anyway--just express the action you're asking the recipient to make. If you want a reply, that is.

3) "Can I pick your brain?"

As entrepreneur-advisor-professor-author Steve Blank has noted, asking if you can pick someone's brain is asking for someone's time without offering anything in return.

What to do instead? Blank says to promise sharing an insight you've had along the way, which makes the conversation more of a two-way street. And humans love reciprocation.

4) "Bounce an idea off you."

See above. (And here.)

5) "Sincerely Yours,"

"I have no idea why anybody would put this phrase in a business email," James writes. "Hey, the Victorian era ended 100 years ago."

The old-school standard is that you can't write sincerely unless you know the recipient personally--if you don't know them, you should use faithfully, which sounds even weirder (reminiscent of an awesome song by Journey). But like singing ballads at karaoke, you should do so with caution.

Journey -- Faithfully

[Image: Flickr user Helgi Halldórsson]

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86 Comments

  • Rohan Kirkpatrick

    I read this article and all I could think was "Americans" followed by a pointed eye roll.

  • Doug

    Every time somebody closes an e-mail to me with "Sincerely Yours" I throw my hands up and saw "Whoa, I'm married, man! I just want to be friends!"

  • NotThatGullible

    A great article that leads to exceptional discussion. Thanks, guys!

  • Elaine

    I don't know if it's the specific phrases as much as a general overfamiliarity that seems to be epidemic today. If you don't know me, don't be fake, casual, or juvenile. That goes for your marketing emails, too -- don't make them all, "Hey, soooo great to talk to you!" Be professional and adult and straightforward. 

  • Bradford

    I wanted to reply to Anjali Mullany, the "news editor" here, but couldn't figure out how, so I will just do it this way...
    Congrats, Anjali, because of YOUR snarky reply, I just UNSUBSCRIBED...
    GOOD RIDDANCE, minutiae-brain!...

  • Anjali Mullany

     I apologize if I sounded snarky? I was genuinely appealing to our community to not insult each other in this forum, that's all. We should be able to disagree about these things in a civil manner, no?

  • Ekugler

    I actually do care about the people I write to. Obviously you think people in business have no relationships as humans. And, again, who made you King of Intelligent Communication?

  • Jake

    Unimaginative gibberish. Can I have the 2 minutes of my life back that it took me to skim this? Have you ever held a management position before? Garbage. 

  • Peter

    I guess I'm weird in that I actually DO hope that those I'm writing to are doing well. Even though I've never met some of them.
    I get emails from those in my field asking how I got started and am happy to have my brain picked, but am more forthcoming when those emails are kind and well considered, and not curt bullet points. I picked brains 5 years - 8 years ago, and now I am in a position to start offering something in return by not blowing off those that contact me.

    Maybe it's because I'm from the Midwest. Whatever. All the New Yorkers I work with seem to think the fact that I'm nice is an asset when collaborating. That's fine with me. 

  • Cris Petersen

    This is a recycled "article" from a few days ago. Why are they reposting it? That is also something that should not be done in business. So the first time the angle was "Phrases that don't belong in business" now the hook was "Don't put it in an email". Well, it worked because it created site-traffic for them but I am considering dumping FastCompany from my feed because the articles have become rather meh ... They are just turning out articles with a catchy headline but no substance to them.

  • Yulia

    I don't mind sincerely... and I don't mind reaching out. I think they are both human emotions to not be replaced with contemporary business lingo or... a lack or emotion masqueraded as directness. or just pure laziness to not care about a person.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    Maybe we could all agree on a day to go back to 18th Century salutations and closings, & really freak everyone out. "I need your input on the Fleegleman contract no later than Friday at five.  I have the honor to be your obedient servant,...signed..."

  • Viktor

    When I happen to read Jean Austen, I try to sneak in some good old 19th century turn of phrase every once in a while. Such a good fun to see people's reactions :)

  • Jon Dury

    I was right with you until you used the term "Awesome" describing the song Faithfully.

  • Dallyworks

    I think politeness and niceties are being routinely discouraged in business communications.  At my last job there was a push by management to make all emails "ask" oriented (btw - I hate the term "what's your ask" talk about asinine) and I had a hard time doing that.  I don't know why it can't be coupled - niceties - ask - niceties - done.  

  • Sopranospinner

    Thanks for the idea for a blog post! But before I'd use "faithfully" because sincerely is too old fashioned, I would use "your humble and obedient servant." "Faithfully" has a lot of baggage I don't want in my business emails and is at least as old fashioned as sincerely, 

  • inabadmood

    Great article (title), in that you managed to plenty of pageviews and 50 comments