A Valentine Mystery: What Do Our Email "XOXOs" Say About Our Digital Relations?

When we're unthinkingly throwing "best" at our children or "xo" at a new business contact, we may be missing a crucial leap of imagination: what the person at the other end of the line may be feeling, thinking and expecting.
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At a recent dinner party, the talk grew heated. A woman crossed in love grew angry, remembering how the man who ultimately jilted her had led her astray. A financier vowed he wouldn't cross that line, except with his family. I told the story of a magazine editor eerily doing it to me in a second email exchange, although we'd never met in person.

What gesture inspired such passions? The seemingly innocuous act of signing off an email with an "xoxo" -- a virtual kiss and hug.

We're well used to the fact that email is a kind of communication mutt, being something like a letter infused with the informality of the spoken word. Its capacity for evoking misunderstanding is well-known. Stripped of voice tone and body language and often penned in haste, even an informal social email can make its author seem demanding, curt, and insensitive. But why would a simple sign-off -- the now-popular xoxo -- arouse ire? Isn't it merely an attempt to warm up a cool online media? Curious, I recently dug into the past of this seemingly innocent sign-off.

We're certainly long past the days when formality and rigidity reigned in written communications. In Mary Owens Crowther's 1923 book of letter etiquette, even children's notes look to modern eyes like state diplomacy -- and hard work. "Dear Frank," begins one sample. "I am going to have a birthday party next Friday afternoon, from three-thirty until six o'clock. I hope you will come and help us to have a good time. Sincerely yours, Harriet Evans." According to Crowther's Book of Letters, proper adult letters of the time ended with "yours truly" or "yours respectfully" (business), "cordially yours" or even "yours lovingly" (social), to name a few. A closing might vary, but could never omit "yours," exhorts Crowther, without, alas, explaining why.

Today, we no longer earnestly wind up an email with such inky self-sacrifices, even when writing to our intimates -- and yet we throw x's and o's about with seeming abandon. Why? Perhaps message closures are akin to what linguists call "frozen phrases" -- the "how are yous" and even "have a good days" that "no longer carry literal meanings in the eyes of almost all users," says linguist Naomi Baron. Is the closure a meaningless template, case closed?

Or does the "xo" carry meaning, sometimes, for some people -- and therein lies the rub? As class lines soften and public-private boundaries blur, life's increasing informality shapes our language, notes Baron in her 2008 book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. We, in turn, become what she calls our own "language czars." In other words, with few agreed-upon rules of communications, especially online, we follow our own ever-shifting standards. An "x" for you may be a "cordially" for me -- and what's the difference, we shrug?

Undoubtedly, we "xo" for the same reasons that we reduce "best wishes" to "best" -- a yen for brevity in a hurried world. An "x" denoting a kiss first entered our lexicon in 1763, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which unfortunately falls silent on the subject of an "o" symbolizing an embrace. Intriguingly, 19-year-old Winston Churchill, in a postscript to an 1894 letter to his mother from military college, used the x-kiss, although he felt a need to explain himself: "Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC." Much later, the 1943 book Letter Writing in Wartime carries a letter from mother to son, closing with a mention of kisses -- spelled out. In a somewhat strange sign-off to a son at war, a mother breezily writes, "Come and see us when you can. Love and kisses from us all. Mother." Did her son at the front hurriedly respond with an "x"?

Does it matter how and when we are x'ing and o'ing? Should we care about whether we care, in closing? At the end of our telephone interview, Baron makes a point that lingers with me. We're sending and receiving so many messages these days that perhaps we've begun to care less about whether our meanings are clear, she speculates. Perhaps we're "somewhat inert" to making the effort to be exacting in our prose. If true, she says, "that says something very sad, and what it says is that talk is cheap in the worst sense of the term, and relationships are cheap."

I'm not against using a judicious x and o here and there, to my kids, husband and a few close friends. But the passionate debate around my dinner table about these seemingly innocent symbols tells me something about the fate of relationships in the digital age.

When we're unthinkingly throwing "best" at our children or "xo" at a new business contact, we may be missing a crucial leap of imagination: what the person at the other end of the line may be feeling, thinking and expecting. In other words, matching an "x" and an "o" or a "cordially yours" to the right recipient at the right moment may be as much a matter of empathy, as etiquette. If we cannot take a moment to take another person's perspective into consideration when we write, our magically quick and easy communications will too often go astray. Respectfully, I hope you agree.

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