The politics of the office 'kiss'

16:00, Oct 18 2010
Women with laptop
INBOX INSSUE: In some industries, the 'x' sign is widely used in work correspondence.

In Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel, The Corrections, Gary Lambert and his sister, Denise, visit a trade show with the aim of making money from their dying father's invention. The siblings approach a potential buyer - a woman. Gary starts hard and quickly goes backwards. Denise picks up the ball, softens the offer and within seconds the deal is back on the table. Franzen writes, "Female bonding, the making of nice, faintly nauseated Gary."

There is one facet of female bonding I do find faintly nauseating and it is a line I will no longer cross in the office: the "X" - the kiss at the end of an email.

For those of us who work in an ultra-girlie or deeply superficial environment full of fragile egos (such as publishing), the X is a normalised mode of communication and - not unlike a vicious strand of the H1N1 virus - can, without proper vigilance, multiply into XOXOXOXO and spread throughout inboxes. I have come to think of it as a signifier of forced intimacy and therefore false. Moreover, if I'm asking a co-worker to do something, it changes the tone from "Please do this for the company" to "Pretty please, will you do this widdle favour for me?"

Ah, but I was once a user! I learnt my lesson the hard way. The result was what any economist would tell you about inflation: the more liberal I was with them, the faster their value plummeted.

It began when I felt the singular X was no longer enough. How could it be if I was signing off with one in an email to a freelance writer I'd never met? That meant I'd have to put XX or XXX in my sign-off to a writer I had met.

What about a writer I had met whose work was actually good? Well, I gotta go XXXXX or XXXXXX then, don't I? Where does it end? You might ask one writer I know who, whenever she's given feedback she doesn't like from her editor, will deliberately withhold her Xs in the reply. It's an almost childlike way of saying, "I like you, but I don't like you as much now that you poo-pooed my perfect prose."

I sympathise, though, because at some female-dominated workplaces - in particular, the ones that trade in the glossy side of life, such as fashion, beauty, public relations and, yes, magazines - the X is deeply ingrained in the culture. A colleague who worked at one of these high-gloss places once explained to me that when her female boss sent her an email along the lines of "Your output is weak, your effort terrible" but signed off with XOXO, almost nobody viewed the two lines as contradictory.

Gawker's sister website, the feminist-slanted Jezebel, recently explored the minefield that is emoticons in the workplace. Blogger and writer Sadie Stein called them "a handy shorthand for softening a brusque one-liner, indicating sarcasm and, occasionally, injecting completely inappropriate whimsy into an otherwise grim day. These indicators are often necessary in media where the implication might otherwise be, "It's not me, it's you."

She's right. A smiley face - that daggy, sexless cousin of the X - can take the heat out of what would otherwise be fiery words, but I'd argue it also gives your superior licence to say whatever soul-leeching remarks they like as long as they end with a ;-). The emoticon, along with the X, has become an emblem of that other stereotypically female communication style: passive aggression, a "just kidding" at the end of a dig.

A close friend changed jobs recently, from one female-dominated, high-gloss workplace to another, and began anew. "No more Xs, Nat!" she told me triumphantly. "Not even one!" It may seem like a small step, but the etiquette of the X can be burdensome. I've been in a position where once a publicist opened with XX, I felt pressure to return the love. But when the agreement hit a snag, the Xs evaporated, leaving me feeling like a jilted GF, instead of a business colleague.

While the X is sometimes less than professional, it doesn't always symbolise sinister female behaviour. A few years ago, I was trying to get Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, to write something for Sunday Life. His publicist gave me his personal email (with his permission, of course). To be conversing directly with the man who changed the way I viewed my own place in the world made me giddy with delight. If that sounds earnest it's because, when I read it as a teen, I was terribly earnest in my admiration for Coupland - and my ardour had not dimmed.

I sent him a polite email detailing my request. Coupland replied, saying he'd like to do it. His tone was warm and witty and he signed off "Doug". Emboldened by this, I wrote back, warmer still.

I don't remember his reply; I was too enraptured by his sign-off. For there, just above the initial D, was one lower case x.

Natalie Reilly is the deputy editor of Sydney's Sunday Life.


Sydney Morning Herald