Covid clichés are the new email currency

Eva Wiseman
·4 min read

“Reaching out to you…” You’re sitting in the darkness, because the sun set at lunchtime and it’s too cold to remove the weighted blanket that has become your home office so you have not moved from the sofa to turn on the lights. And you are surrounded by the remains of a buffet tea you prepared hours ago, crusts are softening, crisps are dust. You suck a teabag for a caffeine kick, click on a new email and ponder its greeting. “Reaching out to you…” An image of a hand, emerging.

Here is something the pandemic has given you – an appreciation of the nuance of banalities. “Reaching out”, a claw rising from a grave like Carrie, or through a door like Jack Nicholson, or from choppy waters. Through the mists, a stranger searching for your arm, reaching out to tell you about a discount on moisturisers if you also buy the serum. Reaching out – there is a desperation to their stretch, reaching from this computer to that one, across time zones, politics, puddles. “Take this email,” the greeting implores, “I made it for you out of twine and butter; I thought of you as I weaved.” Reaching, reaching, despite that old tennis injury, despite the many screens between you, reaching because this is what humans do.

And when their email lands, they “hope it finds you well”. They hope it finds you, hidden there beneath your teacups and brainstorms, well. Well. How does it find you? Does it find you well? You ponder the ache in your wrist, the sour taste on your tongue, you assess your mental health – the song from a bank advert that’s been playing on loop in your mind since 2006, the doomy feeling you get as you worry a hangnail. “Well” is a word that has been forced to do much heavy lifting this year, having come to mean, “heart beating, lungs acceptable, brain connected, not yet dead”. A far cry from its sister, “wellness”, which means lighting a jasmine candle before inspecting your faeces. So yes, it finds you well, but it has had to search hard, as if playing a very sad game of hide and seek.

Sometimes there is a question mark – “I hope this finds you well?” – suggesting the opening of a conversation, which you appreciate. Does this find you well? Well. It finds you four pages deep in a thread about an influencer’s alleged affair. It finds you surrounded by yellow succulents you had moved too close to the window with misplaced love. It finds you drinking vodka from a Sports Direct mug during a Zoom meeting about Christmas. It finds you, yes, well, sort of.

It hopes this finds you well, they continue (and you can hear the clicky clack of their fingers on the keyboard, reaching, hoping) “in these very strange times”. These very strange times. These very strange and difficult times. These times of bright autumn mornings completely alone on a bus. These times of working out how to read the emotions of a person with their face covered, focusing only on their eyes, which narrow and moisten because of either weather or emotion or both. These very strange times, when email greetings from virtual strangers must nod quickly to international unrest and personal loss before swiftly moving on to the renewal of car insurance or reminder that there is never a better time to plant tulip bulbs.

These very strange and difficult and… unusual times, when, just as you thought you’d become immune to news, a story about Britney Spears makes you reach out, reach out to the counter to steady yourself. When weeks after the US election your dreams are still taking place in the car park of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, and your daydreams are about such simple pleasures as sitting at your friend’s watching something hideous with sequins on TV. These strange and difficult times, when you get a head rush after standing up from loading the dishwasher, then you do it again, and then again.

The email sender hopes, too, that “you are keeping safe”, a phrase which, were these not “strange and difficult times” would have caused cold shivers and a doublelocking of the door. Ah for the old, sweet dangers of yesterday; of serial killers, plane crashes and knives, rather than the mundane horrors of a stranger’s cough in the dairy aisle of Sainsbury’s, or someone laughing in an unventilated room. “I hope you and your family are keeping safe.” Phew. A phrase like that, thrown off with the exaggerated casualness of a person paddling very fast to keep afloat. A sentiment previously better suited for someone waiting to be rescued from a burning building, now being autofilled by Gmail in a message about your MOT. Read out loud darkly, it would do nicely as a threat.

These email greetings will be one of the relics of the pandemic, historians holding them up to the light with luxury hand sanitisers and other odd ephemera, used to display the soaring temperature of 2020, the ways we dressed up the awful days, the polite admission that something was wrong and yet, work continued. I hope they find them well.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman