How To Communicate Compassionately in Unprecedented Times

by Maddi Butler

Published on: Sept 22, 2020

According to many commercials, emails, blog posts, company websites, and even, we are living in unprecedented times. Per Google Trends, searches for the phrase spiked in mid-March—shortly after the last of the precedented times, one supposes—and it has surely been inescapable since.

This year has demanded a lot of adaptability from everyone. Suddenly we were invited to Zoom everything: fitness classes, happy hours, weddings, even concerts. From a professional standpoint, we rely more on emails and Slack messages to stay connected as offices sit empty and employees work from home. And though our enthusiasm for recreational Zoom activities has faded and we’ve settled into new routines, the times remain unprecedented.

The phrase “unprecedented times” is so overused because there are few phrases that so capture the uncertainty and seriousness of a global pandemic. Furthermore, there’s a delicate push-pull in our communication now, where we want to acknowledge difficult circumstances without sounding trite or insensitive. Not acknowledging them at all can come off as insincere and uncaring, but saying the wrong thing can cause equal anxiety.

Fret not. There are plenty of ways to express consideration without mentioning the times and their lack of precedent. When you’re thinking about what you want to say, the first step is to acknowledge that many people are struggling right now, and that may include the recipient of your email. In an interview with the New York Times, etiquette expert Elaine Swann brought up the point that during such a widespread public health crisis and a period of civil unrest, people are going through more than we may realize.

Instead, she suggested crafting your greetings with empathy in mind. You don’t have to radically change your greetings or sign-offs. Rather, take a moment to consider the person you’re writing to. If you know the person well and speak to them often, you probably already have a comfortable rapport and feel safe sticking with your usual “hey” “regards,” or “warmly.”

But what about people you don’t speak to often or have never spoken to? One word sign-offs like “best” or “sincerely” may come off as brusque, but too many well wishes and mentions of unprecedented times may increase feelings of stress. Additionally, a sentiment that’s humorous to you might fall flat with someone else. In a BBC Worklife article, communications lecturer Ken Tann emphasized the importance of adjusting greetings, saying that a sympathetic tone can foster a better relationship.

Acknowledging the unique challenges we’re facing without placing undue emphasis on them can make all the difference. For example, “I hope you’re well despite the circumstances” or “I hope you’re as well as you can be right now” show consideration without sounding like an advertisement or seeming callous. Plus, they’re a little more personal than the old favorite, “I hope this email finds you well.”

The final thing you may want to include in your email is an acknowledgement that you don’t need a response right away (unless, of course, the email is truly urgent). If the recipient is newly responsible for caring for full-time childcare on top of a full-time job, they’ll probably appreciate it. A simple, “I look forward to your reply at your convenience” can ease a lot of stress!