I am often tormented by the etiquette of email. As a literary form — if we can call it that — email sits somewhere between the formality of handwritten letters and the intimacy and expediency of text messages. At times, due to its vast range of applications and correspondents, learning the craft of email often feels like learning how to code switch online, perhaps more so than any other form of digital communication. Though there are not many hard skills I’ve acquired at Princeton as an English major, I’ve at least learned how to write a pretty decent email.
However, as a first-year, I was unprepared for the moment when I would begin to receive emails not from professors, but from alphabet letters, signed by the likes of “AW” or even just “J.” Like the luster of a gold-plated insignia, the letters seemed to wink at me from my computer screen, as though that would somehow quell their abnormality. At first, I was bemused. Then, as the emails began to file into my inbox en masse, one after another, I was amused. Was this cryptic valediction meant to be somehow cooler, more hip, than the stuffy formality of “Professor”? The author of this Guardian article from over a decade ago certainly thinks so. But what did these letters mean, in their frugal scarcity? And as stylistic flourishes, what did they say, if anything, about those who chose to use them?
In my department alone, more than half of my professors over the years have signed off on emails with just their initials, the sheer frequency of which has compelled me to linger over the form of the email signature itself. The form, of course, in this case being a monogram: “a motif consisting of two or more letters, esp. the initials of a person’s name, written together and usually interwoven, used as a symbol to identify personal possession or to sign a work of art,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
From its genesis, the monogram has always been a distinctive mark of authority. The first known monograms were alphabetical characters engraved onto ancient Greek coins in reference to the person or town that had issued the currency. In fact, the word “character” derives from the Greek “kharakter” in reference to “an instrument for marking or stamping a distinctive mark,” as the literary critic John Frow notes in “Character and Person.” From this initial notion of character as a literal, physical mark of distinction, Frow observes, we derived the more abstract sense of narrative character. Both types of characters are synecdoches — parts that come to stand in for some greater whole.
As characters, monograms derive authority from the act of omission. Like ciphers, they are illusory and mysterious, denoting both presence and absence. The use of a monogram, particularly given its history, invokes the authoritative power of the referent person — their initials are singularly imbued with meaning because they have the agency to make themselves distinct. The monogram is only understandable as a sign if the person it is meant to signify is already well known.
Monograms, in a sense, are status symbols. Think of all the brand names that employ monograms as logos: Chanel, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton — and the list goes on. These monograms assert one’s social stature — not just anyone can own these expensive monograms. Alternatively, as an ornamental motif decorating one’s personal belongings, the monogram becomes a mark of possession, not only conveying status and style, but also a command of luxury and glamour — the act of monogramming is an additional expense in a ready-to-wear fashion economy. Monograms carry a lot of clout.
In email, as a stylistic element that is keenly aware of its own poshness, the monogram is a sleek, stylish alternative to other sign offs. With its deviation from the strict formality of “Professor” and its subtle hint at a first name, the monogram invokes a slight degree of casual informality — but only slight, as the monogram’s ambiguity still maintains the authority of the professor. It is this aloofness that affords the monogram its coolness, in the same way that designer brands are “cool” — no need to spell out the referent name in full, because the person is already implicit in the title, as is their social status.
On the one hand, the monogram’s ambiguous “coolness” lends a slight slackening of stuffy formalities, particularly in an environment that tends toward elitism, while still maintaining a polite boundary between professor and student. The monogram, in this sense, is an invitation to engage, signaling a professor’s willingness to look beyond the authority artificially ascribed to them. Intellectual hierarchies can get in the way of meaningful conversation and impactful learning in the seminar room, and perhaps the monogram is a way of slightly loosening the bonds that keep these hierarchies in place.
Yet at the same time, all the emails I have received with monogrammed sign offs were sent from male professors, and all except one were also white. This is curious, given that highly-accomplished and highly-educated women — particularly female professors — are often not addressed as respectfully as their male colleagues. Moreover, when women publicly assert their own credentials, they are often criticized for being nit-picky and pretentious. In the realm of email, experiments in both non-academic and academic settings have revealed that simply having a white male–sounding name elicits better treatment and quicker responses.
In other words, female presenting professionals — especially women of color — cannot as easily relax the way they refer to themselves, because it is not guaranteed that their authority will even be recognized in the first place. That mostly white male professors have employed the monogram as their email sign off of choice is perhaps reflective of the gender binary stereotypes that continue to define what — or rather who — the face of authority looks like in our society.
Despite all this, I’ve grown to appreciate the monograms in my inbox, for their shying away from convention and their quirky ambiguity. A few months ago in an ephemeral webzine anthology, I wrote about my desire to feel a deeper emotional connection to people through email, frustrated by the formalities that typically govern email speech. But maybe it is precisely these formalities that make email a potential site of subversion.
Already an in-between form in itself, email occupies somewhat of a liminal space in our everyday channels of communication. Within this liminality, perhaps the monogram offers a model for softening traditional structures of authority, breaking from convention toward a freer, more personal means of communicating.
Signing off for now—
Cameron Lee is a Head Editor Emerita of The Prospect. She also writes about modern and contemporary art, pop culture, film, and Asian (American) identity, and can be reached at email@example.com, or on Instagram at @camelizabethlee.