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What XO in an email really means

Diane Sawyer does it. Lena Dunham does it. My (male) rabbi does it. Executives from Twitter, Corcoran, Visa, law firms, Citibank and UTA do it. Even the dictionary mentions it.

Working women. We're all business. But increasingly, sentiments that were otherwise reserved for casual notes have worked their way into the every day fabric of our business communication.

Group of women
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Enter the XO Nation, a virtual sisterhood of professional women. As we are growing stronger both in numbers in the workplace and in leadership roles, women have found a new way of showing support: by signing "XO" at the end of emails to one another even if the initial contact was a casual acquaintance.

So the question is, if once upon a time in childhood you signed "xo" at the end of a cutesy letter, is this the same sign off that you might legitimately use today to wrap up a business email? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is "yes."

"X" and "O" together have long been regarded as a typographic representation of a hug and a kiss. In the physical world, we reserve kisses and hugs for those we genuinely love or desire. But in the world of professional communication, women are now using "XO" in order to convey camaraderie and solidarity, not literal, tender fondness.

While the number of women in the American workforce makes a steady, upward progression, the gender pay gap is in a holding pattern. Today, women represent nearly 50 percent of the workforce but on average they earn 79 percent of what men earn for similar jobs. Now more than ever, women are coming together to change that.

The national discourse on pay inequity has been ramping up. In 2009, Lilly Ledbetter sparked outrage when she publicly revealed that she earned 40 percent less than her male counterparts at Goodyear. The dialogue recently gained momentum when Patricia Arquette's 2015 Academy Award acceptance speech dovetailed into passionate plea for equal pay. And even more recently when in the wake of the Sony hacks, Jennifer Lawrence publicly addressed glaring difference between her pay and that of her male co-stars.

Women need to support women to make social change happen. And the XO Nation is emblematic of that change.

The "XO" Nation, however, is more than just a solidarity movement. It's a strategic, humanizing strategy. Sometimes, we just need to prove that, for as tough as we are, we're also compassionate. Because let's face it, the world is both ready for and threatened by strong women. We use "XO" when we need to because sometimes we just need to remind people that although we just came out swinging a sledgehammer, we're good people and we care. It signals that we will use our influence to assist colleagues in the marketplace to help. Count on me to lend a hand.

Arianna Huffington is among those who signs her email "XO." And many of us do, too, both in email and on social media. Embellishing a post with #xoxo is a commonplace way to show support.

It's even becoming de rigueur to the point that men are getting into the act, signing off "XO" as proof of their congeniality. Could it be that women are changing the rules of corporate communication? Are we changing the script for everyone?

There will always be the naysayers. You may think that writing "XO" sends the wrong message. To tighten the message, you can always add a "Hope you're well" and then go for the XO. The balance is sound.

When you do sign off to a colleague or acquaintance with "XO," the message you communicate resonates: I'm savvy. I know what I'm talking about. I like you. I'm likable. And no matter what, you can count on me. XO.

Commentary by Jocelyn Greenky, author of "The Big Sister's Guide to the World of Work." She has 25 years of leadership in TV and radio production, consumer and event marketing, and digital media for some of the world's largest magazines, including US Magazine and Rolling Stone. Follow her on Twitter @jocelyngreenky.

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