Kelly Harper Berkson

Linguist. Language-lover. Blogger about life in the Academy.

Etiquette Tips for Undergrads: Email

Dear students,

I want to let you in on something I’ve discussed ad nauseum with my colleagues. When it comes to email, students and professors have different ideas about what is and is not appropriate. This is something that actually matters, because the way that you write to us can alter the way that we both think about you and respond to you. 

Now, here is my standard disclaimer: if you’ve had me as a teacher, you know that I am basically a cheer-leader for your awesomeness. I think that you guys rock. As a rule, you take school seriously and you work hard. You’re engaged, passionate, and more involved with the world around you than I was at your age.

At the same time, you have a different set of experiences and expectations than your professors, and I repeatedly receive emails from you that sound like this:

hey what will be on the test? thx

This is not a good email. It should never be sent to a teacher. It’s too informal, it fails to use proper capitalization and punctuation, and it uses texting lingo. And yet, I’ve gotten messages like this from truly exceptional students. I’ve gotten slightly more formal versions of it, too. Things like:

Hi. What will be on the test? Thank you.

Here we have better capitalization and punctuation, and no texting lingo, but this is still a very bad email. When I receive something like this, I feel immediately annoyed. (I’ve done an informal poll of approximately ten fellow professors of varying ages, and it’s not just me: we all find the above email annoying.)

I believe that you have good intentions when you write an email like the one above. I don’t think that you’re trying to be rude; I think you’re simply trying to communicate, and that you’re genuinely surprised when I react badly to messages like these.  The problem is that you don’t know what your teachers’ expectations are when it comes to proper email etiquette. For whatever reason, no one has ever taken the time to outline for you the ways in which language use should differ from the informal texting-with-friends domain to the more formal communicating-with-someone-in-a-position-of-authority domain.

I suspect that the difference in our expectations arises from a variety of factors. For one thing, you’ve been texting for most or all of your conscious lives, and electronic communication is relatively informal much of the time. For some of you, the concept of formal writing – of adopting different writing styles for different purposes in different mediums and different domains – may simply be foreign. And – perhaps most critically – no one seems to have told you about “the rules” in a clear and communicative manner.

As an aside, I love texting lingo. I’m delighted and impressed by human linguistic creativity in all its forms. The problem? Texting lingo is appropriate in some domains and inappropriate in others, just like swearing.

Swearing around your roommates is one thing, but around your grandma or baby cousin? Not cool. Same thing with texting lingo: use it when texting, or with your friends, but avoid it when communicating with your professors, your assistant instructors and teaching assistants, your employers, or others who hold some degree of authority.

In my experience, once you understand what I expect  from electronic communication you are perfectly willing and even happy to oblige. If I never tell you what I expect, however, is it fair to be irritated every time you fail to live up to my expectations? I think not.

So, dear students: this post is an attempt to be clear. I want to tell you what your professors expect when it comes to communication.

First, let me tell you that I felt embarrassed writing the above message even as an example on my own blog. It sounds incredibly rude to me. I would never write to someone who had even just the tiniest bit of authority over me with such a lack of formality.

When I write an email–certainly in a work or school setting, but honestly more often than not regardless of the setting–I expect basic rules of politeness to be observed. At a bare minimum, I expect the following:

  • a salutation
  • complete sentences
  • proper capitalization and punctuation,
  • an appropriate sign-off

That means that the most basic email I would ever accept is:

Hi Kelly,

Can you tell me what will be on the test? 

Thank you.

Student X

Truthfully, this still seems a bit off to me. For instance, why doesn’t the student know what will be on the test? Did they consult the syllabus? Talk to a fellow student? Did they miss class because of an illness, or an accident? Have they consulted the lecture notes to see whether any exam review was included therein? The email above leaves too many unanswered questions for me. It’s adequate, but it’s not great. Even better would be something like:

Dear Kelly,

I’m sorry that I missed class today. As I mentioned in my last email, I have been sick and do have a doctor’s note that I can bring to class with me next week if you would like it.

I have consulted the slides that you posted and the syllabus in preparation for the test next week, so I think that I am in good shape. I wanted to double check with you too, though, to be on the safe side – were there any additional announcements in class about the test that I should know about?

Thank you very much for your time.

Best wishes,

Student X

Now, I am assuming here that the hypothetical student X has been dealing with some sort of health issue about which he has kept me apprised. Clear communication is always helpful, and means that if I do receive an email like the one above I have some context. I know why the student missed class, why they are requesting information. I know that they have done their due diligence, checking the syllabus and the slides from class. I know, in other words, that they have done their part–so I am more than willing to do mine. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like communicating with my students. I want you to be in touch with me, to keep me updated on things that are relevant to your participation in my class. I want to be a resource for you, to answer your questions. I just also want you to use formatting that is more akin to letter-writing than texting.

Questions? Send them my way, at kberkson AT indiana DOT edu.

Thank you, and be well,

Kelly

2 Comments

  1. Dear Kelly,

    This was a delightful and useful blog post. I may be an email offender in my work environment. Would you mind if I shared this post with my students and colleagues?

    Your old friend,

    Lael

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