Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Email etiquette

I loved, loved, LOVED this Chronicle piece by Rob Jenkins about how to write an email when you are an academic administrator. I am exactly the person he mentions who has to rewrite the email before I send it.

I certainly have had these days.

My innate tendency is to write terse, pointed emails. My first pass is always something like: "I need this tomorrow." "Why didn't you do this?" "Your instructor is concerned that you haven't come to class for three weeks." Brusque is an understatement. Intellectually, I approached emails as shorthand--here is what I need, period. Why do all that fluffy, nice filler that just clutters up the email and makes me talk about things I don't really care about? I quickly learned that I needed to amend my style and tone to build relationships with colleagues, students, and supervisors, and, ultimately, get the kinds of results that I wanted.

My best teacher was one of my former supervisors. She started every email with something personal, a nice comment on something I had done well or a question about my life or my research. She also thanked me any time I did something for her or the program. Her emails were always friendly and engaging, and I never flinched when I saw her name in the email header. I took these lessons and incorporated them into my own email practice. I would bet that my colleagues are surprised that I don't write these warm, conversational emails naturally.

This is my vision of the chatty, sociable emailer.
I did have a heart-to-heart conversation with a staff person who worked closely with me, explaining my desire to ignore some of the "niceties" in emails when we exchange so many. (Sometimes we emailed back and forth 15-20 times in one day.) She was fine with a short, to-the-point approach, I think especially because I show my friendly personality in our casual, in-person interactions. And I made sure to stop in and chat (about her kids, her sports interests, the latest movie, etc.) a few times a week. I was careful about tone in emails, saying, "Could you get me X?" and "I'd really like the flier to look more like this." I wasn't dictatorial, just straightforward, and it worked for us.

Though I have capitulated to the chatty style of emails, I abhor the extraneous, endless loop of "thank you emails" that pervade academic administrative circles. Once person one says, "Thank you," and person two responds, "You're welcome," the exchange is done. If person two says, "You're welcome, and thanks for your work," I suppose person one can respond, "Glad to do it." But it really isn't necessary in my book. And if person two feels compelled to respond to the latter message, we have officially entered email hell.

I also rejoice when I get a bare-bones email from an administrator, because it allows me to do the same. When a Vice Provost send me a quick note asking a simple questions, such as, "How many students of color are in your program?", and signs it with his initials, it allows me to write a short sentence saying the number and signing with my own initials. No muss, no fuss. Love it.

So, I have embraced my inner friendly, sociable staff identity on emails, and I put it down to the price of the job. I have seen the results, and, therefore, I am a convert. That said, don't be upset if I don't thank you for thanking me.


M. Carter @ the Movies said...

These e-mail tips are so basic, and yet so many people I know who work in academia don't use them!

Carl said...

You are right about all of it. CD