Email Etiquette - In Response to Silhouette Opinion on The Topic

By Joey Coleman // @JoeyColeman
Published: Nov 27 2016 (7 months ago) // Last Updated: Nov 27 2016 (7 months ago)

I receive emails from students frequently, often asking for an interview related to their class projects, internship opportunities (sorry, can't pay you), or requesting the opportunity to shadow me for a day.

I try to respond quickly to their emails, often with short direct responses. Often, they are short one-line initial responses.

Is there an etiquette violation? As is usually the case with etiquette, depends.

Silhouette opinion writer Jennifer La Grassa details the effort students place into their emails, and the frustration of those emails going unanwered or being poorly responded to.

(Skip past the headline and photo, read the opinion before deciding on your own response)

La Grassa's opinion piece provoked some thoughts, and this blog post.

She writes:

Unfortunately, most of these emails have either gone unanswered or received an inadequate response. PSA for all McMaster professors: if a student has taken the time to write you a respectful and well-worded email, please take the time to do the same back. It is highly unprofessional and rude that I must not only wait an inordinate amount of time for a response, but then be made to feel as though I am not deserving of the same degree of professionalism because I’m “just a student.”

Am I guilty of not responding in a considered tone? Looking back on my emails, I generally get to the point and skip formalites. I'll be mindful of this. I often reply to student emails between tasks, while I'm feeling hurried. I need to pause and give student emails better focus.

The common excuse is that professors are busy and so we must be grateful if we even get a response. However, my life is not void of activity. I’m busy with graduate school applications, midterms and assignments, cleaning and cooking for myself, family commitments and managing a part-time job. When people say that professors are busy, I have no sympathy.

I agree with this statement, until the finish. No sympathy? Of course, I'd probably write the same thing as an opinion writer - it makes the point.

I know from my own experiences that student emails come in as a flood and the high volumes make it difficult to respond quickly with individualized responses. Hence, when I get emails from a bunch of students with the same assignment, I create a formulatic response. We're all busy, but I'd sure trade my current busy for student busy. (Of course, after a few weeks, I'd want to switch back. Grass is always greener.)

Let me take this opportunity to offer some advice to students on emails.

  1. Always use your university or college email address. It gives your request some verification of legitamacy. (My server processes emails from the SMTP servers of post-secondary institutions and flags them into a special folder I check more frequently than my general inbox)
  2. Identify yourself. Program, Year, and Course the email is related to. It helps me to give you a revelant response, saving both of us time.
  3. Look professional. I'm going to look up your social media profiles almost immediately. If your social media looks unprofessional or sloppy, I'll be concerned that you'll waste my time.
  4. Don't leave it to the last minute. The odds are that I'll receive emails from others in your program. I know when you've procrastinated. Considering I'm a procrastinator myself, this is not a good combination.
  5. If you don't know me. "hey Joey" isn't an appropriate opening. In fact, even if you know me, unless you are a friend (hint: you are not), hey is way too casual. "Joey," works fine, I always suggest "Mr. Coleman" on the initial and I'll say Joey is fine in a response. It's a good habit to be simple and formal in an initial email. (Also, proper capitalization. That "hey" is from actual emails. I won't hold you to spelling and grammar, I'd be a hypocrite, but make it at least readable)
  6. Give me details. "I was hoping I would be able to ask you a few questions?" is not enough. Send me the questions or at least a preview of what I'm commiting to. Added bonus, I'll usually answer the questions in my response or provide you an estimate on when I'll respond. It saves both of us unnecessary emails.
  7. Give me links to information you are citing. I can Google that for myself, if I'm mobile, your email doesn't get an answer if I have to search for the citations.
  8. Don't be in a hurry for a response. Emails sent on Monday can sit until the weekend before I get a chance to respond. I generally get back to student emails overnight on Saturday into Sunday morning. (I'm writing this post at 6am Sunday morning) I don't mind a follow-up email after 72 hours, and tolerate them after 48 hours. Emailing me at 10pm on Monday, then asking for a followup at 8am on Wednesday, that frustrates me. Same goes for a Friday of a long weekend 4pm email with a follow at 9am on Tuesday.
  9. Don't Tweet and Facebook me as well! Seriously, if you emailed, I'll know you emailed. I don't need you to give me a notification elsewhere. Following up by Twitter or Facebook, that's fine (see timelines in 8), I get if I don't respond to your email you can legitimately wonder if I received it.

You can read La Grassa's full opinion in this week's Silhouette or online here:

(For those of you Downtown, The Sil is available at The Mulberry Cafe)

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