Lecturers judge your e-mails
What’s the proper etiquette?
All lecturers sometimes get pointless or annoying e-mails, but how many exactly? Some of the lecturers we spoke to say that half the people who e-mail them screw up. Others say about a quarter of the messages they receive are annoying, and one individual only gets pointless e-mails once every so often.
Have you ever written an annoying e-mail? Have you ever received one? Read ‘em and weep.
Following on my previous email that hasn’t been answered. I was wondering if you could give me some help/guidance as to how (…)
If you could get back to me asap, that would be very helpful.
Professor of health law Brigit Toebes doesn’t approve of this opening line. ‘We are the first people that students have to talk to in a professional setting; after us they’ll be contacting potential employers. It’s up to us to teach them some decorum. My first reply is always really polite, to set an example. If they still reply with “Hi there”, I come back with a request to reconsider their tone. They might not like it, but I’m doing them a favour.’
Martijn van der Steen, lecturer of business, behavioural sciences, and accounting, isn’t bothered by it. Professor of international economy Steven Brakman ‘doesn’t give a hoot’.
Martijn Keizer, marketing lecturer, thinks it’s mainly Scandinavian students who start their e-mails with ‘hi’. ‘Apparently it’s a cultural thing? I can’t really get mad at that.’
Toebes thinks the e-mail itself is too forceful. Professor of materials chemistry Moniek Tromp agrees. Including the phrases ‘asap’ or ‘I need this, can you do this now’ in your is not a useful tactic, she says. ‘It won’t make me work harder for you. It’s like with my kids: if you ask nicely, I’ll do my best, but if you’re telling me what to do, I will only respond more slowly.’
Marketing lecturer Marijke Leliveld always explains to her students that they shouldn’t expect her to respond to their messages within the hour. ‘Of course I still get e-mails that beg me for a swift answer, and I’d love to be able to help. But if you send me an e-mail on Friday afternoon, three o’clock, you’ll simply have to wait until Monday morning. And you’re lucky if I get to it right away.’
Opening: Don’t do this (unless you’re Scandinavian).
Contents: Too forceful (unless you’ve been waiting for a response forever).
I am writing since I am confused. Is the deadline for paper on 12.05 or 19.05?
Looking forward to hearing from you soon.
Leliveld says it’s really weird to just write ‘dear’ and not include a name. ‘When I’m e-mailing someone I want to know who it is I’m contacting. Finding out someone’s name takes so little effort.’ Paul Buijs, assistant professor sustainable logistics, thinks just ‘dear’ is way too impersonal. ‘It makes it look like you don’t even know who you’re talking to.
Patrick Koerts with the law department says he received this e-mail after he’d announced during a lecture that the deadline had moved. He also published the information on Nestor. ‘How hard can it be?’
Keizer is familiar with these types of messages as well. ‘At least half the e-mails are questions the answer to which they could’ve easily found out themselves.’
Opening: Weird. Literally. Know who you’re talking to.
Contents: Just freaking check Nestor.
Dear professor (…),
Thanks in advance!
‘In English, this opening is technically correct’, says language and linguistics lecturer Rasmus Steinkrauss. ‘In England, everyone who works at a university is a professor. But to me this e-mail feels weird, because I’m not a professor in the Dutch sense of the word. It’s fun if they call me this, but it’s incorrect.’
Koerts doesn’t like this opening either. ‘I’m not a professor, so don’t address me as such.’ If you want Koerts’ approval, address him as ‘Dear Mr. Koerts’. ‘No first names, no abbreviations, no titles. You shouldn’t use titles in your opening, only on the envelope if you’re writing a letter.’
Leliveld has noticed that international students are much more polite. ‘They really hold me in high regard. Dutch students are the ones who do away with formality the quickest.’
Van der Steen thinks this opening is a bit too formal. ‘But if you don’t know the person on the other end of the e-mail, this is the safest way to address them.’
Associate professor Jasper Veldman (FEB) says it matters whether the e-mail is a response to a previous one. ‘If a student uses a fairly formal tone with me and I respond informally, I’d expect the student to match my tone.’
Opening: If you’re an international, it’s fine. But for Dutch students, this is ridiculous.
Contents: Does not apply.
Could you please tell me how many times I’m allowed to be absent from the (…) class?
Steinkrauss says that using a first name in Dutch is alright, ‘but it’s a borderline case. Maybe if you’ve known someone for a long time.’
Brakman doesn’t care one way or the other. ‘I answer my phone with my full name. I think people who insist on their students using their title are a little pathetic.’
Keizer says he mainly gets questions about absences at the start of the year. ‘I always answer, but I do tell them it’s in the course syllabus as well.’
How do the lecturers feel about the informal approach? Associate professor of epidemiology Nynke Smidt says you’re only allowed to call someone by their first name if they’ve given you permission. ‘But if the other person is older, or your relationship is formal, always start off with sir or ma’am.’
Leliveld doesn’t mind some informality. ‘But I’d prefer if people didn’t do it right away. Especially if they don’t know me yet. It happens way too often that new students call me Marijke. But the more informal they are, the more over the top formal I am.’
Van der Steen doesn’t care. ‘I call them by their first name, so why wouldn’t they do the same to me? I’ve actually noticed a lot more students being quite formal with me. But if they prefer that it’s fine with me’, he says.
Opening: This is not okay, unless you know the person particularly well.
Contents: Just read the syllabus.
Dear Mr. Leliveld,
I wanted to sign up for the quantitative research methods course today, but I found out I’m a day late.
Is there any chance I could still register? My student number is S(…)
Buijs says this is the perfect way to address someone: ‘Just keep writing dear Mr. Buijs and you can never go wrong.’
But students still need to do a little research to figure out who they’re talking to. ‘I, and I bet quite a few female lecturers with me, am regularly addressed as Mr. Leliveld’, says Marijke Leliveld. ‘I can’t stand it. This is exactly why I always put a picture of myself on Nestor. If they still call me Mr. after that, I’ll know they didn’t check the site!’
For Koerts and Leliveld, e-mails about late registration are a headache. ‘They’re all like, “Ooh, I didn’t know I had to do that”. The instructions have been online for four weeks! Or they’ll claim they don’t check their student e-mail account very often. They’re making it our problem, and it just isn’t’, says Koerts.
‘If you have three hundred students and 10 percent forgets to register, you have to fix things for thirty students’, says Leliveld. ‘I’m like, why am I doing their job? Who’s the student here? I’ve learned to explain everything extremely clearly, write it down, and put it on Nestor well ahead of time. My students have no good reason to screw up. I can make allowances for special circumstances, of course.
Opening: Mr. is perfect. As long as the person you’re addressing is, in fact, a man.
Contents: Annoying. Figure it out yourself.
If your face is red because you realise you’re guilty of sending e-mails like the ones above: good. But this is probably the first time you realised you were doing something wrong. That’s because most of the time, your lecturers are being way too nice to you.
‘I always tell my students they can ask me anything over e-mail’, says Tromp. ‘I do occasionally get questions on things I’ve explained three times already, but I figure if they don’t understand it it’s because I wasn’t clear enough.’
‘I sometimes want to write a nasty response to a stupid question’, says Veldman, ‘but then again, what’s the point? I don’t want to be rude.’ ‘I started writing a rude e-mail once’, Buijs admits. ‘But I deleted it and wrote a slightly nicer once.’
‘Getting angry doesn’t do anyone any good’, says Steinkrauss. ‘I have to make sure I get a good course evaluation’, says Leliveld, laughing. ‘If I don’t answer, I get a bad score.’