Clearly, it’s a generational shift. Today’s undergraduate and most graduate students grew up in the cell phone era, where texts are a common way to communicate. Abbreviations, dropped greetings and signatures, and informality are the norm in texts.
I grew up not only before texts, but before email. I got my first email account in grad school in 1992, and at first, I could only access it through a system that was completely command driven and clunky, and eventually, from my apartment with dial up service, before web browsers were common. The common forms of communication in not only my childhood, but my college and early work experiences were in person, phone, and written letters/memos. That’s right, when I wanted to ask a professor something, I went to office hours or left a note. When I communicated with co-workers or my adviser, we wrote each other memos.
The reason this background matters is that, if you are emailing with someone my age or older, or even a bit younger, you need to be aware that we expect emails to be closer to memos or letters than to texts. Specifically:
- Use a greeting. If it’s a formal message, “Dear Dr. Garcia.” If it’s less formal, “Hi Jenna” or even “Jenna” is probably fine. But do include a greeting (as an aside, my husband recently asked me how our babysitter spelled her name, and I asked “Why, are you putting her in your contacts?” and he said, “No, I’m texting her.” See, my generation often puts greetings in texts).
- Sign all of your emails. I have a signature at the end of mine but it’s hard for me not to sign it, even when the recipient is someone whom I know would never sign one back. So perhaps if I write 100 emails a day and typing my first name takes 1 second, I am wasting 10 hours a year typing my name (Yes, I had to take a break from typing this post to tell my husband this crazy statistic. Maybe I need to rethink typing my name). Many people you write to, though, will expect to see a signature, and will be put off if it’s missing.
- You can set up an automatic signature that includes information about who you are, your address, other contact information, and any website or professional social media you want to share. I find it really useful when people do so because I can skim the email but this information about position and location is in one place. My husband pointed out tonight that I could add “Eva” at the top of my automatic signature and perhaps save myself 10 hours per year. You can try it and be smarter than I am. If you put a quote or an image in your signature, be thoughtful about how important that quote is, whether it could offend anyone, etc.
- Use your work email account for professional emails. If you’re writing to someone at your institution, it shows that you are using the same system and decreases the likelihood of it going to their spam. If you are writing to someone elsewhere, it provides legitimacy. If you prefer something a non-work email, you can funnel your emails through Gmail, receive all of your emails in Gmail, and make your return address from Gmail be your work email.
- Minimize exclamation marks! I’ve heard two opinions on this point: never use them, or use exclamation marks as though you only have 3 to use your entire life. The general thinking behind both perspectives is that exclamation marks appear unprofessional, casual, or young. I confess that I sometimes use exclamation marks as a shortcut on a point – e.g., ”Thanks!” instead of “Thanks so much that was an enormous help.” Or I will use an exclamation mark with positive feedback to balance out any criticism in an email, say, for instance, in feedback to a student on a paper or manuscript. But I try not to use more than 1 (okay, maybe 2) in an email, and most of my emails have none.
- Reply to emails promptly. If your adviser asks you to do a huge task that might take you 2 weeks, still reply within 24 hours to acknowledge receipt of the email, that you’re working on it, and that you think you can have it done within 2 weeks. This issue is another generational difference I’ve noticed. A lot of times students don’t respond to emails, whether it’s when I ask them to work on something (as mentioned above); send them information they requested (a quick “thanks” email will do); give them feedback on a paper or thesis… Acknowledging someone’s email shows them that you appreciate the time that she spent writing that email, and also saves her time because she doesn’t have to follow up with a “did you get my message?” email.
- Finally, something that can be very helpful is to follow up meetings with an email summarizing the key points. For instance, if you meet with your adviser about changes he suggested on your thesis, a quick email summarizing the main points can avoid your missing or misinterpreting something that he asked you to do. Similarly, after a meeting of 4 people in which tasks on a manuscript are divvied up, one person can summarize those next steps in an email. This strategy is also quite useful for students after committee meetings, such as after a dissertation proposal or defense. Sending a quick email around summarizing the key points made can again confirm you didn’t miss anything, and can create a shared document so that if someone 3 months later claims that she asked you to make a change you don’t remember, you have a document that she didn’t object to from a prior meeting.
All of these strategies will help you cross potential generational communication barriers, and will make you a better communicator in general – until the next generation dominates faculty positions, and then who knows! what! will happen!
“The post Email etiquette first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on November 20, 2014.”