Nowadays, it is no longer important what you say; it’s important what you write. The typical rules of how to speak to authority, write a letter or behave in public no longer seem to apply. The age of text messaging, Facebook and emails allows us to share information instantaneously, but it also means that most of our communication is not done by speaking or writing a letter or even interacting in person.
How do those etiquette lessons translate into the virtual world? Grammar isn’t enough with emails. You have to worry about message subjects, recipient fields, different salutations and signature formats. When is formality necessary and how do you know?
Junior Veronika Alex doesn’t think there’s an easy answer to that question.
“I wish I could say there is a fast-and-hard rule about audience or situation specific email etiquette,” she said. “But in my opinion it really depends on both the audience and situation.”
Email etiquette has to be different than normal etiquette because there is no direct social pressure associated with it. Especially between professors and students, the communication is mostly one-on-one and impersonal, devoid of indicators of improper conduct.
There’s not a way to enforce a strict formality policy, and Economics Professor Michael Rizzo says he doesn’t want one anyway.
“What am I going to do?” he asked. “Put the bad emails on a website and embarrass students?”
Another problem with a rigid formality is if everyone was required to structure an email the same way, it would be difficult to see what information is most important. A lot can be learned from the format of an email, including the message’s immediacy or its importance. Moreover, when you receive hundreds of emails a day, it becomes necessary to find a way to pick the gold from the garbage.
“The differences in formality allow me to triage my emails,” Rizzo said. “If you make the communication more rigid — like you’re playing a game of golf — I get less information.”
A lot of this information derives from communication outside of email and can serve as a quick follow-up that does not warrant a meeting in person during office hours.
“[Certain kids] are clearly paying attention in class. They respond, they have changing facial expressions — I’ll answer their emails right away,” Rizzo added. “The kid sleeping in the back, I’m not going to answer his email right away.”
While students and professors may use email mainly as an auxiliary method of communication, this is not always the case.
“Despite what some people say, initial impressions are very important, and in this day and age many of those first impressions are from online or an email correspondence,” Alex said.
First impressions are one of the times that Alex feels you should err on the side of formality. Instead of having your public speaking skills, attire and confidence provide a fuller characterization of yourself, words on a screen must suffice.
“Your idea or topic is only as good as how you present it,” she said. “This is especially important when you are talking about yourself, especially when searching for an internship or job.”
This formality shows a certain level of thought and, as Rizzo explained, importance. Students seem to operate on similar principles, valuing appropriate formality in emails. This goes to show that audience is not the only way to gauge your email etiquette; even between students, the situation must be considered as well or you run the risk of upsetting the wrong people.
“A lot of people just don’t know how to write emails,” sophomore Aditi Simlote said. “It pisses me off.”
The etiquette for email responses considers many more factors, including turnaround time, use of the “reply-all” button and oftentimes the nature of the email you are responding to.
“If I see an email from an individual and it is haphazardly written with glaring mistakes, no formality whatsoever and no structure, I will be much more hesitant to spend time creating a well thought out response,” Alex said. “I think the ability to have a system in which mail can be delivered by the press of a button is fantastic, but this should not urge people to be careless.”
Formality still must be assessed in context and carelessness isn’t always so cut and dry. Appropriate email etiquette means balancing propriety with practicality. If Rizzo wants to answer all of his students’ emails, he must be brief. Formality is a luxury for someone who receives as many emails as he does.
That being said, Rizzo finds that most of his students are good about emailing and mentioned that if the question is quick, some will even text him. Texting might seem very informal for a professor and a student, but in-person interactions play a huge part in determining this.
“When I taught in Kentucky, most of the email [exchanges] were formal,” Rizzo said. “But I also wore a shirt and tie every day.”
Rizzo has a much more informal relationship with his students at UR. He climbs on chalkboards, throws money about and jumps around during lectures. It comes as no surprise that his students text him and he responds to emails with web slang.
Interactions across generational or technological gaps, however, require a bit more formality.
“I think younger individuals are more comfortable with using informal emails and slang language,” Alex said. “However, I always assume that everyone in a professional setting is familiar with email, so I do my best to write emails that I would be comfortable showing to both my boss and my mother.”
Rizzo’s father, on the other hand, doesn’t approve of casual emails and still scolds Rizzo when he sends one to him.
Email may mean swift communication, but it should also require some extra thought. Whether you’re emailing your students, your boss or your parents, there are always things to consider in order to be polite. And it can be exhausting.
“We should have an email sabbath,” Rizzo said. “Just one day a week with no emails.”
Esce is a member of
the class of 2015.