Search This Blog

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Call Me a Curmudgeon, But Email Etiquette Is Suffering From Stage Four Neglect

Part 1: The Problem
Appreciation of the power of the written (or texted, "tweeted," updated, emailed, or "Skyped") word, and also of the permanency of electronic communication is vital to one's social survival in the 21st century. 

It is also vital to your college admission prospects.

I have received so many egregious abuses of email correspondence from prospective students that I felt compelled to offer some friendly advice. Hopefully it will save you from some embarrassment (and me from developing an ulcer).

Some choice examples can be found at the bottom of this post (or you can skip to "Pt. 2: The Solution" if you already recognize your faults and don't care to read my diatribe).

I'm one of those old guys that remembers the screeching sound of a 56k modem, and not just in its new role as the primary component of any song by Skrillex. My advanced age of 25 means I can chart my physical growth pretty much in direct correlation with the growth of "electronic mail." 

Cool story, bro. 

Yes, I realize that being brought into existence nearly 26 years ago makes me about as special as a nickel, but it does give me a unique perspective on the use of email as a method of communication. I am young enough to be unable to remember life without the internet, but old enough to remember a time when "lol" was not an official word in Webster's dictionary. In other words, though I am deeply familiar with technology, it wasn't so interwoven with my childhood development that I take its convenience for granted. 

In 2012, you can't go three minutes without having some form of electronic media inserted into your life. We can now communicate, instantly, with virtually every corner of the globe. I can watch a live-streaming 24 hour penguin camera in Antarctica from my phone while I text a friend in Canada and play virtual Scrabble with a British ex-pat in Argentina. We take for granted a level of interpersonal connectivity that humanity has literally dreamed of for centuries and, sadly, this has resulted in heinous abuse. 

Before its lobotomy at the hands of electronic media, proper written communication was cultivated and honored by generation after generation as the highest form of human thought. Take this excerpt from a famous Civil War letter written by a soldier named Sullivan Ballou for the love of his life, Sarah Hart Shumway: 

"My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt...Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break...The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long..." 

Now, think of the last text you sent to your significant other. Oh, how far we've fallen. 

Of course, part of the problem stems from the differences inherent in new media. Rather than painstakingly scratching away a message with a quill pen—knowing the letter won't be read for weeks and therefore must be both well-written and all-encompassing—we can dash out a few lines of text in an instant, shoot it off, and then send another message a millisecond later if we've forgotten something. 

This is a good thing. 

Not every email or tweet or status update needs to be composed like a Hemingway novel (particularly with the rampant misuse of the "reply all" function). Part of the glory of technology is that we can snap off quick thoughts without waiting for a pony to deliver them to the frontier. But this is also where the danger lies. 

Some thoughts don't need to be shared with the world at large. Other thoughts need more careful conveyance than a single line of text in a hastily written email. Some emotions cannot be accurately conveyed in a string of 140 characters—even if I use a few pieces of punctuation to make a winking smiley face at the end of it. 

The defining factor of every piece of communication should be the audience. If sending a text to your best friend, you probably don't need to observe APA style or consult Strunk and White to ensure your grammar is flawless (but you would be my absolute hero if you did). If you are sending an email to, say, the person who is making your admission decision, you might want to be a little more careful. 

Remember that people really will judge you on your ability to communicate effectively. Seriously. It says a lot about you—from your educational background, to your maturity level, to the amount of effort you put into your relationship with the person to whom you are writing. Your "creative" spelling and e-punctuation may earn you a lot of thumbs up on Facebook, but don't expect your future boss to be so full of lulz.

To bring this back to something more concrete, don't, for the love of God, write anything like the following (real) examples that we have received from prospective students. They aren't published here to make anyone feel bad, but rather to highlight what is not acceptable in formal email correspondence. 

And they're kind of tragically humorous. 

Our comments are in red

Subject: Hey 
Hey, I just resently applied to ur school and I was wondering if you got my transcipts yet? And do u have scholarships for me?" 
Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G Android
I'm sorry that your application was so "resentful," but I appreciate your optimism in assuming that it deserves a scholarship...

Subject: [Blank] 
How d I send my stuff to you? 
Well, I guess it really depends on what sort of "stuff" you want to send me, but I usually recommend carrier pigeon. 

Subject: question
hello i had a quick question i havent been admitted yet but i think i should have been by noqw whats going on
Uh...Your admission letter must have been stolen by the same creature that pried all the punctuation and shift keys from your keyboard. 

RE: [Original email in which I referenced the contact information included in my signature]" 
Do u have a phone number or something i can call u on? 
Sent from my iPhone 4.

Yeah, we should probably talk, because your reading comprehension of my emails is in serious question. 

Also...if not on a phone, what exactly were you planning to "call me on?"

Subject: my Application 
Hi. i think i applied to your Cooledge but i'm not sure if i did or didnt actually. Could you let me know if didnt or if i did and what i need to do if i didnt? 

I'm confused. Are you trying to apply for the position of 30th president of the United States? 

(You're probably assuming I left out names and salutations to protect the "innocent." Nope. They weren't included. This is the verbatim transcript.) 

Subject: [Blank] 
Hi, I have some questions. I was wondering if it would be ok to email them to you? Thx.

But don't fret, even if you sent one of the above emails. I won't deny you because of one poorly written email (though if it is really bad I might copy it and include it in your file). I always strive to give you the benefit of the doubt, for I come not just with critical cynicism—I offer solutions. 

Read them in Pt. 2. 

1 comment:

  1. Kudos for this interesting post. Now, readers will have a clearer view on how to come up with a professional e-mail.