This week, Prof Brittney Cooper from Rutgers University caused a small internet storm when she asked a simple question: “Why don’t modern college kids know how to send a formal letter/email?” She added that her students frequently email her simply saying “Hello.”
Why don’t modern college kids know how to send a formal letter/email? I thought everyone knew to begin Dear Prof. X or Dear Dr. X. Instead these kids stay emailing me Hello There! Or Hello (no name): Why are they like this?
— Brittney Cooper (@ProfessorCrunk)
Needless to say, dear reader, a pile-on ensued, rife with accusations of classism and elitism. Some snot-nosed kids even responded to Cooper’s tweet using the “I pay you to answer my emails” defense – which did little to prove their decorum.
But do young people these days know how to send an email? Were things really that much better in the heyday when we all sat down in class and learned the difference between “yours faithfully” and “sincerely”?
I decided to investigate, starting with my own college emails.
My own emails
While I grew up with the internet (I went to school when Snake was the best game on a phone and polyphonic ringtones were hip) our teachers still believed, at that time, in teaching us formal letter-writing skills. I decided to see whether I extended these skills to my own email decorum at college. The first email I find is from 2012:
Subject: no subject
Hey [Professor’s first name],
Greetings from Slovenia! I have been on holiday and during that time my hermes has been purged so anything you’ve sent me i havent gotten.
Here I start with “hey”, I don’t capitalize or use punctuation properly, and use the word “gotten”, which is not really a word – these all land me minus marks. On the other hand, I used the word greetings, which sounds regal. 1/10.
In 2011, in a chain to a professor where I seem to be “totally freaking out!!” over an exam question about whether the brain supports social behavior (I was a psych major), I write:
Subject: No subject
On Jun 1 2011, P.B. Noor wrote:
“What do they mean claim? Of COURSE the brain supports social behaviour?! It supports everything! Is there anyone who claims that it doesn’t? I don’t understand what the question wants from me aaaaaaaaaah too much cortisol too much
On Jun 1 2011, P.B. Noor wrote:
…Ok ok chilling out chilling out. Do u think I would be completely nuts if i posited that cognition can be both conscious AND unconscious?”
Despite knowing where to place the heading and address on a handwritten letter, I did not understand the difference between an email and a random stream of consciousness.
In another email to the same professor, I wrote:
“Would it be okay if i send u a cheeky plan to look at? Pleeeeeeeease?”
Etiquette ranking: -1/10. I would go so far as to say these emails were insulting.
Email etiquette for the youth of today
Being 30, I do not represent the youth of today, so I supplemented my investigation browsing online forums for students. In a sub-group called “advice on everyday issues” on The Student Room, I start to see why some students might ruffle a few feathers. One asks if he should copy and paste the exact same email to his professor after not hearing back for a few days. Some suggest emailing teachers for documents repeatedly until they either respond or block the student if they haven’t received a reply. One student frets so much about how to respond to an email that it gives me high blood pressure (I don’t think I can just say “hi, I’m doing fine thanks” but what else is there to say? … I’m torn between ‘too anxious to send an email’ and ‘also anxious that the teacher will confront me for not sending one’”). Assessment: Hun, chill.
But that these students care enough about the tone of their emails to post in a forum makes me think that no, they don’t know how to send an email, but yes, they deserve some points.
Etiquette ranking: 5/10.
A professor’s view
Next, I decided to see what professors thought and luckily, there’s a research paper on that – discussing the bad manners student emails entail.
In it, we have the Too Much Information (TMI) email, in which a student sends “the most detailed intimate portrait of their lives to justify their request” (“I am home today with a migraine headache, a sore throat, congestion, a cough, and a little bit of a fever. I have been drinking a lot of orange juice and take cold medicine … I might be getting the flu… Can I make up the test tomorrow?”); the If I Had a Time Machine email (“For some reason I didn’t know we had outside activities to do in this class nor did I realize that there were online quizzes to take. Can you please fill me in on what I need to do? I am lost.”); and the We Only Learn When I Am There email: (“I accidentally slept through all of my classes today, I was just emailing you to make sure I didn’t miss anything important.”)
The act of naming each of these forms of email and writing a paper about it appears to me to be the worst form of public snitching and passive aggressiveness, so here I will rank the teachers on their manners.
Etiquette: 1/10 (they get one point for effort).
Soon after, I discover that there is a wiki page on how to write an email to your teacher and I start to lose the will to live.
The definitive answer
Do young people even know how to send an email? The definitive answer is threefold:
1. No, clearly students don’t know how to write an email.
2. Some teachers are petty as hell. Including one, who responded to Cooper’s thread with this barnstormer (now made private): “I used to do this thing where I would walk into class, throw student papers in the air, and walk out. Give them a moment to be like wtf just happened. Then I’d come back in and say ‘this is what it’s like when you email me without a salutation, explanation, or subject line.’”
3. There is also a much bigger takeaway here, with specific regard to the storm that Cooper was subject to. I asked a mutual friend about his experience teaching:
“As a PhD student, I’m constantly reminding students that I neither want nor need to be addressed as ‘Professor’ or ‘Dr’ in emails. Of course I understand that it’s a different question when it comes to, particularly, senior women of color who feel disrespected by the adoption of a sort of unearned familiarity. I’m a white guy who wears glasses and teaches at an Ivy League college, which I’m sure does play a role in the fact that they jump right in with titles and honorifics, even ones that I don’t have yet.”
So maybe young people do know how to write an email after all, it just depends who they are sending it to. Let us know your own thoughts and experiences, below.