Is Email Obsolete?

In a very brief post John Hawks writes:

I could not possibly count the number of “Hey, John” e-mails I’ve gotten from undergraduates who were never taught any better. I’m not an e-mail snob, but some do get answered much more promptly than others.

And he provides this link on “Personal vs. Professional Email” which emphasizes establishing a respectful tone without bombast or flattery.

This model of email etiquette neatly summarizes how things were done back in the day when I was a college student (*cue wipe to flashback sequence). About sixteen years ago regular people outside a few specialized professions were just getting started on email. Folks thought of the email like it was a letter simply because there was nothing else in our lives to compare it to. It was composed sitting at a desk on a desktop PC. You started all of them with “Dear So-and-so,” and finished it with “Sincerely.”

But this is not how people email anymore. Certainly not young people who comprise the majority of my students. Their emails are composed on their cell phones in a state of distraction. The paper letter is no longer their point of reference. Tweets, status updates, and IM’s are. Informality, empty subject lines and absent greetings don’t even register as an annoyance for me. I do frequently become annoyed by the content of my students’ emails, but I see that as independent of the form of their communique.

Just as frequently I respond to their messages without hailing them in salutation or signing my name. This is the way it is done now. Even with my liberal attitude I have the damnedest time keeping in contact with some students by email. Last week in my Gen Anth class we were talking about the role of Facebook and Twitter in Libya when one woman remarked, “Email is obsolete.” For a lot of my students the bulk of their on-line lives are mediated by social networks and IM. No wonder its hard for me to get in touch with them! Email’s days are numbered.

I get what the link Hawks provides is saying. I don’t send subjectless, greetingless emails to publishers for instance – and yes, at some point I had to learn this behavior. By Hawks own measure he’s no snob and I don’t question his commitment to his students. But academia is already crowded with rules of form and rituals of decorum. You gotta pick your battles and email etiquette is like adding an extra layer of stodginess to something that already has to contend with being cast as old fashioned.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

13 thoughts on “Is Email Obsolete?

  1. Dr. Thompson,

    You note that in the past the paper letter was the reference point for how we wrote emails, but I’m not sure I agree. Letters were no less formal than the way in which we spoke to a person in a position of respect (e.g. a professor), particularly one with whom we had no personal relationship.

    Do the undergrads of today greet professors with whom they have no prior relationship with “Hey, John! Whassssup?” I hope not.

    Paper letters and e-mail messages may be out of style, but I can’t imagine that treating professors with respect is (or should be).

    I’m unwilling to go with the flow on this one.

    Kind regards,

    Paul Wren

  2. Granted “Whasssup?” would be a little outre, but I haven’t encountered that degree of informality in a student email.

    I’ll give an example. This past week I had students complete an assignment outside of class and then email me their final product as an attachment. A number of students chose to do so using an email that had no body whatsoever. There was the attachment and no text.

    How should we read the significance of that? Does it indicate disrespect?

  3. Pace über-sophisticated linguistic anthropologists who love to problematize any and all things, but I think the touchstone for this sort of electronic communication is spoken conversation, a form of communication in which you can read body language, do echo questions, etc. in order to aid comprehension. The conventions of mailed letters recognize the lack of those things but the sort of electronic communications you describe do not.

  4. The lack of subject lines does not signal a lack of respect per se, but it may signal carelessness, and if a message to you is composed carelessly, why should you feel obliged to respond with as much care as you might have shown had the student carefully observed the various niceties of protocol? Besides, a subject line helps us wade through the ton of email in our inboxes.

    So I get an email from without a subject line and a ginormous attachment, and I’m supposed to know what this is all about, or care?

  5. Last summer I had a conversation with a teacher who said he would not be did not respond to emails from his students. Really! There is no formal agreement. The university only requires office hours. Problem solved. Students are responsible for their own ability to arrive during office hours, and if they can’t make that effort, too bad. In my undergraduate days, IMHO email doesn’t add anything that a telephone call, or showing up during office hours, won’t do just as well.

  6. while we all bemoan email’s grip on our daily attention, email is one of the tools where the receiver retains a key power role. email is for old people whose attention is not always online because they also have to do things that are more important than being online. the receiver can reply, timeshift, or not reply at all. email waits for consumption, and email is consumed at the convenience of the receiver, whereas IM and social media is written at the whim of the producer and is effectively withdrawn from view if attention is not paid.

    the idea of composing electronic communication in a way that benefits the other person – please accept my homework, i understand you are busy and have considerately given it an appropriate subject line so that it will be easy for you to file – is not the way electronic communication works for people used to posting subject-free thoughts on facebook and who have been raised to see teachers as service workers.

    in short, i don’t think you can call it anything but rude behavior, but i suppose it’s more or less the same class of rudeness that used to lead to instructors getting illegibly coffee-stained essays slipped under the door in the middle of the night…

  7. …in the middle of the night, freshman year, I stayed up late writing an ethics paper while all my friends dosed. After I printed the final draft at who knows what hour I walked over to my professor’s house and stuffed it in his mailbox and my tripping friends followed me all the way there like I was the Pied Piper. We all walked barefoot, but I think mine where the only pair that touched the ground.

  8. Awesome, thanks for picking up the topic!

    I’m nearly as laid back as it gets in the professoriate when it comes to comms, and always sign off blog-related emails as John. But I maintain a formal decorum communicating with undergraduates. I remain sensitive about student emails for a couple of reasons.

    1. Formality has been a fairly accurate indicator of conscientiousness in students. A student I don’t already know is generally asking for something I don’t have to provide (permission to enroll in closed class, independent study opportunities), and so the email is their introduction. The times I’ve “gone with the flow”, it has always led to a semester of irritation.

    2. There is clearly a strong sex bias in this behavior. Women very rarely (in my experience) display inappropriate informality. This has the potential to create a very threatening atmosphere for female faculty, especially junior faculty, faced with undergraduate men who do not accord them with the signs of respect. I will not contribute to an environment that creates such problems for my female colleagues.

  9. I’m with Paul and John Hawks on this. Ultimately I don’t think any communicative form is (or should be) replacing others — we’re just adding to the communicative ecology. Each form (email, Facebook, Twitter, face-to-face) has its own range of norms and levels of formality, and it’s not too much to expect people — students or otherwise — to master all of this. It’s not rocket science. For me, email’s asynchronous structure is perfect for communicating with students. It also doesn’t require students to “follow” me in some way, or to have my phone number, both of which mean they’ve got more access to my life than I’d ever want to give. And yes, there is definitely a gender component to all this. I’ve seen my female colleagues get addressed systematically by their first names, in email and in speech, while men almost always get title+last name.

  10. It also doesn’t require students to “follow” me in some way, or to have my phone number, both of which mean they’ve got more access to my life than I’d ever want to give.

    The not-giving-out of instructors’ phone numbers seems to by and large be a post-Generation X phenomenon (in the US, at least). Somehow a world in which instructors trust that students will not harass them with spurious phone calls and in which students are able to make calls to instructors’ homes with proper decorum has become a world in which instructors feel the need to guard their privacy and students are unable to use uppercase letters in their emails.

  11. E-mail is not dead. If you have ever worked outside of academia (e.g., in a law office) — corresponding with adults at different organizations, rather than with students — then you’d know that the “letter format” e-mail serves its purposes well.

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