This week I’m sharing a document that I worked on in collaboration with my senior English Language classes. We were discussing the ‘formality’ of the humble email. It quickly became apparant that this modern text type was far more formal in the mind of the digital immigrant in the room (yours truly) than it was for all the digital natives being taught by him.
As part of our study, I sent out a request to colleagues for examples of emails they had recieved from students. The response was incredible. I was inundated by examples from staff whose correspondance with students was, in their view, striking the wrong note. With these, my classes and I played around with the idea of student email etiquette. Here’s what we came up with.
p.s. All emails were sanitised (edited) by me to keep the register of the language but remove details of the individuals involved well before my students saw them.
Emails were invented and developed as a communication device for the workplace (and schools are workplaces). They are also a modern version of hand written paper memorandums and standard letters. These facts tend to suggest emails require a high degree of formality. However, it is also essential in effective workplaces that they foster a strong working relationship between people at all levels of authority. Therefore, emails require an element of rapport building as well.
Things to consider:
- The sender may think their email message has a short life span because they have the luxury of composing it, sending it, and moving on. However an email could potentially exist long after its message is obsolete. Emails only disappear when the receiver deletes it – twice!
- Basically, most emails are written to inform, instruct, or persuade the reader. To do this without causing unintended offence requires a certain degree of rapport building and attention to politeness.
- All workplaces are highly stratified and the status, seniority or authority of an email’s sender and receiver are not equal very often. Schools are no different. When a student emails a staff member it is essential that they express themselves in a respectful manner. That said, the reality of this does allow for variety. Students develop a degree of familiarity with staff they work with and it is useful for the expression used in an email to reflect this (courteously of course).
- There are explicit conventions to correct expression, spelling and grammar when communicating in writing and these are different from the standards we use when speaking. Interestingly though, in the modern era of electronic communication, the distinction between these two standards has always been blurred. The reality is expressing an email message in a spoken style or mode can be very useful. However, it is equally undeniable that spelling mistakes and non-standard grammatical formatting are counter-productive as they detract from the intended message of the email and suggest a lack of care or thought.
- An email will always inform the receiver of who the sender is and (as long as the subject field is filled in) what is the reason for the message. This means the receiver already has a lot of context and can refer to their past dealings with the sender so that the actual message can (usually) be brief. Nevertheless, there is always the risk a message will carry unintended implications. For example, an email from a student to a staff member sent outside of school hours may imply (intentionally or not) an expectation that the receiver will act immediately. Once again, a level of politeness and rapport building turns of expression can help avoid offence.
So what should a student do?
This is actually fairly simple.
- Always fill in the subject field with relevant information
- Sign in and out of emails
- Don’t play around with fonts, colours and styles
- Compose your message in a spoken form of expression as if you were speaking to that particular person face to face in class
- Use standard grammar avoid misspelling
- Understand that you have the right to expect a staff member to read the email but at a time and place of their choosing
- Understand that you don’t have the right to expect any action to be taken immediately (or possible at all)
- Understand that it doesn’t fade away.
Shades of grey when signing in and out
When emailing a staff member it is important to make some use of the conventions of letter writing.
Could I please book a meeting with you regarding my [situation] please.
John Doe 10X
In the above example, the student has started by addressing the receiver and finished with appreciation and their name. The staff member who submitted this example did comment on the word “please” being used twice was a little distracting but thought the student had made a commendable effort.
Where a student has a strong working relationship the following opening lines are also appropriate
Hey Ms Smith
I was just wondering if you have a digital copy of the tasks i could have ?
Hey miss hope you enjoyed your holidays do we have [subject]tomorrow ?
Choosing not to sign in or out can be as inappropriate as writing with an overly familiar tone. Below are examples to consider rewriting.
I want to do a [task] that allows me to [details]. Although I’m not sure whatto do it on. I don’t want to do a basic or common topic like [example]. PleaseHelp 🙂
is there anything i should change. (Assignment attached)
yo sir I dropboxed my assignment because it wouldn’t print