Making requests via email is always a touchy proposition. If the person you’re writing to is a good friend or close family member, you’re likely to be given a wide swath around the line between rude and polite. You might be making an uncharacteristically curt request of your grandmother for her sour cream coffee cake recipe if you’re desperate to get it done in time for an office potluck. However, the chances are she won’t be offended by your brief message full of typos and lacking a greeting or even your signature. Should you send the same email to a colleague when you’re in a hurry to get a response, though, the chances are you’ll provoke a well-deserved rebuke.
The science of email communication is very much in its infancy, and even what’s known continues to evolve rapidly. Emails can unfortunately be sent without the benefit of spellcheckers and grammar checkers if you use your smartphone instead of a desktop connected to your word processing program. On the other hand, autocorrect can turn the word you intend to use into gibberish at best, or the opposite at worst. There are also the infamous “reply all” scenarios which go to unintended recipients, or the unsent email that sits in your drafts because you forgot to push “send” at all.
As people continue to navigate this ever-changing landscape, there is a science of email communication that is beginning to develop. Most recently, Milica Savić (2018) of the University of Stavanger (Norway), explored the perceptions by college faculty of the email communications sent to them by students. Fraught with ambiguity and anxiety for the average undergraduate, the process of emailing an instructor could mean the difference between passing and failing a course. The guidelines for this process are sufficiently unclear so that the student can only learn through trial-and-error which way to proceed in general. What’s worse, emails that work for one can backfire if sent to another instructor.
According to Savić, impoliteness is indeed a dynamic concept, particularly in this world of evolving norms on emails. The best definition of impoliteness, she maintains, views it as involving a mismatch between what the recipient expects and what the sender says. You don’t expect an email from a sales representative letting you know an order you placed has arrived at the store to open with “Hey there.” Regardless of what the sales rep intended to communicate, which might have just been a poor attempt at friendliness, you just don’t find it particularly suited for the roles that both of you occupy.
Similarly, when students write to faculty, there is an expectation that the student will approach the faculty member in a way that shows deference to their differences in position. The Norwegian researcher was interested in finding out what would happen when native students in one language write to professors in their second language, adding further complications to the mix. Using interviews and preliminary questionnaires, Savić developed a set of materials using actual emails written by students, interviews, and questionnaires involving sample emails to determine which student approaches had the best outcomes from the standpoint of the faculty respondents rating them.
These are 3 examples of 5 student emails used in the Norwegian study:
Subject: [course code]
Was going to e-mail you this a long time ago, but with all the exams I haven’t gotten the time to do it. this is my lesson plan for the project i did during practice about teaching with music. Would you look at it and give me some feedback?
Sorry but the person who was supposed to take my shift tomorrow is now sick, so I can’t make it tomorrow. Reschedule?
Thank you for your comments and great advice!
I have also written a very, very rough interview guide. By no means is it definite; it is just something I will attach to the NSD form. I would very much appreciate if you could have a glance at it.
Thank you very much for all the great help you give!
You can probably guess which of these 3 examples had the most favorable response. In fact, email #1 was rated by 71% of participants as impolite, email #2 was about rated as impolite by 50%, and email #3 was rated as polite by 86%. A similar pattern of results was observed on the appropriateness rating scale.
These emails became the basis for a set of interviews in which Savić attempted to tease apart the factors that led to these distinctions. One theme to emerge related to “framing moves,” or the opening sequences. This included the salutation, the use of the recipient’s name, and the punctuation (period vs. comma vs. exclamation point). Interestingly, the closing of the emails were not considered as important, suggesting that as in other areas of interpersonal relationships, first impressions matter. Some respondents thought that the Email #3 perhaps went overboard in its obsequiousness, however, with just too much thanking.
Looking further into content, other responses to these emails included comments on how respectful the student was of the instructor’s time (not much at all in Emails 1 and 2), the use of excuses (again apparent in Emails 1 and 2), and the overall level of informality (again, with Emails 1 and 2 coming out on the wrong side of the equation).
Savić’s analyses come from the tradition of qualitative linguistic theory, but they are suggestive of broad themes that could warrant more refined investigations. Ideally, the emails would not confound type of greeting, content of email, and closing but would present these as separate variables.
From these emails, however, it is apparent that form matters as much as substance when you’re making an email request, and that you’re best off not taking anything for granted from your recipient. Consider, then, these 5 rules:
1. Opt for formality over informality when you don’t know your recipient or when your recipient is higher status than you.
2. Always use an appropriate opening greeting for the language in which you’re writing.
3. In a request, remember that you’re the one asking for something and put the other person’s needs and schedule above your own.
4. Avoid relying on excuses when you’re in a position to ask for a time extension or special favor.
5. Thank the person, but not too effusively.
Email communication will almost certainly continue to evolve, but with these 5 guidelines, yours will be much more likely to provide the result you want.