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We’ve all been there. We send a well-crafted, thought-out email to our colleague, our student or someone else. We read it over and over again to make sure that the email is clear and provides all of the necessary information. We get our work buddy to double-check it for us. They give us the green light and off the email goes. Ten minutes later, a reply appears. We read through it and think, “What, the actual f…hell? I just went over all of this!”. Because yes, it just happened – your well-crafted, thought-out, double-checked email was met with questions that said email was designed to answer. Perplexed and out of patience, you fire off the quintessential “Please see my previous email” and log out for the day. We’ve all been there. It feels good to send that metaphorical middle finger…for about 30 seconds. Unfortunately, the “see my previous email”, accomplishes nothing. In fact, it can really hurt both you, the sender, and the recipient.
Now I’m not talking about hurt feelings, although that may certainly be a side effect. No, I’m talking about a severed relationship. A relationship you may have worked hard to build. Or worse, you’ve made it so that a relationship can never blossom in the first place. Sending “see my previous email” accomplishes only one thing: the recipient won’t reach out to you again. Not only that, but you’ve now laid the groundwork for a reputation as unhelpful, abrasive and rude. I know this because it’s happened to me.
I’ve sent “see my previous email” more often than I care to admit, in particular to my students who are notorious for not reading the entirety of their emails. I would blame them for having questions because I assumed they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do – i.e. read their emails. In an effort to foster independence, self-efficacy and accountability, I would frequently send “see my previous email”. Each time I did this, I felt a rush of…I’m not sure what but it felt good in the moment – gratification perhaps? I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was teaching them to be good humans and of course, one of the main requirements of being a good human is to read your emails…
Until, that is, three of my students asked for a different advisor. The feedback was that I wasn’t helpful, didn’t provide enough information and appeared frustrated or impatient. Now, I cannot say for certain that my email etiquette was the only factor in their request but I know it was one of the big ones, seeing as email is my main communication with students. The first two I was able to rationalize away but the third…two are a fluke but three is a pattern.
My responses in emails, especially because they lack facial expressions and body language for context, effectively alienated my students, tarnished my reputation and destroyed any confidence they had in me as an advisor. And my philosophy is that if I’m a bad advisor to one of my students, I’m a bad advisor to all of my students. And who did I think I was? I don’t even read the entirety of all of my emails! I skim them. And by my previous calculation of what makes a good human, I’m digging my way straight to H.E.-double hockey-sticks. When I do read the entirety of my emails, chances are I’ll need clarification or I may forget the content because of the sheer volume of emails I receive on a daily basis. When had I become so self-righteous and jaded? I can’t pinpoint the exact date but I knew I had to change. The first thing I did? I retired “see my previous email”. The second thing was to knock my ego down a few…thousand notches.
I realized that I took their questions personally. Their questions, to me, meant that they didn’t value the hard work I put into my well-crafted, thought-out, double-checked email by reading it. Oh geez, just typing this out makes me feel ridiculous. Even if that is the case, I’m not that important. Perhaps I need to reread one of my previous posts on exactly why I’m not that important. And maybe I need to add to that list!
My title is literally academic advisor – which means I need to advise even if that’s on my own emails. Just because it’s clear to me, doesn’t mean it’s clear to everyone else. That’s like those teachers we’ve all had that explain something for the first time and expect you to understand it right away because “it’s so easy!”. No shit! You’re the teacher, which means you’ve studied this stuff for years. No shit, Danielle. You’re the advisor! Of course you know this stuff. (I’m talking to myself here).
I always expect understanding and patience from others when I have questions and it’s high time I extend that to others, especially my students.