Tone It Down

I got an email from a student the other day that made me stop and scratch my head. See, the student was frustrated with their assignment and so, they contacted me. This is, so far, exactly what I would hope a student would do. Right up to the point where they attacked me for their frustration, let out a thinly veiled threat (side note: I really don't care if you want to talk to your advisor about me. My record speaks for itself, have them call me) about how they'd best not see any points deducted, and otherwise just behaved like a tantruming child. (I have one of those, I recognize it when I see it.) What made me laugh was the closing: Respectfully.

Really? You write a note like that and then sign off that way? Putting the word "respectfully" at the end of your email does not undo the disrespect in the prior lines.

The thing is, I probably get one student every other term who does this. Could my school do things to make the courses such that this was less likely? Absolutely. But one of the reasons that I love teaching at a college level is that I'm teaching grown ups. Grown. Ups. Not kids. I don't have to deal with mommies and daddies explaining how little Poopsie just is too delicate to have come to class or any of that. And since we're all grown ups, I kind of expect them to act that way - including (and really, when one teaching online, primarily) all written communication.

See, it's easy to fire off an email. Maybe too easy. And it can be cathartic to spew forth your vitriol - just don't do it actually in the body of an email. Reference the previous comment about it being too easy to just hit send. But if you are going to send an email, particularly in a professional setting, stop and re-read it for tone. I don't have a problem with the student having contacted me - the situation warranted an explanation, just not one with threats. Had they simply said, "Hey, I was working on my assignment and this crazy series of events took place and it's very frustrating, so I thought I'd let you know." I'd've written back, "No worries - these things happen."

It's tricky - cause often you can read something and hear it one way in your head (generally the way you intend it) and someone else can hear it completely differently. But that's where the re-read comes in...try and think through all the possible ways someone could misconstrue your words, then make changes accordingly. Hint #1? If there's anything that sounds like a threat, go ahead and delete that. There's really no situation where that's going to go over well.

Now, I've been guilty of firing off an email with terrible tone to a friend. Heck, the majority of my posts here are sarcastic. But that's not work, nor is it school (and trust me, there were many a time in my PhD process where I wrote out a scathing letter to a professor just to get it said...and then deleted it.) In professional settings just repeat after me: stop and re-read for tone. Twice if you think you need to.

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