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I'm an undergraduate in the US.

My professor just told us via email that he will not be able to grade an exam until next week because his family member died from complications due to COVID-19. I don't care much about the delay, but I do like my professor, both as a person and an educator. Would it be out of line for me to send an email along the lines of "Hi professor, I'm sorry to hear your loved one passed."

I'm not a very socially outgoing person and I don't speak up in class much, so I don't know if this would overstep the student-professor relationship.

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    Guys, let us clear something important: Profs are also human beings; if you think giving condolences socially acceptable to another human being, then yes it is socially acceptable.
    – Our
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 11:31
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    If it's a small class, you should definitely say something. If there are several hundred people in the class, it's still ok, but much less expected in my opinion.
    – DavePhD
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 13:54
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    I think your professor would appreciate hearing that you care more about them than the delay in their class. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 18:55
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    I have never once received a condolence message from someone in the UK when I mentioned of a death in the family or of a close friend (and it happened often enough). I usually just got angry responses. I think it's quite normal to write "sorry for your loss" in Canada and the USA though.
    – Nik
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 19:09
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    @user1271772 Angry responses?
    – Eric
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 6:17

5 Answers 5

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It's not merely perfectly fine (e.g., in the U.S.), but a very good thing to do. (Conceivably in other cultures it could be construed as too intrusive, we must acknowledge.)

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    I second the answer. Since the professor has themselves given you news about the passing of their relative, it is entirely all right for you to respond to their message with a note of condolence. I speak from an experience of academia in India.
    – xadu
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 9:42
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    Speaking from experience in the UK and Sweden, it would be appreciated both of those places too.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 15:34
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    This answer applies to the Middle East as well. Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 17:12
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    I'm not going to add another answer here, but to augment: (1) the professor offered the information re: death of a family member. The topic is already broached, so strong cue of "ok to offer sympathy" (2) In much of the US, this creates a situation where it is not only socially acceptable, but in fact it would be socially awkward to NOT at least offer condolences, in terms of basic etiquette (3) without knowing more, keep sympathy short & to the point of being about the person grieving: it's best to avoid your own religious/etc references/preferences or questions.
    – taswyn
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 19:43
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When I was in undergrad (also in the US), I was once in a very similar situation to yours (with an American professor whom I liked). I sent a similar email, and got back a very short response along the lines of "I have no interest in discussing my personal matters with you." Ordinarily I would have taken that response to be rather rude, but given the circumstances I cut my professor a lot of slack.

The reason I tell this story is to caution you that you might conceivably get a similar response back, and worry that you've crossed a line or even damaged your academic prospects. And indeed, there's a small chance that that might be true, because professors are human and humans react to grief in unpredictable ways. But I still think I did the right thing, and I'd encourage you to send such a note. There is a chance that it will be poorly received, but I think a significantly higher chance that it will be well received.

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    Could you clarify whether your own message went beyond what the OP suggested in any way that would imply a desire to discuss anything, please? i.e. anything you said that could be read as asking for more information (think "I hope they did not have to suffer a lot", which could be read as a question asking for more details), or any response at all? Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 20:53
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    Another example along ORMapper's lines would be if you offered to pray or similar, which might seem the right thing to do by some but is possibly offensive to someone who isn't religious.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 21:03
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    Your professor didn't do the right thing. Even if he was annoyed over your e-mail he should have just said thank you and left it there.
    – d-b
    Commented Apr 11, 2020 at 22:25
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    One could get such a comment from any human being in distress, professor or otherwise.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 1:39
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    @EricDuminil As I said, people respond to grief in unpredictable ways - and also, professors aren't always known for their people skills ... but I agree with you that most people probably would not react the way this person did.
    – tparker
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 4:16
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As one of the comments says, professors are human beings. Your email would be kind and appreciated. It's probably best to keep such emails short. Your suggestion of

Hi professor, I'm sorry to hear your loved one passed.

seems perfect.

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If you have a personal relationship with the professor, it is socially acceptable and may be even the norm to do so. That is however typically only the case in my area when you work with them as an assistant, are doing a thesis with them or have a very small specialist class. If you only know him from hearing a lecture of 50+ students, it might well appear that you consider your relationship more personal than it is, i.e. are slightly violating social norms. However, this should normally just be taken as an oddity. So if you err in that direction it's no big deal, but it's also no issue if you don't send a mail in basically all cases that fit the question. So you can relatively safely do what feels right to you.

As a guideline, the more you already know about him beyond his professional capacity, the more likely it will be seen as appropriate. And the more your relationship so far has been distanced and purely professional the more likely it may come of as odd. A simple check is also to consider how many other students would be at the same level of closeness. When you announce something like this, a handful of mails from people that you know is sweet. Five hundred mails from five hundred peoples whose names you don't know unless you look into your student register is more a (still well meant) nuisance than a help to most people.

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    -1, you don't need to be in someone's inner circle to wish them condolences upon hearing that a loved one died. Furthermore, it was the professor who volunteered the information. He could have given a more generic reason for delaying the grades, but he chose to specify that a relative died, and even gave the cause of death. So I don't think "it might well appear that you consider your relationship more personal that it is" is applicable here.
    – JBentley
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 11:28
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    @JBentley: you don't need to be in someone's inner circle to wish them condolences upon hearing that a loved one died. This is very dependent on the culture, for instance in France this is not the case. The question was in the context of the USA, though.
    – WoJ
    Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 15:25
  • @JBentley I'm not saying you absolutely need to, but the general cross cultural chance that it comes off as odd is increasing the farther away from the inner circle you are. And we are talking about a group announcement, not a personal conversation here. Commented Apr 12, 2020 at 16:18
  • That last part is on point. Not a reason not to do it. Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 21:51
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As has been stated in other answers (and in several comments), professors are people, too. The question here really shouldn't be "should I send a professor a note of condolence?" but rather "do I know this person well enough to be comfortable expressing condolences?"

There are folk who might react badly to such a note from a student (or from an employee, or from a super market checkout-person), and there are others who might expect such an expression. You genuinely never can tell, but I think that it is better to err on the side of humanity, and send a quick note, e.g.

Dear Professor X,

I am sorry to hear that [XXX] has passed.

Regards, Student

If you cannot replace [XXX] with a name and/or relationship, maybe don't send the note (if you don't know the professor well enough to know who has died, and what their relationship to the professor is, you aren't in an appropriate social circle to send a note).

As an added note (and, frankly, I think that this is the only really novel observation that I have to offer), your professor has told you that a family member has died. They have already opened the door to you, and invited you into a circle of people who know what is going on in their life, and are, therefore (in my opinion) invited to offer expressions of condolences.

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