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I speak English with a heavy non standard accent. I'm away from my British university, in a different time zone. No surprise I have to send emails! In September 2021, my Department Chair — who used to be a barrister — emailed me

In accordance with the complaints you are facing, you must not email any faculty members except my secretary and me, until we have spoken on Zoom to discuss your communication issues.

On Zoom with Chair and secretary, Chair told me he received complaints that many students and staff can't understand my English, I send too many long emails. He asked how I scored so high on the TOEFL. I replied I'm fully comfortable in English, but admitted my accent is non standard.

Then I found out Chair emailed every department staff about me behind my back — Chair asked everyone to report long or overabundant emails from me. And the university's Counseling Services emailed me to offer support with communication disorders. All this unsettled me. Obviously I didn't request or agree these. I emailed Chair to ask if he knew anything. He replied

We notified all staff members as appropriate, including Counselling Services, of your communication issues and of the steps that you and I agreed to take. It is a gravely serious matter that you have not accepted support from Counselling Services as we agreed. We are now considering the Student Conduct Procedures for you.

As you are not complying with our agreed steps, I must meet with you again. Please book an appointment with my secretary.

I don't want to meet with him or his secretary again, because he's lying and uncivil. His gruff tone makes me uncomfortable. I replied

I kindly request we correspond just in writing. I am not comfortable speaking or meeting with you. I never agreed to your actions, like contacting Counselling Services and sending mass emails about me to department faculty without my knowledge or consent.

He replied

You are required to meet with me and my secretary. All my actions fully comply with what we agreed. There is no basis for your request to correspond in writing. Failure to meet may result in a referral to the Student Conduct Office, sanctions or disclipinary measures, or execution of the Student Conduct Procedures as I wrote in my previous email.

Now what? How do I refuse him? For privacy, I shall not disclose more detail. But I asked many friends and family to review all my emails. They agree if I'm studying on campus, I would email less because I can talk with people face to face. But they found nothing inappropriate, raunchy, rude, vulgar! My emails are always polite, professional.

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    OP, you're a student, right? Undergrad or postgrad? Do you have any teaching duties? Oct 21 at 9:37
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    Can you give some sense of what kinds of emails you have sent and to whom? For example, are you asking professors that you are taking classes with for advice on the course, or collaborating with students on homework? Or are you sending emails to the entire class or department about matters that aren't directly related to the content of a course?
    – Andrew
    Oct 21 at 18:27
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. Existing answers in comments, advice, and other extended discussion has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Oct 21 at 18:56
  • There is a point of terminology which perhaps does not affect the substance of the OP's story and question, but which may belong better as a comment here rather than comments on every single answer. AFAIK the terminology "department chair" is not common in UKHE management. "Head of department" or "head of school" are the terms I have usually heard during the last 20+ years.
    – Yemon Choi
    Oct 22 at 2:26
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    Thanks for feedback. No time to reply everyone. But I edited post to add relevant facts and remove irrelevant facts.
    – user148355
    Oct 23 at 7:08
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Edit: I strongly agree with some comments below that this answer may be the one the OP wanted to hear. While this is the accepted answer that may stay at the top, please read all the edits and the upvoted answers/comments before taking further actions.


There is actually a strong argument for corresponding in writing. Both the chair and yourself understood your previous oral meeting differently: the chair now believes that you both agreed that would have to accept support from the counseling office, and you believe to have never agreed to anything of the sort.

Oral meeting with no written summary may leave misunderstandings even among native speakers. It happens often in both professional and academic settings.

Dear Chair,

Our previous video meeting led to a misunderstanding. I have not previously agreed to these steps, not during our video meeting or at any other time. I am not sure why you would think we both agreed to this.

This misunderstanding during our previous video meeting is the basis for my request to resolve this issue in writing.

Edit: While your request for corresponding in writing regarding this matter appears warranted, I suggest you take any help you can to develop your skills. The counseling office thing does sound like it could help you to improve your accent or to understand the local expectations regarding email format. Counseling by native speakers to help you improve your English skills, for free, sounds like a constructive resource you should use.

Edit 2: You mention that the Chair is lying and uncivil. Nothing that we can read here can confirm this; it could well be a misunderstanding and that he is not lying, and the quotes from the Chair in your questions are not uncivil. I suggest you assume good intentions from the chair in this matter and work with the resources they suggest; it may well be that they want to help you. You won't get much resolved with a confrontational approach.

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    Please take the Counselling sessions even if you would rather not, they might use it as a legal excuse to make you look bad.
    – quantum
    Oct 21 at 6:26
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    @cmcv They do not appear harsh, rude or gruff. Just stiff/business-like and not willing to see your side perhaps, but nothing unprofessional or anything.
    – Jeroen
    Oct 21 at 7:11
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    I worry that taking this advice could lead you in to a trap. It is what you want to hear, not what is best/safest in your current situation. Don't assume you can pressure the chair, even if you are "in the right".
    – Buffy
    Oct 21 at 14:33
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    @kaya3 Presumably they were just referred to counseling services, who will make the actual determination. Basically, they're asking them to do an intake appointment, which is certainly extreme, but could be appropriate. Oct 21 at 17:38
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    @kaya3 My point is the chair didn't diagnose anyone with anything, they asked them to speak with a counselor. And maybe - "OP has agreed to seek support in resolving issue X" is not the same as "OP is under treatment for psychiatric condition Y" Oct 21 at 17:45
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There are multiple issues here that I think you need to think more about before you take any action.

First, from a formal point of view, the department chair is your work supervisor (assuming you are considered an employee). A boss telling an employee they need to have a meeting is a directive that normally an employee is required to comply with in most western countries like the US or UK. If you feel “not comfortable” having such a meeting, that’s really your problem and not something that should concern the chair. You may think your request is reasonable, and perhaps it is, but legalistically speaking, you’re probably out of luck, unless perhaps you have some grounds to request an accommodation based on mental health issues. Talk to HR to consult them if that may be the case. The important thing is to recognize that your sense of entitlement about having your request to communicate only in writing met is unwarranted and off-putting.

Second, after reading your question carefully I feel like there are important aspects of this story that you’re not sharing with us. You say that there were “complaints” against you based on your difficult to understand accent and your emails being too long. But the chair’s response is much too harsh to make this believable. He seems to be treating this as a matter involving some kind of misconduct. A strong accent could certainly be a problem but one that would usually be treated with a lot of sympathy and not as if you’ve done something wrong, and an injunction to refrain from any communications with other department members. So, I’m guessing that the complaints might involve other more serious things like harassment or bullying. If that’s the case, the fact that you’re not sharing those details in the question suggest an attitude of denial, which does not bode well for your ability to devise a successful strategy to deal with the situation, or for getting effective advice on this forum.

Third, you straight up accuse your chair of lying. I can’t follow the details sufficiently to determine whether that’s likely to be correct, but for such a serious accusation, my sense is you’re probably jumping to the worst possible conclusion when much more innocent explanations could easily explain what’s going on. Again, that’s not a good attitude to have, and one that is likely to cause you to dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole if you don’t pause, do some serious rethinking, and correct course.

From a practical point of view, I would advise that you seriously consider either getting a friend with a lot of common sense to give you detailed advice about your situation, or hiring a lawyer.

Anyway, this sounds like an unpleasant business, so best of luck getting it resolved.

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    @kaya3 sure. I’m not ruling anything out, just offering some food for thought. I’m guessing the “we agreed to …” stuff is likely due to a simple misunderstanding. Who knows, the chair himself could also have a strong regional accent that even some native British people might have difficulty understanding, etc., leading to confusion about what was agreed to. Or he is indeed lying. Anything’s possible.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 21 at 17:40
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    @kaya3 "Steps we agreed to" coming from a superior could very well be "Your choices are XYZ, or you will be fired/expelled"; OP is then agreeing to do XYZ if they express they do not want to be fired/expelled. It does not necessarily imply a discussion between peers who have equal say in the matter. It could also refer to agreements that students make as a precondition of being a student.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 21 at 17:55
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    @kaya3 It's very easy for me to imagine (5) the department chair discussed the counseling appointments in the previous video meeting in a manner he thought would make it obvious to OP that these appointments were required, while the OP didn't realize this. In fact I think that's the likeliest situation based on what we know. Oct 21 at 18:00
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    I think OP needs to post a sample letter or two that he sent. It's possible for non-native speakers (and actually, natives speakers sometimes) to come across as blunt, berating, accusatorial, or confrontational without meaning to be that. OP seems like they write pretty well, but still there could be examples of just lost-in-translation, either in thought-to-email, or email-to-reader. Oct 21 at 18:49
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    @KevinArlin Especially considering that OP comes from a different culture, it's easy for people trying to be delicate to lose their point cross-culturally Oct 21 at 21:54
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This is really no longer about meeting or not meeting. The chair clearly has serious concerns and, if they are not addressed, he seems to be ready to begin the process to have you suspended or dismissed. You really need an advocate on your side here - lawyer, ombudsperson, union representative, someone familiar with the school's disciplinary processes, etc. Bring that person to the meeting (however you end up holding it), and involve them in all further communications with the chair.

It sounds to me like, in the chair's mind, this is more than having an accent or needing to work on writing skills. He's using the sort of language that you'd usually see when someone is sending messages that are so incoherent or troubled that people become concerned about the person's mental health and stability - possibly to the point of thinking that they may be at risk of harming themselves or others, and cannot safely work in the department. The "stop contacting people" sounds like they find your messages not only hard to read, but actually disturbing. The reference to counseling points this way too; "communication issues" sounds like a euphemism. In such a case, it's to be expected that he might contact other department members to find out if they have had similar experiences with you.

If that's how he sees it, then one meeting with him, whether in person or in writing, is probably not likely to allay those concerns - and avoiding the meeting is going to make him even more concerned. It might require steps like going to counseling even though you don't want to. Again, having an advocate seems like the best way to negotiate a solution. If it's just you and the chair, I think you are just going to continue to butt heads, and that's unlikely to end well for you because he has all the power.

Of course, it is also possible that he just doesn't like you for some unrelated reason (or no reason), and is using the "communication issues" as a pretext to try to have you dismissed. If that is the case then you really need an advocate if you want to stay in the program.

Involving an advocate or other trusted third party will also let you get an independent opinion on how your messages really look. If someone you trust also thinks they're disturbing, then maybe you really should seek some help in dealing with whatever is leading to that, be it writing skills or something deeper. And if a neutral party thinks your emails are just fine, then that will hold more weight with the chair than your own view of them, and even more so if you end up having to appeal to some higher authority.

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Why do you think they should have your consent?

Multiple people have complained about being unable to understand you. They're following up on it within the department, to establish whether this is a genuine problem or not. You don't get to say whether they can do this - in fact if you read your department/university's procedures, you'll find that you've already accepted they can do it.

Of course you can withdraw consent at any time - by leaving the university. If you want to stay at the uni, you need to follow their rules which you agreed to.

Why do you not want to do better?

A "non-standard" accent is stopping you from communicating effectively with other people. You've already accepted that. Instead of just saying "we can't work with you", your head of department has reached out to get you help to improve this. That's constructive.

The reason things have now gone bad is that you've refused that help. From their point of view now, this means you must want to be hard to understand. There's no reason other people should have to put up with that.

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    "If you want to stay at [institution/company/whatever], you need to follow their rules which you agreed to." not universally true. You may have agreed to rules that are invalid.
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 21 at 15:07
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    I agree in general that they do not need consent to take the steps they did. However, attempting to frame it as if you DID provide consent in a prior is where they grossly overstep.
    – wakey
    Oct 21 at 16:54
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    "in fact if you read your department/university's procedures, you'll find that you've already accepted they can do it." That may be true, but the OP quotes the department chair as saying "the steps that you and I agreed to take", which suggests he is not referring to steps mandated by a generic student agreement, but steps which the chair believes (or falsely claims) to have agreed with OP personally.
    – kaya3
    Oct 21 at 17:15
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    'you've refused that help. From their point of view now, this means you must want to be hard to understand' Even if that's true, it might be grounds to stop offering OP any more TA work, but I can't see how it could be grounds to invoke a student conduct procedure. Oct 21 at 18:33
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    @DanielHatton The student conduct procedure, from what I can tell of the limited excerpts the OP has given us, comes in because of their reaction to legitimate attempts to help and keep them on the course.
    – Graham
    Oct 21 at 19:39
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Please meet with your Chair and listen. "Communications issues" is a catch-all, indeed a euphemism, for a broad range of things. I don't think this can be about your English competency (which is exemplary, in your post here) but in the content. Your use of "medacious" in your original headline, a ten-dollar word for "lying", suggests a willingness to share accusations. With the reference to the length of your emails and that the Chair feels it appropriate to involve the whole department we need to consider the possibility that you have been sending long accusatorial rants to a long list of recipients. Complaints have reached the Chair from both the recipients and those whom you accuse, and the Chair cannot ignore these, as he is responsible for maintaining a "safe workplace", which today means far more than having a handrail on the stairs.

As an ex-barrister the Chair is likely to be cautious in his words, but also very precise. He will not make the mistake of defaming you but every phrase he uses will mean something. Listen to him, as carefully as you write to us.

Also be aware that he resents every minute he spends on this and wants it to go away so he can get back to real matters. This can work in your favour if you let it: if he thinks you've heard him, and understand him, and will comply, he will assure his staff that he's fixed this and he will quickly move on. If he thinks you're digging deeper, he will just as quickly solve the problem by giving you the boot.

He will make that decision—or rather, you will make that decision for him—in this meeting.

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I think their commnuication is short and to the point. I think they are trying to protect themselves and trying to help you, to avoid you losing your job. Although you seem to be a stubborn* person refusing this help (which is coming through official procedures), you can still recover from this situation.

Maybe did you get your email hacked and someone sent around indecent material to your colleagues? anything is possible, but you are having a strong non-cooperative attitude. Think about this: whatever approach you have, it reflects back to you.

Final note: it is not the accent your problem. It is the fact that in writing things are much more prone to be misinterpreted. The fact that you can work remotely, in another time zone, does not mean you cannot have in person meetings. Yes, maybe you have to wake up at 3am for a meeting with your boss, this is an HR issue, if they do not allow to reschedule the meeting at a better time for you (let's say 8am, 2pm london time).

* Being stubborn is both an advantage and a disadvantage, please keep in mind this, sometimes you have to use this talent, sometimes you have to let your stubborness disappear.

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    Stubbornness can be fine with peers, not so much against superiors - especially those who are already angry with you.
    – Buffy
    Oct 21 at 14:49
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    @Buffy you are 99% of the time correct. I leave the 1% off, for the cases when the superior is wrong and so wrong that may harrass you, you need to be stubborn to stand your ground.
    – EarlGrey
    Oct 21 at 15:12
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    Re "...in writing things are much more prone to be misinterpreted", this is absolutely wrong. It's why verbal contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on. That's even assuming you're speaking with people who'll allow you to hold a normal conversation. All too often people, especially those in a position of authority, insist on not giving you time to consider what you want to say, interrupt you mid-sentence, and otherwise try to dominate a conversation. Writing, especially back and forth emails, is much more egalitarian.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 21 at 17:44
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    @jamesqf For a contract, I agree. But for normal day-to-day interactions, not getting to hear inflection and see a person's body language means that a lot is lost with only in-writing communication (one reason why internet comment sections are so infamous!) An in-person meeting followed by a written communication summarizing the main points that both parties agree to is (in my experience) going to be much more effective than only communicating by email.
    – Andrew
    Oct 21 at 18:08
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    @jamesqf There are arguments both ways. Dry, written contracts are the norm for contracts, but less dry, emotional communication is extremely difficult via text when lacking other cues like tone of voice, facial expression, etc.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 21 at 18:09
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I agree with others that the emails you have quoted do not appear unprofessional. I do not think it is reasonable to refuse a video meeting with the department chair.

If your primary concern is misunderstanding during the meeting, then a possible solution is to record the meeting so that it will be clear what has been agreed to. You might write:

Dear Professor X,

I apologize because it appears our previous meeting led to a misunderstanding. My request to resolve issues in writing was an attempt to prevent future misunderstandings.

As a compromise, would you be open to recording future video meetings?

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    Where I am, this would be considered very aggressive. Colleagues of mine ask for calls specifically so there won't be a documented record of it. Oct 21 at 17:08
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    @DanielR.Collins I totally agree that, in many contexts, such a request for recording would be aggressive. However, for someone seemingly about to be subject to disciplinary actions, such recording would likely be in both parties' best interest. I'll admit that, like you, I come from a US perspective, which may be slightly different than what the question author faces.
    – Ian
    Oct 21 at 17:11
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    As has been mentioned further up, simply taking written notes and sending them for confirmation after the meeting is likely more effective than a difficult-to-review video while perhaps not as aggressive. Oct 21 at 17:58
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Communication disorders are really in a different category than a heavy accent. Clearly, you currently have a very poor relationship with your chair and department. I feel that you may not have understood the nature of the original complaints (warranted or not), so I would personally recommend trying to get more information about what the underlying issue actually is. I would suggest agreeing the meet with the chair and take up the counseling, and start off by simply being curious what the problem is without being argumentative or defensive. I agree with others that recording this meeting, attending the meeting with a trusted third party, and/or giving your summary of the meeting in writing in an email afterward are all good steps to take. I think it is worth keeping an open mind, and perhaps there are steps you can take to improve your working relationships. Be willing to compromise and accept olive branches like go to counseling, even if you would prefer not to do so. This is as much about regaining the trust of your department chair, as it is about any direct benefit you feel you do or don't get from the counseling.

Once you have a clear idea of what the precise issue(s) is (are), then you can decide if you want to challenge the steps your chair is suggesting. Hopefully, there are a series of steps you can take that will calm the situation down and allow you to continue working. If, after the meetings and learning more, you have evidence you are being discriminated against, then take it up with the University or lawyer. But don't take this step unless you can document that discrimination is happening, and be sure you understand what the chair will say in response to allegations like this. If you have misunderstood the situation you could end up burning bridges and losing your place at the University.

If you really are going to refuse to meet with the chair because they are "lying and uncivil," I think you have to consider the possibility that you aren't going to be able to resolve this situation while remaining a student there. From the chair's side, if you are uncooperative they are likely to ask you to leave. From your side, if you genuinely feel the chair is lying and uncivil, why would you want to be a student in that department? However, I urge you to consider the possibility that you are misinterpreting the chair and that they are not lying and uncivil, but trying to help you.

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You almost certainly can't get a good outcome by refusing to meet with your department chair, if he demands a meeting, unless you consider expulsion to be a good outcome.

But you are probably entitled to bring an advocate with you. Contact your student union and ask if they have somebody who can be your advocate. Make sure the chair knows that the person you are bringing to the meeting is your advocate and what the reason is for them being there. If you aren't permitted to make a recording of the meeting, take notes during it and share your notes with the chair's secretary afterwards.

Also, make backups of all correspondence you have received and sent regarding this issue, and continue to make backups of future correspondence; if the only copies you have are on the university's email system, then you may lose access to them at any time (or worse, if your chair really is dishonest, they could theoretically be falsified). And in advance of the meeting, request whatever documentation the chair has regarding the steps he believes you agreed to.