I got a series of emails from a student. At first, I thought she was being over-polite. But now things are making me very uncomfortable. For instance, at every email she thanks me for giving her good grades; it gave her motivation, encouragement etc. (this makes me very uncomfortable since it might imply I'm giving her preferential treatment) and I am the best TA she has ever seen. Her emails bear a tone which can be interpreted as either overly polite or very subtly flirtatious e.g. using emoticons, signing emails with only "Yours", "have a good night", "lovely day".

I am willing to give the student the benefit of doubt. English may not be her first language, so she may not know some phrases in emails are only appropriate with your closed ones. I want to tell her that she should avoid these phrases in formal emails not so directly. How can I convey this to the student?

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    Although I haven't received any flirtatious emails myself, I could definitely see it happening due to language issues. I've known people from some other countries to say or write things that sound excessively polite, and I could easily imagine it crossing the line to sounding flirtatious, even though the speaker/writer has no such intent. Of course I can't speak to whether this might be happening in your case. – David Z Dec 13 '14 at 15:42
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    @DavidZ: That's the point I wanted to make. For many/most kids, excessive politeness is just how they write when they're communicating with authority figures, and the specifically cited items (emoticons etc) are just how they write when they aren't. Beware of reading more into it than may be intended; the advice to "just ignore" those strikes me as spot-on. The thanks for good grades, while not "flirtatious", strikes me as more of a problem, and again I like Peter's response below. – keshlam Dec 13 '14 at 17:18
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    "overly polite" or "very subtly flirtatious" - Why not just settle on overly polite, which is positive, and ultimately, a non-issue. – JoeTaxpayer Dec 13 '14 at 19:13
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    Wow, people in academia get worked up over the most nonsensical things. Have you ever just considered the fact that she's trying to be nice or polite? Try not flattering yourself, and just going on with your life. There are much more direct things a person could be saying in an email that wouldn't warrant a question on a website about them. – Jonathon Reinhart Dec 13 '14 at 21:55
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    @JonathonReinhart we've probably all heard too many horror stories about seemingly innocent interactions leading to accusations of sexual harassment and ethical violations, lawsuits, and ruined careers. Universities tend not to stand behind their professors in these cases. It's very rare, sure, but the consequences are dire enough that many academics feel like they need to be very cautious. – David Z Dec 14 '14 at 7:55

You should keep your replies short, polite and professional. Do not respond to what you see as flirtatious. Try also to interpret what you see as flirtatious in a different light, as you say, it could be due to language issues. It would be bad if you started to respond in a manner that assumed something that was not intended.

In the end it is very important to not fuel any behaviour that you think is "suspect" but at the same time you cannot avoid responding altogether. Acknowledge praise briefly but do not return praise since that could appear as favouring a student before others. Turn the focus of a response quickly from any polite exchange to focus on the course material. You may also take opportunities to point out that information given is also given to others to at least subtly impress the fact that there is no "special treatment".

In short, act as if nothing special is going on, be brief to the point and professional in your response. Do not try to be anything other than yourself or treat any student differently from others. Keep records of your mail or other exchanges.

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    +1 for brevity and politeness! It helps diffuse a lot of otherwise sticky situations... – Paul Dec 13 '14 at 22:51
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    You may also take opportunities to point out that information given is also given to others to at least subtly impress the fact that there is no "special treatment". For example, "No need to thank me - just doing my job", maybe? I think that dispels the idea that there might be special treatment. – starsplusplus Dec 15 '14 at 13:03

I would try to ignore it as long as that is practicable. As in Peter Jansson's answer, just reply professionally, as if you didn't notice the tone of the email.

Unless the emails become overtly flirtatious, or unless the student begins to say inappropriate things in person or in other settings, you may be able to just avoid responding to the tone you perceive in the emails. Each class ends in a few months, after all.

If you feel you cannot ignore it, I would show the emails to another faculty member you trust, and ask for their opinion. Don't tell them what to look for - just ask them to read the emails and tell you if they see anything unusual. This is a good test, in general, to see whether you might be misinterpreting an email.

If the other faculty member agrees the emails have crossed the line from friendly to flirtatious, I would first try a non-confrontational way of resolving the situation. Two easy options include:

  • Make an announcement to the entire class about how to write a professional email. Of course, the announcement may be intended for a particular student, but it is less confrontational to announce it to everyone at once. Don't focus just on the flirtation issue, but make sure to emphasize that the student/professor professional relationship should be respected.

  • Send an email to the entire class about professional communications, similar to the announcement above. Again, the goal is for the one student to get the message without realizing the email is really intended for him or her.

Only if that sort of non-confrontational technique does not work would I move on to any sort of direct intervention.

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    I'd add that it's a good idea to anonymise the email first, before showing it to others: both for the student and because it will avoid prompting the other staff member - people are less likely to assume flirting if they don't know the gender. – Jon Story Dec 13 '14 at 21:49
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    Even if you manage to ignore it for this year, you could do the "professional email announcement" for next year's class as prevention rather than cure. – starsplusplus Dec 15 '14 at 13:04

This is an extremely common problem for some teachers.

It may be difficult for her to control. Some cultures have extremely high regard for teachers. This puts you in a natural position as a target of infatuation.

If it can be interpreted in multiple ways, try to ignore it.

If it continues to get stronger, then explain that what she is doing is inappropriate considering your relationship (I'm referring here to the power dynamic between teacher and student).

If you are really uncomfortable and you cannot let it slide, then explain to her that she should not use certain phrases because it implies something that will never be there.

If you're too gentle with it may encourage her to try even harder. So, be clear (not mean, but clear).

One last, very important, thing is to make sure that you are not accidentally doing something which, in her culture, indicates some (romantic) openness on your part. In some cultures smiling at a stranger is just a nice way of saying hi. In other cultures that same exact smile is saying, "Hey, I would be very interested in dating you."

People see what they want to see, so look at yourself and see what you do that might be indicating to her that she has a shot. Then change.

  • Regarding the cultural clash, it is likely the student will be doing the same thing with others. How would you politely tell them that what they are doing is wrong, before someone else, say, sues them for harassment? – Davidmh Dec 13 '14 at 14:57
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    @Davidmh It seems it can be interpreted at least 2 ways now. If I were in line in a crowded store and a stranger brushed up against me, I would not immediately say "If you touch people without asking you could be sued so watch out!" I would give them the benefit of the doubt and let it slide. Once doubt is removed, I would address it. – earthling Dec 13 '14 at 15:02
  • @Davidmh: this is the sort of thing that I would handle in a non-confrontational way, as in my answer. This has the chance to also inform other students about best practices. – Oswald Veblen Dec 13 '14 at 15:02
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    @Davidmh: It was also my intention. Informing the student, so in future she doesn't embarrass herself. – Ami Chagol Dec 13 '14 at 15:57
  • +1 for thinking if an approach that does not involve the entire class. Not that I disagree with informing the entire class, but that there is likely situations where handling in an individual setting is more appropriate then at a group level. Say if your in a CS class with 15 guy students, a male teacher, and 1 female student--but that never happens ;) – Sam Berry Dec 15 '14 at 16:26

A general way of responding to behavior that might appear flirtatious or unprofessional is to politely inform the student that while you appreciate her efforts to be polite, other people might possibly misconstrue her language or actions as meaning something she didn't intend. Don't imply that you perceived her actions as being flirtatious or in any way dishonorable, but rather that--whether or not she is aware of it--some people are very sensitive to such things.

Such an approach will effectively request that she avoid acting flirtatiously toward you, but at the same time avoid any aspersions on her actions to date. A statement that a person's actions could be misconstrued is not an accusation of impropriety, since it could be true even of some actions which were 100% proper. Someone who welcomed a person's flirtations and expected to continue doing so would be unlikely to make such a statement, but a person who thought continued flirtations might become annoying might make such a statement even if they hadn't yet. Consequently, the act of making such a statement is not a claim that one has been offended.

Ignoring a person's attempts at flirting may sometimes be effective, but some people may escalate their efforts until they get some sort of response. Since there's often no good way to respond to acknowledged attempts at flirting, it may be better to respond to an attempt at flirting which is subtle enough that one can claim to believe it wasn't deliberate, than to wait until increasingly-overt attempts can no longer be denied. The sooner flirtation can be discouraged, the easier it will be for everyone involved to save face.

  • +1 - this is a a good practice in general, an a good idea for this situation. Regarding ignoring the situation, which I had written about: the person in the question has to make an important judgment about the trajectory of the situation. If it seems stable, then ignoring might work. But if it seems to be escalating, then ignoring it too long can make the situation more difficult to resolve. – Oswald Veblen Dec 16 '14 at 12:13

It is a delicate matter as it can't really be pinned down as flirtatious but it does not seem very professional either. For example, even if I get quite familiar with some collaborators or colleagues, I do not add emoticons or texts that I normally use when talking to my family.

I would keep the answers as professional as possible, keep the tone quite "dry", and keep a very good track of all mails that go back and forth (just in case any problems later arise).

I would also approach as soon as possible, as part of the lecture course, the way that communication between teacher and students should take place - as @Oswald Veblen wrote above, or new routines in communication... you can eventually come with some reason for it. If the mails from the student continue in the same tone after bringing it up to the class, I would approach the subject directly with the student, at school, in an open space (if her intention is to flirt, you can never know how she will react when you will bring up the subject - better to have things as transparent and as clear as possible).

I would not start to change myself and be on a 24/7 stakeout, analyzing each and every move and grimace I make. I would make sure though that I behave in the same way with everyone.

A last thing, if it helps, maybe not :). Last time I was in a similar situation, only that it went to a not so subtle communication, I approached the person and told him that - probably I have misinterpreted the whole situation but I'd rather make a fool of myself than leaving things unclear. I told him I appreciated our collaboration but I was not interested in taking things further than just professionally.

Hope it was all just a misunderstanding! All the best!

protected by eykanal Dec 16 '14 at 1:56

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