81

Why do many academics write short replies to emails?

For example, I write Professor MK some polite email with salutation, etc., just polite and decent email. MK then responds like this:

OK, MK

Is MK so busy that they have no time to write, for example, this:

Hello,

It is fine. This is the correct approach.

Best regards,
MK

I do not understand this.

  • 36
    Ask them meaningful questions, you'll get meaningful replies. – scaaahu Dec 2 '15 at 10:53
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    "OK, MK" : 10s to answer, and probably this is a perfect answer in term of carried information. Where is the problem? – Sylvain Peyronnet Dec 2 '15 at 12:28
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    Obligatory PHD comic: phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1047 – Raidri supports Monica Dec 2 '15 at 12:28
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    I think this kind of behavior is more common in academia because arrogant personalities are more common in academia. @scaaahu I'm curious how you know the poster didn't ask a meaningful question in his email. – dsaxton Dec 2 '15 at 14:30
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    This is really heavily context-dependent. In my situation (research + teaching) I used to spend up to an hour and a half a day answering emails. Cutting down on salutations and getting to the point really freed up time I desperately needed. I also appreciated it when others would do the same for me. For many of these emails the point was to convey simple information or clarification. It was not to make me feel good or make any kind of emotional connection (i.e. a proper conversation with someone). So in this context, the less, the better. – syntonicC Dec 2 '15 at 20:48

13 Answers 13

97

Is hello acceptable, or should it be more formal (with or without academic titles)? This is a matter of (sub-)culture. Once you know what to expect, you can effectively communicate. This style is minimalist, but it tells you everything you need to know.

If this bothers you, think of it this way: MK is not only saving their time, but they are also saving your time. By using this style it minimizes the time you have to spent reading their message.

  • 31
    Actually, if you think about it, MK didn't save any time to PS Glass: on the contrary, he/she has spent time thinking about the email, writing a question here, reading the answers, and commenting on them. Personally when I get such a curt email from a colleague or friend or superior, I spend time thinking about whether the email is just "efficient" or rude. So the shortness doesn't save me any time at all. – Martin Argerami Dec 2 '15 at 18:05
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    If you don't share the same culture with the person with whom you are comunicating, then communication will be harder. This was the first part of my answer. The second part was offered, so PS Glass could view this from a positive angle. It is hard to change culture, seeing the positive side of it is probably a more realistic way of coping with the situation. – Maarten Buis Dec 2 '15 at 20:58
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    @Martin: No. MK saves a lot of people time, and that includes PS Glass. What PS Glass chooses to use their extra time for is a personal issue. As someone who has received many efficiently-written messages in a professional/academic setting, I can assure you that I never developed an obsession over why they hadn't written me a novel; the reason for writing short emails seems fairly obvious to me, and I assume most others. – Azrael Dec 6 '15 at 13:40
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    @Azrael: no. M. – Martin Argerami Dec 6 '15 at 14:25
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    @Martin: I'll be back tomorrow, since you're now forcing me to spend the remainder of today seeking out strangers who might be able to explain your true motivations to me. – Azrael Dec 6 '15 at 18:32
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Beyond a certain point in their careers, academics (in particular tenured professors) are essentially a subspecies of managers.

And managers literally receive hundreds of emails per day. Some of these indeed require a more formal response, or a lot of work before you can even compose an answer. If you get 20 emails that each require half an hour of work, 50 more that only require a yes/no answer, and another 100 that are just FYI, you don't spend a lot of time on crafting replies to the yes/no mails... because the first category alone already is more than you can handle in a normal day, given all your other responsibilities.

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    "subspecies of managers" is sad but accurate as far as I can tell. – Thomas supports Monica Dec 2 '15 at 15:54
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    @Dirk: care to elaborate? I did not mean this in a derogatory way, and I don't necessarily find it sad as per Thomas S. There comes a time in many people's lives when they can have a bigger impact not by standing in labs, watching mice, analyzing blood samples, or writing code, but by supervising and managing juniors to do these tasks. I personally know professors who consciously decided against the managerial approach, and it appears they are happier that way (I couldn't imagine them in a managerial role, anyway), but I also see professors that indeed went the managerial route. ... – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 2 '15 at 18:02
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    ... And the second kind definitely has the larger impact, whether you count this as papers coauthored, concepts introduced, Ph.D. students supervised, or overall direction in their research field. I can't help feeling that someone who does not go the managerial route that allows him to multiply his contributions and experience allows at least some of his potentialities to go to waste. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 2 '15 at 18:04
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    The sentence "Beyond a certain point in their careers, academics (in particular tenured professors) are essentially a subspecies of managers." is just misleading. It seems to be a commonly believed misconception and this site should not perpetuate this. Along all the colleagues I know only a few come close to being member of "a subspecies of managers". I would totally agree with "some academics turn more and more to management" but still "management" is not really the point here. It's probably just that many academics tend to be efficient. – Dirk Dec 2 '15 at 18:53
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    @Dirk, This may depend on the field. I can only think of a handful of biology professors who still do benchwork--it's just too time-consuming. Instead, they spend their time training students, technicians, and postdocs to do the work, going over data with the trainees and using it to plan future experiments, and writing the grants/papers needed to support/report those experiments. Those duties are all managerial (even if they're not deans, provosts, etc). On the other hand, many CS or math profs do spend non-trivial amounts of time coding or doing math and some have their "own" projects. – Matt Dec 5 '15 at 23:17
57

My experience as a professor is exactly the opposite. I write full emails, and most often students' replies have no heading, nor greeting, nor signature.

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    Ok, thank you for you answer. I am really surprised, because everytime when I was writing some email to professor, I also wrote a polite email with heading, greeting etc. I think that this is polite and it expresses some kind of my respect to this person. – PetrS Dec 2 '15 at 14:05
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    Completely agree, I also receive quite a bit of emails from various staff, students and clients and I always include a greeting (Hi so-and-so) and signature (Regards, Joseph). Doesn't take long and, as you mentioned @PSglass, shows politeness and a sign of respect. – Joseph Dec 2 '15 at 14:31
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    @PSglass: there are some students like you who writes properly, and I appreciate that. I just wish it would be more common. – Martin Argerami Dec 2 '15 at 14:38
  • I tend to think of these things as dependent on the personality or even personal preference of the professor/lecturer. I have received many full answers, many short answers (no matter what the question) and many no-answer at all. I wouldn't take offense and would just think that was the way the professor likes to communicate via e-mail and that's it. – Bruno Dec 3 '15 at 11:52
20

TL;DR: I completely understand the need to be efficient, but I think that the optimal (to maximize the average pleasure that can be derived from human interactions) ratio of politeness to efficiency lies way above "OK, MK".

I personally disagree with the view that saving time and being polite/considerate are mutually exclusive or even inversely correlated beyond the most minimal of ratios.

Turning that "OK, MK" reply into "This is the right direction, thanks for the update" takes an extra 2 seconds, not even. While it can be generic in its design, it certainly can still be genuine the same way that even though we say "thank you" a million times a day, it can be meaningful every single time.

Should we stop holding the door for people so as to save a few seconds here and there? To me it's exactly the same argument. People are busy, and yes you do take a few seconds extra to hold the door for someone, but it's a nice gesture and personally I think that small gestures of respect and helpfulness such as those increase the overall quality of life in society.

Actually I strongly believe (no research unfortunately, for those who believe that nothing can be stated just from observation without properly methodologized research), a lot can be said about a society based on the manners of its participants. Just think about how you feel around poorly mannered people and children in particular.

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    I think this depends on context. In my department we often fire emails back and forth at each other that ask about clarifications, requests for data, confirming meeting times and so forth. It's considered polite to make a quick response because we write so many of these each day. If it's about a social event, a journal club, or anything else where we are conveying more than just quick snippits of info we will generally include much more content. Everyone is happy with this so I don't see the problem. – syntonicC Dec 2 '15 at 21:45
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    I agree with what you're saying and actually upvoted your comment. However from the description in the OP, I think the context is very different from the one you describe. The difference to me is that in your example, everyone is on the same page as far as mode of communication and expectations and there's an implicit agreement that all are happy with the arrangement, whereas in the OP's example there's a significant asymmetry in all of those regards. – jeremy radcliff Dec 2 '15 at 21:50
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    While I mostly agree with you, I have a comment on your door example. If your job implies to go through 300 thousands doors a day, maybe you won't hold each of those door. – Sylvain Peyronnet Dec 3 '15 at 7:17
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    An extra 7 words in 2 seconds implies a typing speed of 210wpm, which is around world-record standard. Which is not to say that your main argument is necessarily wrong in substance, but you are dismissing the facts that don't support it :-) To me the main issue is that, while we don't want to offend people, the contortions we perform to avoid doing that are essentially arbitrary and established solely by convention. It's open as to whether saying "thank you" many times a day really is polite, or whether it's rude of you not to express more specific and detailed gratitude each time. – Steve Jessop Dec 3 '15 at 16:26
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    So ultimately, saying "thank you", or writing out salutations and valedictions in emails, isn't inherently polite. It's polite if it makes the other person feel better about the interaction, and it's rude to make people feel bad about the interaction by omitting such things. Conversely, feeling bad about interactions in which the other person doesn't say "thank you", or doesn't offer you a cup of tea, places a burden on others if they wish to remain polite. There's a form of aggressively demanding politeness that I consider about the rudest thing there is. – Steve Jessop Dec 3 '15 at 16:32
14

E-mail is its own medium, and in some ways is closer to spoken conversation or text-messaging than to letter writing. Many experienced E-mail users dispense with formalisms and basically just write what they woukd say if you asked the question in person. Salutations and valedictions are considered entirely optional. The informality is in no way a sign of disrespect, it's just a different set of social conventions, and I'm afraid the best advice we can give you is to learn to accept it as such. You aren't required to become less formal in your own E-mails, but I suspect that you will, once you get used to it.

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    You aren't required to become less formal in your own E-mails, but I suspect that you will, once you get used to it. I certainly won't and I have been dealing with this sort of thing for a good few years :) – Joseph Dec 2 '15 at 14:34
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    @joseph: Up to you. Computer science types are notorious for.terseness when it's appropriate, though we'll write In a more formal fashion when more context or exposition is called for. But look at what you've just written -- no salutation or signature on that reply, is there? Like it or not, you've started to adapt. – keshlam Dec 2 '15 at 14:44
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    I have no problem with email, which doesn't contain salutation, etc. I was just curious why, because sometimes I think that my email is very irritating and boring for person, who receives my email. (I guess on the basis of response to my email.) – PetrS Dec 2 '15 at 15:44
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    Not irritating or boring, just not their highest priority at the moment, and not in need of any additional data. Terse, not curt. – keshlam Dec 2 '15 at 15:53
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    @keshlam - Personally, I think emails and writing comments in a forum are slightly different. Especially when a forum like Stack Exchange discourages greetings and signatures. But each to their own. – Joseph Dec 3 '15 at 12:39
14

As someone who has a lot of emails to respond to, my approach is the following:

On first contact for a particular conversation thread, I tend to be complete, with "Dear/Hello xxx", and proper conclusion salutations. Further extensions of the conversations then I pick shorter responses, as the "contact" has been established. Sometimes a conversation can extend over a period of days, even in this case, I use the short form as a continuation.

The reason is the following: the cost of writing the email is not the net time required to type in the words. It's context switching. The polite forms of communication are polite exactly for the reason that they invest full attention to the other person. This is ok for a party or a social event, but if you have papers, grants, reviews to handle, lectures to give and 100 emails to respond to, ideally today, attention is a scarce resource. The other side of the politeness coin is respect for the resource constraints of others.

So, when, on the other extreme, I have to write very long, detailed, emails, I prepend them with a 1-2 paragraph summary, so that people can get a (TL;DR) if they do not want to delve into details.

  • More relevant than other naively-absolutist answers. – paul garrett Dec 15 '15 at 22:41
10

Functionally, e-mail replaces several different forms of paper communication. The question treats e-mail as a form of letter writing, which is certainly one of the predecessor forms.

I think the very short reply replaces a different form. When we used paper memos, a recipient could indicate agreement by writing "OK" or similar on the memo and initialing it.

  • Good comparison. Often the "OK" gets scrawled on the sheet of paper it's replying to, or on a scrap clipped to that sheet. Common office practice, or used to be when we were passing more paper notes. – keshlam Dec 3 '15 at 16:16
9

You should not think of the choice as being "OK, MK" versus "Hello, It is fine. This is the correct approach. Best regards, MK".

You should think of the choice as being "OK, MK" versus WAITING THREE DAYS and then receiving "Hello, It is fine. This is the correct approach. Best regards, MK".

From this perspective, your professor has shown you great respect by doing what is necessary for them to respond to your email promptly.

(I can say from personal experience that I switched this semester to signing my e-mails to students simply "TC" instead of "Best, Tom Church". The result is that I respond ~1.5 days faster on average to e-mails from students. I feel this is clearly worth the tradeoff in politeness.)

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    Every common e-mail client has an "add signature line" function, if that is really the issue. – Federico Poloni Dec 5 '15 at 7:18
  • @FedericoPoloni The suitable final line depends on who you are talking to. Also, many email programs show signatures as that, so it's clearly not the same thing as actually adding a sign-off. – Jessica B Mar 23 '18 at 7:03
5

They mean different things. "OK" means you have approval to continue as outlined in your email. "Hello, It is fine. This is the correct approach." means that the other person has specific positive knowledge that (a) there is a known correct approach and (b) what you've described in your email is that.

It would be wrong for someone, in an attempt to add extra words to their email for the sake of polite encouragement, to say something that isn't what they really mean.

At risk of perpetrating a stereotype, academics are more likely than average to be the kind of people, and operate in the kind of environment, where accuracy of expression is valued over diplomatic platitudes and polite but unwarranted praise. Whatever their subject, they're familiar with the notion of precision. But it's not just academics: you'll often find enclaves in professional environments where people customarily do the same thing in email. You'll also find groups who don't communicate this way in email, rather they always write complete sentences. You'll find people who do different things for different audiences. Maybe this academic is one of them, but since they've offended you they have perhaps misjudged what kind of audience you are. But equally you seem to expect everyone to write complete sentences all the time, and that's just not how everyone uses email.

That's not to say academics are always rude, or that it's necessary to be inaccurate in order to be polite: one can always be accurate and also take time to be considerate. But if you consider it impolite or indecent for a reasonably busy person to give a curt but accurate reply, then you're swimming against the tide and you will probably need to consider again :-)

3

A lot of people prefer small mails with meaning rather than large mails that tells nothing. Some benefits:

  1. You save time, if you reply a lot of email this is a really reason
  2. You skip all the large mails, that is boring and time consuming for others to read.
  3. You get directly to the point.

Small replies is a habit not only for the academic staff but also for the business people.

  • I think that there is a contradiction between saving time and being polite. It depends on ones nature, what one prefers - saving time vs. being polite. – PetrS Dec 2 '15 at 18:59
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    @PS glass At least for many academics I know that are communicating quickly with others, the definition of "being polite" is equivalent to "doing what saves the most time for those they are writing to" not writing salutations and extraneous details. I even know some who would consider a long email to be rude. So it depends on your definition of "polite" and the kind of information conveyed in the email. – syntonicC Dec 2 '15 at 21:25
2

Of course there is some truth in all these answers... Equally, in my opinion, there is the subtext of the relationship between the correspondents, whether it is stable (if not "peer"), or whether it is yet-to-be-established, possibly peer, possibly not.

The slightly-red herring of "efficiency" is interesting, but I think fundamentally an excuse for taking slightly less care than one might, whether with up-status or down-status correspondents. Yes, if one email is among many in a flurry of back-and-forth between familiars, that's wildly different from isolated emails between strangers who have yet to establish a relationship.

The probably more statistically-relevant question could be about students emailing their instructors, and the replies. If the goal is to show respect, then use of an honorific, and investment of an extra 10 seconds to format the email, is an investment with a great return.

About more-senior students and faculty supervisors: same criterion... namely, if your goal should happen to be conveying a token of respect (as opposed to conveying familiarity), a few seconds' effort will be well repaid. (If a particular person really wants to be first-named, give them the chance to tell you that, rather than presuming, or even asking... the principle is always the same.)

If the person you're addressing is older than your parents, maybe as old or older than your grandparents, ... if nothing else you should imagine that they have had a different cultural experience. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. In particular, some decades ago, in the U.S., in my experience, youngish people would never address older people by first names, except in highly ritualized ways/settings. Some older people in fact chose "radical seeming-familiarity" in their interactions with younger people. This slightly confused me at the time, although, on one hand, it seemed sooo egalitarian. On another, as I thought about later, it is only the really, really powerful people who can afford to pretend to not be what they obviously are. Hm.

(FWIW, my 20-something daughter makes a caricature of first-naming me both in person and in email (and in text), but fairly tongue-in-cheek.)

Bottom line: take into account your recipient. They may have expectations (duh!)... which may or may not include courting "familiarity" in language. They may or may not feel that their own status allows them to be curt with you, should they feel the need... sigh...

Another summary: if the primary information in the emails is pseudo-objective, probably people will be less interested in the social information. On the other hand, if there are significant social issues being negotiated by voice, language, tone, form-of-address, etc., then ... well, gosh, yes, voice, language, tone, form-of-address will matter.

Edit: the form of responses to your emails certainly does convey something about the attitude of the responder... however, it depends (apparently!) enormously on the preferences of that person. There are at least four different cases... (1) brusque, brief, and in fact is not interested in you (2) brusque, brief, but may or may not care about you (3) polite, but does not really care about you (4) polite, and may possibly care about further interaction, but it's unclear from this preliminary communication. You cannot begin to understand the nuances of response to a "cold-call" email without knowing the person and their preferences.

TL;DR, context.

1

It depends a lot on the culture. I think professors (for example) implicitly have the right to short or curt emails regardless. In the United states, I think if you are polite to your teachers (avoid the word professor) , you don't have to worry too much about writing long elaborate emails. For example you can call them by their first name rather than using a title.

Hi John, I was curious if x. Thanks, and then just use your first name in the signature.

Think of emails in the Unites States as "business casual" - well dressed but not ornate.

  • Leave a darn explanation if you disagree. – the_prole Dec 10 '15 at 23:16
  • It's obviously not a sin to call a teacher by their given name, ... but, still, there is the point of no honorific. If you yourself do indeed call your grandmother and grandfather by their first names, don't you prepend an honorific? (Not to mention tone-of-voice.) And then there's "sensai"!? Or have you had the misfortune to never have had a worthwhile teacher??? My condolences if so. – paul garrett Dec 16 '15 at 0:03
  • Like I said, it depends on the cultural context. A lot of teachers just like to be called by their first names. – the_prole Dec 16 '15 at 0:18
  • I do like my own students to feel close to me... indeed... but that is a different thing than "being buddies", and so on. I understand that many people do not care about such things. – paul garrett Dec 16 '15 at 0:24
  • I've had professors tell me just to call them by their first names. In a high school I could see why it's inappropriate. – the_prole Dec 16 '15 at 0:30
0

In the age of written letters, email once was meant for short messages, and used by very few people. When I was younger, it was not (always) considered offensive to write something in the "Subject field" only ("back in my office in 5min"). Mail was meant to inform, shortly.

A friend of mine had a PhD advsisor (before 2000) who, when my friend had sent a "too long" mail, answered in 6 letters: "PLSSPK", meaning "please speak": come to my office, explain in spoken language. Mail is not efficient for everything (try humor, 2nd degree without emoticons).

Now, nobody writes letters anymore, mail is widespread, and some use it for control, to keep track. Some use it to avoid direct contact. Good reasons. The problem is people using mail do not have the same standard.

From "PLSSPK" in the subject, to "Good morning, or good evening if you read my mail at your own timezone" followed by tens of lines, there are worlds. It is about habits, responsiveness, context switching, all good reasons.

Nowadays, I have surendered to long emails because most of my colleagues expect me to do that. They would feel offended if I don't. But on occasion, face to face, I suggest we both could write shorter emails, and ask if the other would feel offended. Very often, not.

It's like shaking hands: some don't like to do that, feel obliged to (and it is not healthy, smile). If you ask her/him how they'd like to be salutated, they'd say: "just say hello, or nod". It is a manner of personal trend, and social conventions.

My suggestion: if you cannot see or talk to the person, accept that he/she has answered you, not the way you would have, but in her/his way. And stick to your own way of answering. If you can talk to the person, ask (politely) about these habits, find a common ground. Say something like "You answer quite shortly. I am not used to that (express you feelings, important). Where did this habit come from. Do you mind if I still write long emails, or would you prefer shorter ones?".

People act differently, this does not mean they are SO different.

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