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How should I address an email to a professor who hates being called "Professor ___" or "Dr. ____?" He has made it very clear to students that he prefers to be referred to by his first name in person, but I have been told time and time again that one should be more formal when writing emails. Is this always true, or should I simply follow how he prefers to be addressed in person?

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    With rare exceptions, if someone tells you that they want to be treated a certain way, you should treat them that way, no matter what anyone else says or thinks. – JeffE Nov 9 '17 at 15:45
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    If you are very worried about it, in your first email you can use the polite and very English "If I may" so: – GrotesqueSI Nov 9 '17 at 17:21
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    Do you really have to use his name at all? I seldom do, with people I know, just starting with something like "Hi", – jamesqf Nov 10 '17 at 2:34
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    echoing @jamesqf - what's wrong with a simple "Good morning/Good afternoon/Good evening"? You're over thinking this – Thomo Nov 10 '17 at 2:43
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    @Henrik "Please take this gun and shoot me in the face." – JeffE Nov 11 '17 at 2:00
69

If the professor explicitly says not to call him by his last name, then don't. It would actually be more impolite to ignore his request in order to conform to some abstract "formality" rules.

However, even if you are addressing your professor by his first name, you can still preserve some degree of formality. Some common norms include:

  • do not use slang
  • avoid excessive contractions (e.g. use have not instead of haven't)
  • use your full name in the signature
  • be polite

In general, the rule of thumb is to be respectful and professional in your communications. Sometimes that includes addressing the person as "Professor X" or "Dr. X", but it does not have to. Just make sure you sound polite!

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    Agree, except for the part of use your full name in the signature - at least when you know each other, there is no need to add your surname, in my opinion. – Mark Nov 9 '17 at 17:58
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    @Mark On the contrary. I always use my full name on the off-chance there's another Sean the professor I'm talking to is working with. – Sean Roberson Nov 9 '17 at 18:08
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    Professor X ... Now I'm thinking about posting a question regarding the relevance of politeness in the context of telepaths. – Lamar Latrell Nov 9 '17 at 21:59
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    As a non-native english speaker, I wasn't aware that contractions were seen as informal or impolite – MechMK1 Nov 10 '17 at 11:22
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    @MechMK1 : In my view, they aren't. One would only use the full form in writing for emphasis or when trying to be ultra-formal (I certainly wouldn't "avoid contractions" when writing to a professor I didn't know. – Martin Bonner Nov 10 '17 at 11:28
38

Rules exist to serve people, not people to serve rules. The default is formality, because if you don't know how someone wants to be called, then formality shows respect. If you do know how someone wants to be called, them calling them that shows respect. Don't confuse the means for the end. Formality is the means, respect is the end.

  • This may be the best answer, especially at a conceptual level. – 6005 Nov 9 '17 at 21:31
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    +1 I saw a many once declare that he held doors open for women, whether they liked it or not, because his mother taught him to. He obviously missed the point of the lesson. – Ellen Spertus Nov 10 '17 at 17:29
  • @EllenSpertus to tell the truth, I do not get the point of holding doors open or of purposely not holding doors open. – emory Nov 13 '17 at 14:53
27

I would suggest that you use the name/term/concept that the professor signs his initial reply to you with as the introduction to follow up e-mails. This approach ensures that you are always correct and formal in your initial contact and can be informal in the subsequent contacts if the reply allowed you to do so. See the following e-mail headers/footers as an example:

Original Contact

Dear Prof. FancyPants,

...

Kind Regards,
Hopeful Grad Student

First Reply

Dear Hopeful Grad Student,

...

Cheers,
John

Your Reply

Hi John,

...

Cheers,
Andy

I hope that the above illustrates how I would treat your situation.

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    Replying with the person's signature is generally the safest bet anywhere unless you know otherwise. – Mad Physicist Nov 9 '17 at 19:11
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    I agree with this one. Please call me 'Santa' from now on. – Prof. Santa Claus Nov 9 '17 at 19:53
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    One problem with this is that often professor's won't give you a signature you can use for future contact. For example, professors who sign with just an initial ("-B") or initials ("-BXJ"), or more commonly, if they just don't sign their name at all. Or if they sign with their full name, etc. – 6005 Nov 9 '17 at 21:19
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    @6005 Dear -BXJ, dear 6005, … :-D – glglgl Nov 10 '17 at 14:53
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    @6005 My understanding is that that is often a way to not signal that a person is OK with more informality while also not having to sign emails as "Sincerely, Professor/Dr. X" -- social norms for how one is addressed by others and how one refers to oneself are different. – ajd Nov 12 '17 at 0:30
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In general: Do not be scared and do not think too much about it.

Professors are people as well and often they are way more interested in the content of your mail than in formalities. Especially when they have a lot of work, they do not even have the time to judge how you begin your e-mails ;).

Here is a cartoon how much time professors need for e-mails and how much time students need:

PhD comics on e-mails of professors and students http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1047

You're on the right side and overthinking the formalities. Your professor is on the left side and just reading the important parts of your e-mail (so make sure that you do not hide your question in too much text) before replying.

10

who hates being called "Professor ___" or "Dr. ____?" He has made it very clear to students that he prefers to be referred to by his first name

It seems he did not make it clear enough to all of the students. If he hates it and makes it very clear, it sounds even desperate! Please, do him the favor and address him as he prefers:

"Hi John" or "Hello John" or "Dear John"

That's what he explicitly prefers. And btw. as soon as you are around researchers (grad student and higher), you will address most people you meet at conferences etc as "hi FirstName".

Professors are humans as well. General rules are nice but do not hold every time. Here is one of the exceptions.

  • If the OP wants a little formality, I'd use "Hello John" rather than "Hi John". I might even write "Dear John," - but then I wrote letters starting "Dear Mum," in my youth. – Martin Bonner Nov 10 '17 at 11:31
  • But that's the point! It's not about what the OP want's, but what the professor wants. Still, true, he can also use "hello" or "dear". – Mayou36 Nov 10 '17 at 11:47
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    There are dozens if not hundreds of questions an this stack to which the answer can be summarised as: "professors are human". – gerrit Nov 10 '17 at 15:40
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If you are very worried about it, in your first email you can use the polite and very English "If I may".

So for example:

Dear Sarah (if I may), I am writing to you to ask about...

It signals your commitment to formality, but also takes your Prof's preference into account. If they sign their response with their full name or say something like "of course you may!", you're set.

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    This kind of language always strikes me as overly formal and awkward writing in modern english, I really try to avoid it because it doesn't make the best impression. But I've never really found a better alternative. – 6005 Nov 9 '17 at 21:30
2

There are possibly two issues here. The first is accommodation of the professor's wishes. As a default, address him however he wants. It is better to be respectful than formal, as all the other answers point out.

The other (possible) issue (pointed out anecdotally in @RadishQueen's answer), is that students may feel very uncomfortable addressing a professor like that. If this is indeed part of the motivation for the question, the solution is never to disrespect the professor, but you can always mention to him that it makes you very uncomfortable to address him so informally. He may decide to ignore your feelings on the matter or come up with a reasonable compromise. In either case, respect the professor's wishes.

0

As a programmer, the vast majority of most of emails I send in a professional context are of the following format :

Hi Tom,

...

Kind regards,

John Slegers

At least in my sector, pretty much everyone uses this format these days, whether communicating with clients, with subcontractors, with our boss, etc. At least in the IT sector, formal emails are the exception rather than the standard.

As a student, I'd inclined to be a bit more formal when contacting a professor in at least my initial email, but not in your case. Considering he explicitly expressed his desired to be referred to by his first name in real life, I would not be any more formal in my emails to your professor than I am in my corporate emails.

0

I'd likely just use his name, as in

Tom,

I'd like to ...

Regards,
Paul Smith

The option of writing

Regards,
Paul

and putting your full name into signature/From line seems not as much informal as familiar to me. Probably not the best idea.

Also, your informality should only extend to the degree the professor has specified as desired, so don't start with

Yo teach,

...

Either way, make sure that the From/To lines contain the full name of yourself and the professor. If there is a formally required title for your professor, it should be added there. This is the "mail envelope". While you won't likely enfuriate a secretary by being less than formal on the envelope of an Email, I think it is a good strategy to show respect in the content by using the amount of informality desired, and in the envelope by using the amount of formality due.

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