Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where politeness dwells on the internets

No, not in the comments sections of commercial sites, which may demonstrate more (New York Times) or less ( civility and literacy, depending on the news topics.

Nor in the dying, spam-ridden embers of Usenet or Google Groups--remember Usenet?--or the outraged postings of abused purchasers at consumer sites.

Nor, alas, does it necessarily exist in the emails sent by students, which are sometimes correctly addressed to Dr. Lastname but sometimes to "Hey Mrs. Lastname" or sometimes (and most irritating of all) with no attempt at addressing me, just an abrupt launch into a request that I respond as soon as possible. These I leave until last when responding, needless to say.

But politeness does still exist--in professional email.

A few years ago, I started noticing that a number of academics didn't just launch into requests or whatever when writing emails. Instead, the emails began with the sentence "I hope you are well" or another courteous phrase unheard of back in the olden days.

And the complimentary closes of the emails became more polite, too. Although a lot of people still apparently prefer "best," I've seen comments at the Chronicle saying that this is too curt, and in the last couple of years, I've seen a lot more variety in this part of the email, too: "best regards," "warm regards," "all best," "with best wishes," "cordially," and so on.

Of course, this doesn't always guarantee that the person types a name below the close. As often as not, the person closes the email without typing his or her name, letting the signature file (which has grown from the customary 4 lines back in the day to a 6 or 7-line mini-cv listing titles and posts) do the work.

I'm charmed by this politeness. It makes me feel as though I'm in a Jane Austen novel and am receiving a letter, not an email.

Now my question: have you noticed this, too?


Anonymous said...

Alas, no (having just responded to yet another Mrs. Last name email from a student)....but I've been known to send abrupt emails, so I'm probably more of a Hemingway character than an Austen.

Isn't it pretty to think so?

human said...

I do this sort of thing myself, though it's not really that I am modeling my emails on what other people do so much as... I want people to know that I am thinking about them as people that I know and care about rather than as appendages to their computers and the internet. Even if I don't know them personally, I want to communicate that I respect their humanity and dignity, beyond what they may be able to do for me.

The world has speeded up, people say. And increasing inter-connectedness leads to increasing familiarity and a drop-off in formality. I think that the reason people object to this is not that they are uptight about being called by proper titles, or such things. Most people - even those who are sticklers for politeness, like myself - do not care about things like titles for their own sake.

But I think it has to do with what this familiarity points to - what I've alluded to above. As people become increasingly connected, but in ways (email, internet, phones) that don't convey humanness, separateness, and uniqueness in the same ways that face-to-face contact do, it's very easy to think of the internet as an extension of yourself, and since all the other people connected to the internet ARE the internet in a real sense, you can start seeing those people as appendages of yourself rather than as their own unique persons.

In other words, the internet encourages us all to think like narcissists. I think that is why so many people get emails that launch into curt demands on our time. It hasn't occurred to the writers of those emails that we are our own separate people with our own separate agendas in life. Instead, we are - or at least our email inbox is - a part of the internet, a Way To Get Things Done.

So, in electronic communications, it's doubly important to communicate respect for other people's humanness and uniqueness. Expressing concern/interest in their well-being, greeting them by name, and reiterating those well-wishes at the end of the email is a good shorthand for that, I think.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I too am one of those people who tend to write very polite e-mails (unless I know the recipient well, in which case they turn into snippets of conversation). In my case, it arises from extreme diffidence when approaching other scholars (I hesitate to be a bother) and a desire to model proper behavior for students. I will say my students have mostly picked up on the cues, lately, partly because I address Proper Communication in class and/or on the syllabus. They are quite willing to do as I ask, so long as I make expectations explicit.

Dr. No said...

Yes, I've noticed this too. I recently agreed to participate in a service task (something I would normally NOT do) simply because the email was so fantastically well written and cordial. I couldn't help myself!

Anonymous said...

I am old-fashioned about written (or typed) communication to start with but I am excessively formal and polite when begging favours, especially from people I don't know. Where I do know them, and especially where I ask them favours frequently (read: my referees) I make sure there's at least one enquiry or good wish about something else, more if I can think of them. And I always leave them a line to grab if they want to refuse. I hate needing favours at all, the least I can do is recognise that it's a kindness.

Anonymous said...

That said, I do correct students who address me as 'Mr' (or 'Professor', come to that, but it's the former that undermines my authority to tell them stuff).

undine said...

annieem--oh, Jake Barnes, you rascal!

human, I think you're right about the internet turning us into narcissists (in one way). We get what we want by searching for it and want instant answers.

Unknown said...
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undine said...

Dame Eleanor, I'm on the polite side, too, except for snippets of conversation.

Dr. No--if only all requests for service tasks were so polite!

undine said...

tenthmedieval, I think that the good wishes, etc. make a huge difference. If an editor asks me to review something and has either praised my work in the past or says something else nice, I'm much more likely to say yes to another request.

The motto of academia: we work for praise.

Annie Em said...

Undine brilliantly quips: "The motto of academia: we work for praise."

I just love that since it's so darned true.

undine said...

Thanks, Annie Em!