update: grad student sends me rude emails

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose grad student sent her rude emails? Here’s the update.

I hope it’s okay, but in the letter I changed the gender of the grad student in an effort to not be so recognizable (as this was an issue I was talking about with peers), but it turned out to be pertinent to the discussion later so I feel a bit bad about that.

So I’ve been in my position… 6 months or so? And it’s going well I think! I really appreciate your response, and all the commentators’ responses because a large part of my (internal) mandate is to help undergraduates transition to working norms, as I hire both undergrads and grads. I’ve already had decent feedback that being very explicit about work norms is helpful for undergrads, especially those who are first gen or not neurotypical, and I’ve started linking to your site in my hiring documents about working for our department. Academia is it’s own beast with its own rules, and I know I needed this stated very clearly for me when I was 19 and just started working.

Academia is still stressful, and my college decided to be hybrid so I’m running in person and remote labs for ~1,000 students which is… a lot. I’m the busiest I’ve ever been, but I’m still very glad I took this job. And at least everyone has been very nice about all the mistakes I’ve made! Including the grad student I mentioned. She is definitely the one to first email me about a mistake I’ve made, but I’ve been reframing that diligence as helpful rather than aggressive in my head.

Plus I met her in person and she was delightful!

In truth I haven’t worked with her as much this semester, because now I’m managing ~35 students (grad and undergrad) and not just the 1 which really changes the dynamics. Plus her emails were a bit softer after that initial burst, and I stopped responding to her emails all at once and just referred to my previous email if she asked about it a second time, which helped with the multiple emails issue.

Right after that I went into quarantine for a few weeks because of a COVID scare. Then after that a few crises occured in our preparation for going in person in the COVID era, so I’m afraid it flew out of my mind.

I thought the conversation about ESL that this letter provoked was super interesting as well, because I’ve been trying to be conscientious of my privilege, and it hit me hard to hear the commentator who asked if this was another example of “… women in the workplace (being) ultra sensitive and cry(ing) when someone doesn’t overly pander to their fragility in emails.” Which I don’t want to discount as a real issue / possible slippery slope when we talk about tone policing, which is also why I am grateful to have you sanity check me that this wasn’t the case.

In reviewing her course evaluations her students loved her, so at least this is a problem of being too harsh up, not down. I’m less concerned with her tone towards me if I know she can soften it when it matters, which it really does for the students! Students, in my experience, often read emails as being super angry at them, even if they’re just straightforward. I think I read somewhere that the first half of any college class is trying to undo the damage inflicted on students by previous teachers/professors, and that really holds true in my experience. That was a huge part of my anxiety about her tone in email, especially as I knew they might be teaching some fully remote students.

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Kimmy Schmidt*

    Glad to hear both you and the grad student are doing well. This sounds like a pretty good resolution all the way around.

    As a side note, do other fields have as much baggage/emotional labor/stress around emails as academia? I always feel hyper-aware of my tone and language choices, and I’ve been known to draft emails days ahead of time to give myself time to edit them.

    1. Mel_05*

      I’ve never worked in academia, so I don’t have a good comparison point, but I think in other fields it varies by organizations. The one I’m at now is mostly fine – except for one office location that tends to be pretty rude/blunt while expecting a lot of hand holding and softness in return.

      But at previous jobs there were a lot of fragile egos and/or mind games going on, so it was quite stressful to email them about any hiccups on a project or even just requests for information.

      1. OP in academia*

        Yup! I think it mainly matters where there is a lot of politics going on, and as I was so new I wasn’t sure if my new university was a place like that. My impression is that it’s a personality // culture thing.

    2. pretzelgirl*

      I think some of them can be. I worked at non-profit that worked with college students and professors daily. I was a straightforward email person. I got talked to because my emails were not “soft enough” and didn’t start with a “Hi Susy Q! Thanks for your email!” People were apparently put off by my tone, even though I didn’t mean anything by it. I changed my style and it helped a lot, even though I was secretly rolling my eyes a bit.

      1. A Simple Narwhal*

        I’ve never worked in academia or at a non-profit, but I’ve been told to soften my emails before, which I always found frustrating. My solution was to add a “Thanks!” at the end of everything, it’s apparently enough to soften my otherwise straightforward email. It’s easy enough to do, and it’s amazing how much positive feedback I got once I started doing that.

      2. BRR*

        I worked at a nonprofit that was one of those that valued passion for the cause too much and also was talked too about my emails not being soft enough. Basically any request that was part of someone’s job had to include things like “I know you’re really busy” and “would it be possible for you to squeeze x in?” But it turns out having to tip toe around normal emails is a sign of a dysfunctional office.

    3. Staja*

      I am in Finance, but work with sales people a lot. I’ve definitely received “the talk” at previous ToxicJob, because my straightforward emails supposedly made a salesperson cry.

      At my current job, I don’t worry as much. My boss is Blunt over email, so much so, that I got a warning when I was hired about “how mean she is” – spoiler alert: she’s not really mean; she just doesn’t mince words via email.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        My boss’s emails come across the same way. She’s really a sweet and caring person, but her emails tend to be very short and to the point. I tend to be more wordy, as I often need to write out the details of a situation in a way she can understand and then either agree or disagree with my decision, especially now that we’re 100% remote. For us, it’s just a difference in communication styles and I’m (mostly) used to it. But it definitely rubbed me the wrong way when I was first hired.

      2. Mel_05*

        Yeah, I think sales people tend to be kinda sensitive to concise emails. I’ve worked with another of them and it’s a common thread.

      3. Threeve*

        I would say speaking unkindly is speaking unkindly, though, whether it’s in person or in writing. I would say it’s not that she isn’t mean, just that she’s (probably unintentionally) mean in one particular context.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          I disagree only because part of what makes something unkind is tone – which can be read a dozen different ways but when heard outloud there’s less room for interpretation. I can easily think of statements that said aloud in one tone are definitely not unkind, but said in another tone definitely are. When you’re reading it, you can’t necessarily tell which was coming at you.

    4. AGD*

      Academic here. People’s styles have a huge effect, especially downwards. In a few cases, I’ve seen faculty members with formal/brusque email styles leave students constantly convinced that they’re mad. My guess is that people who grew up on a huge amount of texting with a range of people are going to be far better at shared norms of navigating tone in written messages than those trained on a typewriter for professional work alone.

      1. OyHiOh*

        I suspect as much, too.

        I correspond with many people of the trained on typewriters era (business, government, economic development). They’re the sort who implicitly expect a salutation and some kind of closing, even on brief, to the point emails. I’ve generally opted for “good morning, FirstName” unless people have indicated a preference for something else, and end with “thank you for your time” even when I’m literally sending a two sentence communication. It feels unnecessary to me – I’m in the generation gap between X and Millennial – but makes my local government officials and board members feel understood. From my position as all-around organizer of all things, that perception of “Oy is respectful of my time” makes getting what I need far easier.

      2. Sara without an H*

        Yes, in my experience, students don’t have a lot of experience with business email (or business communication of any kind, for that matter), so that tend to over-interpret emails for implied criticism. This is probably just part of late adolescence, and I put more “feelings filler” in my emails to students than I would to colleagues.

        1. Alison*

          Unfortunately when those students graduate and go into the work force they hold onto the need for a feelings filter. I’m the manager of a somewhat recent grad who seems really overly sensitive to any kind of bluntness. It may also be a cultural thing or a mix of cultural and age – he is from the mid-west and moved to the north east for a job so to him we are all kind of mean because we don’t really couch our language in emails or otherwise. I don’t think anyone in our office is being mean or overly blunt, I think he’s just not used to people interacting like this. But I also think some of it is being really young and in some ways being used to being somewhat coddled. He also takes hours to draft emails that I don’t think should take that long to write, and he definitely writes emails with a lot of more flowery language than anyone else in our office. I’ve worked with him for 1.5 years and he has definitely gotten better about learning business norms (still working on this to some extent though) and he’s good at the main parts of his job but man it was difficult at first.

          1. Sara without an H*

            Yeah, many of them need quite a lot of coaching at first. I’ve had to train student workers on how to answer the telephone in a business context, i.e., “Tiny College Library, how may I help you?”, not “Hullo.”

            I’m glad you’re putting in some time on this young man — it will help him in the future. It’s tough to try to navigate both your first job and a change in regional culture.

    5. Quinalla*

      It really depends on so many things – where you are located (and even regionally in the United States it varies HUGELY), the culture at your particular office or other companies you work with, the industry, even individual people, etc. My workplace most people that work here are engineers (including me) and we tend to generally be polite, but very straightforward and sometimes pretty unaware of the tone being conveyed in writing. We also work with companies all over the country and it is pretty interesting especially in email how some come across, there are definitely people who until I spoke on the phone or met in person I thought were complete jerks, but they just had no interest/awareness of tone in email and were 100% blunt. And others that over-softened to my taste so much I couldn’t tell what they actually thought/wanted. I try to give lots of benefit of the doubt in emails communication and pick up the phone or start a video chat when things start getting too complicated/weird.

      1. Sara without an H*

        I try to tailor the tone of my emails to what I know about the recipient, or to the tone of their previous emails. One of my reports tends to be chattier in emails than I am, but I try to keep a conversational tone in my messages to her. (She’s also an extravert who’s working remotely and I suspect feels isolated, hence the urge to chat.) My boss and grandboss, on the other hand, are both hugely overworked and really appreciate an informative subject line, followed by bullet points.

        And yes — if it feels as though you’re trapped in an endless email loop, it’s time for a phone call or a video conference.

      2. DyneinWalking*

        Yes! I live in Germany which is on the “ruder”, more direct end of the scale of social interactions, and I know that my boyfriend deliberately softens his tone when communicating with international colleagues and clients. What’s considered perfectly normal and even polite here is considered quite brusque and unfriendly in many other countries.

        And the field definitely makes a difference as well. I studied something very social at first but switched to a scientific/STEM field when I realized the original subject wasn’t for me. In the social field, the tone in emails was very friendly and contained a lot of what I’d call “social fluff”, so I adapted my (rather direct and neutral) style accordingly. After changing to the STEM field, I realized that several of my peers wrote in the direct and neutral style that comes more natural to me and allowed myself to slide back into that.

      3. Junior Assistant Peon*

        I think regional differences in communication style are more apt to cause misunderstandings in grad school. Grad students and professors are a pretty diverse group from around the world, while coworkers in a workplace are more apt to be hired from the local area and more on the same page about Northeastern brusqueness versus Southern friendliness in email communication.

    6. Jinni*

      This is so interesting because my friend and I have this conversation all the time. We were both lawyers who have transitioned out. I’m in a creative field and we’re both running various small family businesses. We both VERY much prefer emails with bullets. I feel like it saves time and provides clarity. But we’ve both experienced a LOT of pushback from folks managing our various out of town real estate rentals to personal assistants. Since neither of us has worked in a traditional office in more than a decade, we often wonder if there’s some kind of new fragility that we’re missing. Now I have to write the real email, then go back and soften it with ‘how is your day,’ or ‘hope your family is well,’ or ‘hope you’re staying safe.’ But to be frank I feel like professional relationships shouldn’t need all this hand holding. It’s enough to manage for personal interactions.

      1. When in Rome*

        You may find yourself less irritated if you stop labeling those niceties as “fragility” and “handholding” and thinking of it instead as a set of different cultural linguistic norms, neither better nor worse than what you are used to.

        Whatever forms of polite language professionals “should” or “shouldn’t” need isn’t up to me. In Munich, I’ll use the formal “Sie” more often, and in Berlin, “du.” In many Middle Eastern countries, I’ll remember to always ask about a person’s family. In New York, I will remember not to ask that. Neither is more fragile–or more obtuse, self-involved, and gauche–than the other. You seem to think your way is intrinsically better, and while it may indeed be better at some things, and the other way may never come naturally, it’s mostly just different.

      2. OP in academia*

        That makes sense! I have sort of divided it into a ‘when they can’t see my face to read my tone I do this’ problem, as I think my tone conveys most of what I mean to say a lot of the time.

    7. Academiclife*

      This must be field dependent to some extent, or maybe just vary by department. I definitely don’t get the impression people worry about this in my STEM field.

    8. judyjudyjudy*

      I went to grad school in a STEM field and taught first-year the whole time I was getting my degree. I definitely tried to be very aware of my tone in emails to students and erred on the softer side — it was important to me that they viewed me as a resource and were not afraid to ask me for help. Also, I went to school in the Midwestern U.S. where a premium is put on friendliness.

      1. OP in academia*

        That’s super smart! Even in STEM the first years are just 18-19 years old often, and super stressed already!

    9. Urban Prof*

      I’m an academic, and for me, the reason email can take so much time and be so stressful is that I have to modulate what I say for so many different audiences.

      If I am emailing students, I need that upbeat, encouraging, approachable tone.
      If I am emailing my chair, I can be blunt and get straight to the point.
      If I am emailing my administrative assistant, I can be very casual and make jokes.
      If I am emailing the administrative assistants (and certain budget administrators) in my dean’s office, I have to be chattier, with more “How are you? Great weather!” filler.
      If I am emailing deanlets (assistant deans) or deans, I have to achieve a certain kind of polite and deferential tone.

      It can be exhausting, really.

      1. OP in academia*

        This is a good list of the different types of emails though! It makes a lot of sense to me, and I do think it’s smart to reference it in terms of tone.

        Something for the students along the lines of ‘When you’re emailing professors you don’t know well try and achieve a polite and straightforward tone.’

  2. lobbyista*

    Thanks for the update OP and glad to hear things are going well. Just a note from a first gen college attendee to say that your point about explicit work expectations is VERY true – I had literally no idea what I was doing when I applied for jobs, as my blue collar parents who had been with the same employer their entire lives tried to help me navigate resumes and salary negotiations…..

    I was a bit surprised to looped in 1st gen and not neurotypical students together though?

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      Genuinely curious, why the surprise? OP only stated that they received good feedback from both of those groups, they didn’t claim that they’re the same.

    2. Aquawoman*

      Being 1st gen and neuroatypical are both reasons why people might have less knowledge about professional workplace norms and find it helpful to have them spelled out.

      1. AGD*

        Academic here and yep. It’s sometimes called the “hidden curriculum” of the higher ed experience, which is a subset of neurotypical norms.

        1. OP in academia*

          I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve been focused on just explaining hidden norms in explicit details, and that seems to work for my TA’s on the spectrum as well as my students who are first gen. I haven’t been able to explicitly tailor my intro // expectation documents to either group, but rather I have a catch all that I can hope will help. I’d hate to have two set of documents anyway because

          1. I know the real creep of too many documents and then you never end up using them
          2. I’d hate to make someone out or pigeonhole themselves by sending them a different document than their peer’s

          Maybe it’s easier to explain with an example. Under emails now I say that our teaching staff have to email students they teach back within 3 working days (weekends and nights don’t count), even if it’s to tell the students they’re still working on the problem. That helps both TA’s that are 1st gen, and not neurotypical because it’s very explicit, even if someone who has worked in an office wouldn’t find that odd.

    3. OP in academia*

      That’s fair! 1st gen and not neurotypical students of course have different challenges, but the way I’m addressing how to help them teach // be professional (at the moment, maybe this should change) is to be exhaustively clear about our expectations for them. My impression is that a lot of the beginning work is to just explain what other’s have taken for granted.

      Then I, of course, can work with TA’s better one on one if they need other help, but in terms of my start up documents I’m not differentiating the literature that one needs but rather offering it to everyone. I can point them towards different resources, of course, but I’m not about to prescribe resources or diagnose.

  3. Rock Prof*

    I’m glad this worked out for you with the graduate student (though I’m really sorry about your work load because that sounds dreadful). At least semesters have a real end date attached to them!
    I had to laugh at your comment, “Students, in my experience, often read emails as being super angry at them, even if they’re just straightforward.” I see this all the time with my students, too, but I also sometimes will not know how to react to really sparse emails from colleagues. It feels really stereotypically millenial and silly as a tenured-professor, but sometimes I’ll still mentally go over emails like, ‘he just responded, ‘yes’ and didn’t use an exclamation marks, so how do I interpret that tone?!’

    1. Environmental Compliance*

      I laughed as well! I had to talk some students down with certain professors. They were just…. brisk. But somehow, a couple students would get hyper focused on the number of exclamation points or a lack of punctuation when the email was just answering a simple yes or no question.

      I also ended up including a day at the start of semester, same day we did our safety talk, of how to email & what to expect…. aka, you need to use actual words, not textspeak, and try to be concise, otherwise you’re creating confusion. And making a point that no one will be online 24/7, so you can’t email me/your prof at 2AM about some complicated question for the 7:30AM exam/lab the next day and expect a solid answer.

      Not over-assigning tone to emails (or other written text) is a skill to learn in my opinion. I definitely read a *lot* more into emails when I was a student until one of my favorite professors, who was very dry in email but very warm in person, made an offhanded comment one day in class about email tone and it finally clicked.

      1. Rock Prof*

        When I first started teaching, some students used me as a Professor Whisperer or similar. They’d show me the emails other professors had sent them, and I’d have to help them navigate the tone. I was one of the first faculty hires in my program after a long, long time, so I think I was a lot more approachable about that plus also understood the whole obsession with number of exclamation marks when lots of other faculty would just laugh at it and not take it seriously.

      2. Just Got Used to 1 Space After Periods*

        “hyper focused om the number of exclamation points” – I read anything more than one exclamation mark as yelling or really frustrated, the same as I would all caps. Has that changed? If it’s not yelling, does that mean 1 exclamation mark is no different than multiple?

        1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

          Corporate environment here and not academia, but the only context I have seen more than one exclamation mark in my workplace in, is as praise. “Thank you Fergus and Tangerina for working all weekend on a production issue!! You are the true heroes!!!” cc their boss. IME, when people are really angry, their emails would not have any exclamation points or caps at all. It would be written in a chilling scary tone.

          Do academics really use multiple exclamation points when reprimanding students? So quaint. (I am honestly curious.)

          1. Rock Prof*

            I’m my case, some of my students had a hard time interpreting positive or neutral tones because of the lack of exclamation marks. Like if I was giving them feedback, ‘Great!’ would be read differently than, ‘Great.’ The latter might read sarcastic to some of my students. Truthfully, the latter would read off to me too.

            1. OP in academia*

              I co-sign this! I also mostly email students when something’s wrong, or they’ve possibly messed up, so I find it easier to soften that message and just let the problem speak for itself.

          2. GrumpyGnome*

            Also corporate, I work in insurance. I’ve seen exclamation marks used both ways, for frustration/anger as well as excited praise. If it’s a brand new email from a broker and I see exclamation marks, it’s almost always anger, but if it’s an email after I’ve solved a complex problem for them, praise. Internal emails are more like your experience – exclamations are paired with praise. I’ve learned that if I think an email is too terse to check where the broker is emailing from and sort of readjust my thoughts and adapt some of my style to match (not anger, but more or less ‘filler’ as needed).

        2. pancakes*

          I wouldn’t necessarily read multiple exclamation marks as yelling or frustration. Some people use multiples to signify enthusiasm, attentiveness, playfulness, or surprise, for starters. Context is always going to matter. Language is always a stylistic choice, and people’s stylistic preferences can vary widely from individual to individual, in addition to varying by industry, location, affinity for trends, etc.

          I suppose writing in all caps is a bit of an exception, because it’s pretty widely agreed that it signifies anger. People do sometimes use them for mock-anger, excitement, movie titles, Kanye West impersonations, and other purposes, though.

        3. Jack Be Nimble*

          I took that as “multiple exclamation points within an email,” not “multiple explanation points in a row.” I.e.,

          “Hey Lucinda! Thanks for the heads up, I’ll loop the team in!” vs “Hey Lucinda. Thanks for the heads up, I’ll loop the team in.”

          1. Urban Prof*

            I’m with Jack Be Nimble here. I’m in academia, and I have never even seen multiple exclamation points at the end of one sentence, except in email from students.

            Even in my deliberately upbeat/encouraging/approachable student email voice, I often have to work to remember to wedge one (but not necessarily more than one) exclamation point in there somewhere.

      3. OP in academia*

        That’s a smart to have a day to go over it! I could include it in my ‘intro to college via this class’ quiz I suppose, although I already have a lot of material in that quiz.

    2. OP in academia*

      My workload is a lot, but I was coming off of a job with very little workload except for sometimes, so this is much nicer! Plus it’s a spread out workload, if you know what I mean!

      I’m glad that you also see that about the students! Also I’m glad tenured prof. do this as well! I have been moving a lot of our conversations with the students to Slack (also so I don’t have to answer the same question 50 times), and with gif’s and emoji’s I think that helps.

      I think if you didn’t have email as an undergrad you might not realize the stress of looking for affirmation in a simple 6 word response :)

  4. The Starsong Princess*

    This OP should not hesitate to give this grad student feedback on their emails, particularly around frequency of the follow ups. Also, since they are quick to email about mistakes, they obviously want their own mistakes pointed out quickly. That’s sarcasm, I’ve never met a mistake nitpicker who wasn’t incredibly sensitive about having their own errors pointed out.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, that’s fair. I used to be a nitpicker and I was really sensitive to others pointing out my errors. Not because I thought my writing was perfect, but that it should be perfect. So realizing that I’d made a mistake, even if it was a simple typo in a non-critical situation, caused me acute embarrassment. I didn’t take that embarrassment out on others, though. But when I stopped pointing out errors unless they were really egregious ones that could be misunderstood, or unless I’d been asked to proofread someone else’s writing, I found that I enjoyed both life and work a lot more than before.

  5. Latetotheparty*

    One interesting nuance about email tone: I once received an email from a student of mine with a request (regarding a third party) that was really out of step with norms — not rude, exactly, but just asking way too much of someone else. I replied explaining, no, that wasn’t going to happen, and went on to explain very clear guidelines for what I felt was and wasn’t reasonable to expect, as well as rules of thumb for how to follow up with the third party in the case of ambiguity or an incomplete response to her request.

    After sending the email, I mentioned it to a colleague, who called my response way too harsh and even “passive aggressive” (which was odd, because I’m many things but passive aggressive isn’t really one of them.) I was worried I had gone overboard and sent a follow-up email to my student apologizing if I had been too short, explaining that I was trying to offer some helpful context and that she should feel free to reach out to me (if not the third party) about anything at any time. She replied almost immediately and said not to worry, and that actually she really appreciated having things laid out in such an explicit fashion.

    I try to be as approachable and friendly in person, which I hope helps do some of the “softening” work in my emails, because I’d rather err on the side of being “too” direct and to the point; it was nice to confirm that at least one of the students I worked with appreciated my email style! (Possibly relevant detail: both the student and I are women, the colleague was a man.)

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