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I'm still a student, but was talking to a friend about how when I email my professors/lecturers they tend to ignore the niceties, the greeting, everything except the main question in my email and send very blunt replies - it seems like they're trying to write as little as possible. My friend who works as a developer said it's the same at his workplace too, before that I'd mostly assumed it was because the profs must be busy or not care too much about undergrads.

But then a while ago I was working on a personal project, I got funding to take it further and was looking to hire a developer who was better than I am, and when emailing a PhD student he would also ignore everything except the meat of the email even when I was offering him a job, but in person he was the nicest guy ever and we'd even have friendly chats once our meetings were over.

I'd feel quite rude just ignoring parts of someone's email or emailing them out of the blue without a greeting, so I'm hesitant to change my tone, but then again I don't want to come off as strange for asking people how they are when initiating conversation.

Is this common behaviour I can expect to see more of once I graduate? And is this isolated to computer science-related things, I have no experience outside of this little bubble.

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10 Answers 10

up vote 58 down vote accepted

it seems like they're trying to write as little as possible

Yes, is is in fact good etiquette to be as concise as possible:

  1. you avoid ambiguities
  2. you respect other peoples' time by getting to the point and not making irrelevant side-remarks.

Written communication is hard: when done well, you should be able to easily follow the structure of the message and see what is expected from you by the sender (are there questions I need to answer?). It is far easier to reply to a well-constructed email than to an unorganized wall of text.

Generally speaking, in emails, it can be seen rude (or simply annoying) to be overly chatty.

[...] I don't want to come off as strange for asking people how they are when initiating conversation.

Use a good subject line, and simply write like this:

     Hi <Name>,
      <Recall context/Introduce yourself>
      <Question>  
     Regards

Recalling context might be, for example, quoting a previous mail (but only the relevant quote, not all the content). If people don't know you beforehand, you can introduce yourself.

This should be enough.


(edit) based on some comments below, keep in mind that this is a general advice toward brevity. What I mean is that you should try to keep it simple and focus and the "meat" of the conversation. I am not saying you should be excessively terse and cold:

  • you still can be polite and "avoid sounding like a jerk"
  • you can still bring you personality and humor
  • you still can have elaborate discussions over mail
  • (you should not use SMS language)

It is not about producing short messages (like 3-sentences-per-mail policies), but rather about organizing your thoughs in order to communicate effectively.

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comments removed Looks like they were addressed in an edit to the answer, which makes them not-so-necessary anymore. If you want to chit-chat, we have a great place for that in The Workplace Chat. –  jmac Apr 17 at 3:27

Yes, most email communication between workers has limited text, but that doesn't mean you have to change what you do unless you get some critical feedback.

I suggest you don't concern yourself with why people do this and what does it mean. Think of email as emotionally neutral and many people prefer an "economy" with their words. Bluntness can carry some negative connotations like not caring about hurting other's feelings. Phone conversation etiquette/what is considered rudeness has evolved over 100 years.

Are they lazy, don't care or have poor keyboarding skills? I prefer people get to the point but provide enough information. "If you get a chance, please proof this." may be more pleasant, but I prefer "Can you proof this by tomorrow?" especially if the person is going to think I don't care since I didn't drop everything and come to their rescue.

When you are emailing someone who doesn't know you, it would be appropriate to provide a meaningful introduction that explains why you are contacting them instead of just saying, "Hello my name is..."

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I tend to send extremely short email messages from my phone because I hate typing on a phone, and even more hate the "intelligent" miscorrection of my text. But I have my "from my phone" signature to let them know... –  David M W Powers Apr 15 at 12:52

Bear in mind that many people hundreds of emails a day. Even if they only need to reply to, say, twenty or thirty of those, the time taken to read and type out something like "Hi, Josh. Yes, thanks, I'm having a great day -- I hope you are, too! Isn't the weather lovely?" every time really adds up. An extra minute per email can easily turn into half an hour over the course of a day.

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My coworker has a macro that automatically types out the pleasantries. –  David Starkey Apr 15 at 19:44

Based on my experience in Academia:

Everyone gets far too many emails (hundreds of pertinent emails every day) and nobody wants to read them all. Even lowly college freshmen will have a dozens of social networking sites and marketers sending them endless updates or promotions, not to mention the school mailing list stuffing their inbox with 40 email announcements of varying relevance every day. However, important people like professors actually have real work to do, so they have even less time for emails and get even more emails.

So it's not as much a question of manners as pragmatics. If you send a 2-page email to a professor, you will probably not get a reply. They will open it, see a wall of text, think "I don't have time for that now, I'll read it later", click "mark unread", repeat... Then 2 weeks later, you bring it up in person, they admit they haven't read it, and you have to give them a summary of the email verbally.

So, the luxury of good manners is unavailable to you. If you want to get what you want, you have to write a short email. Specifics vary, but it is becoming common to expect that:

  • The first paragraph is short and summarizes the main point of the email.
  • The subject line actually describes the subject.
  • No niceties like "hello, how are you?".

I've even known some people who are very unlikely (unless maybe your email is literally about the most important concern in their life) to respond to you unless you put the entire content of the email into the subject line, and send it with no body text.

It's misleading to think of email as "just like a paper letter, except sent over internet". Paper letters take a very long time to arrive (in my experience, international post takes about 3 weeks) so given how long it will take, it makes sense to sit there for an hour or more, writing out in detail every matter big and small, in careful penmanship, adding some pleasant words to make the reader happy. It also makes sense to expect them to read all this stuff - in a back-and-forth correspondence, they would receive this letter from you only once in 1.5 months! But email is different. It is possible to have a conversation with a 5 minute turnover time - so the long format really doesn't make sense at all.

And while it seems rude, consider that your superiors are likely busy, and even as it is receive endless platitudes in email all the time. They're not impressed by it, so you might as well skip it and save you both some time.

The exception is emailing people you contact infrequently, where you have a reason to believe your email will definitely be read in a timely manner. For example, when responding to a job ad, or inviting an important person to give a talk at your conference, you may want to avoid being too terse. But both conditions must be true: If you email the person every day, then the "bells and whistles" will eat up an unacceptable amount of their time. If the matter is not so urgent and important that the recipient will definitely read the email right away, then every unnecessary bit you add encroaches on your primary concern of actually resolving the issue in your email.

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You still paper letters ? What country are you from ? Personally, the only time I deal with paper mail is when utility bills arrive... –  Radu Murzea Apr 15 at 6:56

I follow the robustness principle for emails: "Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept" :-)

Here's how what I've learned from Postel's Law applies in this scenario:

  • You cannot control what others send to you; thus, for maximum benefit you should accept everything.
  • You cannot control what others accept from you; thus, for maximum benefit you should send it in a way that everyone accepts.

Sure, you can be angry about formless emails and attempt to teach people, but this doesn't accomplish anything.

So I always use a short envelope but don't mind if others don't. In fact, I appreciate it as it saves time.

By the way, I use the Quicktext add-on for Thunderbird for handling the formalities for me. Hitting Alt+1 creates:

Hi [First Name],

[Cursor]

Regards, Me

Alt+2 then is the more formal version and so on. So you can write quickly and still be a bit nice :-)

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Hey kirdie, welcome to The Workplace. While this may provide value, Stack Exchange is a great platform because it effectively eliminates noise in the form of things that don't fundamentally answer the question. It's okay to provide additional, helpful information, but we should also strive to ensure the question is fully answered. For more details, please see help center "How do I answer". Good luck and thanks for participating. –  jmort253 Apr 16 at 0:51

There's more than one thing going on here. As many other answers have noted, everyone gets more email than they want to have to deal with, and as a result there's a tendency toward minimizing as much as possible.

But there's another issue involved, and that's your (and their) communication style. The DiSC model for one overview, (search "DiSC" for many others) helps you recognize the issue and adjust your behavior accordingly.

Very briefly, the DiSC model says that people are either People focused or Task focused, and also either outgoing or reserved. Using those axes gives you a 2x2 matrix:

Task/Outgoing (D), People/Outgoing (i)
Task/Reserved (C), People/Reserved (S)

Everyone has all four styles available to them, but tends to naturally behave in one (or sometimes two) of them. Go read about DiSC for what the letters mean, and a whole lot more. For the purposes of email, people who are in each of the quadrants have different preferences for how they use email.

The high D will not use or expect a greeting, wants bullet points, bottom line up front (preferably in the subject line), tends not to use a signature block, and will appear very abrupt to an i or S.

The high i will tend to have an informal greeting using a name or nickname, a long signature block with every known means of reaching them, the message may be long, but don't expect that they'll read it all. A high i probably will not read an attachment, and is most likely to use emoticons.

The high S tends to use and want a formal greeting with a name, they appreciate a full background in the email, include more formal/traditional "how are you?" formats, and will close with a polite and formal ending and signature block.

The high C tends to see a greeting as unnecessary and wants all of the details in the email. Attachments are good when they have more supporting detail. A high C tends to use a simple signature block, with primary contact information.

The really cool thing about DiSC is that once you understand it, you can fairly easily change your behavior to be more effective with other people. If you are a high S communicating with a high D, you can make an extra effort to reduce the email you send to the minimum question and bullet points providing data, and not be hurt when they respond with asking how you are. If you are a high C communicating with a high i, you can remember to ask about their weekend, and make sure you get the most important information at the top of the email, expecting they won't read it all. (Note, technical populations skew more heavily toward high C and sometimes D than the general population. I see that in many of the other answers.)

DiSC is a powerful tool to help you work better with other people. What I see in your question is mismatched communication styles, complicated by the behavior many people have learned to be brief in their email.

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When the corporations first started making use of networks and adopting email systems such as Lotus Notes and MS Exchange, emails at work tended to be wordier. People in general were new to the electronic age. They were used to sending letters, in which they might find out about friends and family. In a corporate context, there were written rules to writing letters and memos. Greetings and salutations tended to be lengthier.

Time marched on and the workforce grew used to the electronic desktops at their desks. Letter writing began to wane and email usage grew more prevalent. People no longer had to spend money on postage, instead sending emails.

Then came texting on phones. These used to be charged per text, and in some cases stil are. This cost, for most kids as their parents found, was not the decider of length. Using a standard cell phone dialpad layout to type messages determined that the shorter the message the better. For some, it also utterly and irrevocably destroyed the English language. 4 sur, ur sis roks!

Lastly comes the killer of all. Twitter introduced us all to 140 character messages.

Now, with the millenials being hired into corporations, those youngsters who have never known the postage stamped letter, who seem to think the proper spelling of your is ur, the ubiquitousness of the shortened attention span is catching hold everywhere.

Yes, in the corporate world, what you term bluntness is more the rule than the exception. Excepting that I woulnd't call it bluntness. I wouldn't, because I am blunt. My emails are short and to the point. My managers are as well.

In today's economy, where the rule is do more with less, one person more often than not is doing what 10 years ago might have had a team of three people. If your email to him (or her) is asking him to perform some task for you, he won't appreciate having to read a full page letter. Keeping short and to the point will help start to smooth over the ruffles quicker than most anything else.

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Though I don't disagree with anything you've written I don't think this is necessarily the reason. For me it's sheer volume - if one gets 3,000 e-mails a day of which I actually have to read 1,500 and respond to 400 then I simply don't have time to type anything. –  Ben Apr 14 at 18:31
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It is in no way a 'fault' or 'cause' of the millenials. It is simply the fact that emails have taken the place of memos or a phone call to another part of a corporation due to convenience. –  Waterseas Apr 14 at 18:50
    
For some, it also utterly and irrevocably destroyed the English language - Nah, that's still on its way. On rare occasion I've heard teenage girls actually communicate with phrases along the lines of: "(describing something). Hashtag oh-em-gee, hashtag so sad, hashtag ..." - it was extremely bizarre. –  Izkata Apr 14 at 19:17
    
Not to mention the 600 character limit in these comments... –  David M W Powers Apr 15 at 12:54
    
@Ben Do some people actually receive that many emails per day?! –  JmJ Apr 15 at 15:05

There can also be regional differences, for example in Germany it's normal to write

Hi X, I have a problem with Y. Best wishes, Z

while to my understand american customers usually write like this and expect the same "politeness"

Dear X, I hope this mail receives you well. .....

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I've yet to see that kind of formalism from any American customer I've dealt with. Admittedly I'm in the development/service end of things, not sales, so I'm dealing primarily with other programmers and we all want to just get to the point and solve each others' problems. If I know the person well and actually have something specific to share or ask about I may add it, but that's likely to be a separate note, or after I've dealt with the matter at hand. –  keshlam Apr 15 at 3:32
    
This is somewhat the opposite of my experience working with my German customers. They open with "how are you" or "Hope things are well with you" and close with "Warm regards, " etc. Very rare to see that from (fellow) Americans outside of a social email. –  Spike0xff Apr 16 at 22:19

I'm a developer, and yes that's the case. Internal emails are concise and to the point.

Now, if this is an external email to a client, you would be more respectful and detailed. Depending on the circumstances of course.

Short story, no one likes to read long emails.

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this does not seem to offer anything substantial over 9 prior answers –  gnat Apr 16 at 5:31

Yes, I'd say it's pretty common and should be even more common. But I, and most I email with, tend to at least have a "Hello" and a "Regards" in the email. Other answers have discussed most aspects of this, except two things:

  1. If the purpose of the mail is really short, write the entire content in the subject line and add a "nt", for "no text" (or "nm", no message), to make things even more efficient for the receiver.
  2. As you noted, short and efficient emails may cause the sender to seem blunt or sometimes even rude. This is why its important to meet in person the people you will be working and communicating with at least once. Kickoffs for new projects should start with everyone involved meeting each other.
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