In the midst of reading your insightful comments on teaching business communication skills, which made me think that perhaps I was not a crazy grammar-obsessed stick-in-the-mud for wanting my students to write appropriate e-mails, I received what can only be described as A Sign.
This very morning, there was an e-mail in my inbox from someone I have never met. This person wanted me to compile and send him/her some information. To his/her credit, s/he used capital letters and a salutation, but s/he did not explain who s/he is or why s/he wants this favor. S/he just said,
Dear Ms. Chablis, I would appreciate it if you would send me [X thing relating to your work]. Sincerely, Stranger Q. Randomperson
E-mail etiquette, Lesson the First*: When e-mailing a stranger, especially one from whom you are soliciting a favor, introduce yourself and explain why you are sending this message and/or requesting this favor. You are much more likely to get a positive response if the person you are contacting doesn’t feel like they’re suddenly being ordered around by someone they’ve never met before.**
I sent Stranger Q. Randomperson some, but not all, of the requested info, and suggested that s/he follow up with a librarian to learn the rest. Honestly, I was being a bit difficult on purpose because the brevity of the message led me to suspect I was being asked to do someone else’s work for them, and I don’t want to encourage that kind of thing.
I would probably have been much more helpful if Stranger Q. Randomperson had bothered taking 10 seconds to introduce him/herself and explain why s/he was making this request. In fact, I have empirical data to back this up. Last year a fellow Scholar e-mailed me to ask if I had any good citations on Topic X. Scholar introduced him/herself, indicated that s/he had read an article I wrote, and explained what s/he was working on in order to put his/her request in context. Much more likely to engender good will. I sent Scholar everything s/he asked for.
I haven’t quite figured out how I will — or whether I should — work an e-mail etiquette lecture into my topical lecture classes and seminars. But you can bet that if anyone lets me teach freshman writing seminars (insert evil cackle here), the first class period will be devoted to syllabus review, followed by a brief lesson on how to write a business or academic e-mail.
* Actually, this would probably be Lesson the Third, behind “Writing a Subject Line” and “Using an Appropriate Salutation.”
** I Googled Stranger Q. Randomperson to make sure s/he was not someone I’d met, or a famous scholar I should have heard of. S/he is not.