Avoiding the Angry Email

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In talking with some colleagues, it’s becoming more and more common to get angry and sometimes even aggressive emails from students.  It seems the typical pattern is that a student gets a bad grade on something or doesn’t agree with a decision the instructor has made and quickly fires off an angry email to try and resolve the situation (or sometimes just to complain about it).

I can certainly attest to having received such emails and it’s never pleasant.  Typically, they are full of bolded words, the excessive use of capital letters, and lack any sort of salutation.  When I get them, it bothers me for several reasons.  It’s rude, disrespectful, and makes me feel as though my hard work isn’t appreciated.  What’s worse, though, is that sometimes the student is right in his or her criticism or concern but wrong in how he or she expressed it.  In other words, the student is making a very valid point but it’s hard to find because it’s hidden behind all those exclamation points. 

If you are a student, this is exactly why you should think twice about sending such an email.  Your position might be absolutely correct but you are making it really easy for your instructor to ignore it by being rude.  Once you send a hostile email, the exchange stops being about your concern and starts being about your nasty email. 

If you have done this, you are certainly not alone.  It’s a common mistake and there are all sorts of reasons why electronic communication lends itself to this sort of thing. 

Exacerbating Impulsivity.  The electronic format worsens impulse control problems because it’s too quick and easy.  When I was a student (in the olden days before email), if I wanted to voice a concern to one of my teachers, not only did I have to have a face to face talk, I had to wait to the next class or his or her office hours to have that talk (I suppose I could have used the phone but I don’t think many people did that).  That gave me plenty of time to cool off and think about the best way to handle the situation. 

With email (and texting, Facebook posts, etc.), you can send your response immediately.  This means that you are responding when you are most angry, which influences what you write.  You are less rational and less likely to think through the consequences.  While that angry email likely does capture what you are really feeling, it’s probably not expressing that frustration in the most effective way.  Consequently, you may fail to get your point across or, worse yet, you may damage your relationship and reputation with the instructor.

Perceived Anonymity. A second issue is that email feels semi-anonymous to people.   It’s not anonymous, of course, but the distance between you and the recipient may stop you from censoring yourself.  As you are typing the email, you aren’t looking the person in the eye, you aren’t seeing his or her facial expression, or listening to his or her side of the story.  If it were a face-to-face conversation, you might notice that he or she is really processing what you are saying and you may come to understand his or her perspective before things get too heated.  Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just harder for most people to say hurtful things to a person’s face.  When you can see that what you are saying is hurting or offending them, you are more likely to back off. 

Now, by no means am I suggesting that you not voice your concerns or frustration to your instructors.  They make mistakes sometimes and, when they do, their students have the right to try and address those mistakes.  In fact, I want you to voice that frustration… just more effectively. 

So, students, the next time you want to voice a concern to one of your instructors, I would encourage you to do the following before you hit send. 

  1. Don’t hit send at all.  Go talk to the person if you can.  Email is sometimes the easy way out.  It’s what people rely on when they don’t want to have a real but uncomfortable conversation with someone.  Clearly, there are times when email may be the way to go (e.g., an online class) but, if it’s possible to avoid it, it might make sense to do so.   
  2. Wait.  Emotions are usually short lived. If you can wait it out, your anger will start to dissipate and the email you send will probably be better for it.  If you feel you need to do something, go ahead and start writing but don’t send until you’ve had a chance cool off, reread, think it through, and probably rewrite some parts.    
  3. Have it read.  You may want to ask a friend you trust to read it before you send it.  If that person is removed from the situation, he or she might be able to offer some much needed perspective, tell you if it sounds rude, or if it’s unclear. 
  4. Be professional. Sometimes, what comes across as rudeness or excessive anger is actually a lack of professionalism (or, worse yet, a combination of both).  Treat these emails the way you would treat a letter.  Start with some sort of greeting (e.g., Dear Professor…), use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and end with some sort of farewell (e.g., Sincerely or Thanks for your consideration, etc).  This may seem a bit old school to some but, ultimately, it’s just a polite way to communicate with people and will go a long way in taking the edge off.
  5. Be emoticon free. Related to a lack of professionalism, avoid anything that’s designed to show, explicitly, how angry you are.  Stay away from frowning faces, all capital letters, extra exclamation points, using bold or colored font, etc.  Assuming you are trying to change your instructor’s mind about something or alert him or her to a problem (see number six below), these sorts of superfluous elements only get in the way of your point. 
  6. Ask yourself why you are sending it. Make sure you are aware of the end result you are hoping for.  Do you want the instructor to change a grade, rethink a policy, or just to offer an explanation?  Regardless, make sure it’s clear to the instructor what you want.  Otherwise, it will just feel to him or her like useless venting.  If the point is just to vent, it’s probably better not to send it at all and find some other way to deal with your anger. 

By Ryan C. Martin
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16 thoughts on “Avoiding the Angry Email

  1. Pingback: Responding to the Angry Email: A Follow-Up « All the Rage

  2. Drawing attention to bad behavior only makes these narcissistic drones for children act out in such a manner repeatedly. I’d simply take them out and have a one on one talk if possible.

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  7. I think this is a really great post, being both incredibly relevant and enlightening. It’s definitely something not only students and educators can relate to, but also those participating in a similar kind of dynamic (i.e. supervisor/employee, co-worker/co-worker, team member/team member, etc.) I think it’s important to remember that while this topic says a lot about instructor/student relations, we can also think about it in any context really: the fact that while the logic in an argument may be there, the way in which it is presented attests to its effectiveness. Very helpful and informative!

  8. We are trying to build an anger managment program build on calming senses and meditation. What would you advice for a n age group targeting 13-17 and the way these youngsters show anger and how to enroll them for the volunteer program

  9. Well I could not agree more with you. You made a very good point in understanding and advising students. Anger management would help.

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