Responding to the Angry Email: A Follow-Up

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Last June, I posted on article titled, Avoiding the Angry Email, directed at students who get frustrated with their instructors and respond with angry emails. You can read it here but, basically, it offered an explanation for how email tends to exacerbate problematic expressions of anger and offered tips on how to better handle such situations.

Like many of my posts, I decided to write it based partially on personal experiences. I had been teaching a couple of online classes that summer and had gotten a few angry emails from students who were upset about grades, policies, etc. The topic had been on my mind and, after talking with some colleagues with similar experiences, I decided to write the post. My hope was that it would be a helpful resource for instructors who wanted to share it with their students.

Interestingly, one of my students who I had had a very minor disagreement with over email read it and posted about it the online discussion forum for a class of mine that he was enrolled in. He wanted to know if he had been the motivation for the post and also wanted to express his regret over the original dispute.

Though he had not been the primary motivator for the original post, it did provide the opportunity to get feedback from the students in my class about how they would like instructors to respond when such situations arise.

Here is what they came up with:

  1. Call them on it. They said they do not think students intend on being rude most of the time and probably do not realize how they are coming across. Having an instructor let them know that their email came across as rude is good feedback for them and will help them develop better insight and learn to communicate more effectively in the future.
  2. Acknowledge that they care. One pointed out that a student has to care about the class and his or her grade in order to get angry over it. While the way they expressed it is not a good thing, the fact that they are angry probably is a good thing and it is nice for them to have that acknowledge. Something like and instructor writing, “I can see that this is important to you” or “I appreciate that you care about how you do in the class” can go a long way.
  3. Model politeness and professionalism in response. They felt that one of the best ways to let students know what is expected of them is to model it for them. Make sure your emails to them, whether it is in response to a rude email or not, reflects the courteousness and respectfulness you want them to show.
  4. Invite them to talk about it in person. They acknowledged that sometimes they are intimidated by their instructors and choose email as an easy way out. Having their instructor invite them to talk about the issue in person might open the door to healthier communication.
  5. Do not withhold assistance. One student who had experienced an email dispute with an instructor said that they appreciated that the instructor still addressed the original problem that prompted the angry email in the first place.
  6. Set the expectations ahead of time. They said that part of the problem is that students don’t always realize what their instructors want from them with regard to electronic communication and said they appreciate it when those norms are made clear at beginning of class.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Responding to the Angry Email: A Follow-Up

  1. I find the last point particularly interesting, since for the first time, I put on my syllabus how I would like to be addressed in email, including a greeting and a closing, along the lines of Hi [name] and Thank you. I explained that the small amount of time invested would ensure that I would read their email with great sympathy, simply because we all like to be addressed courteously. I don’t often get rude emails from students, since I teach in the Deep South, but I do occasionally get them from colleagues. I did have a student recently interrupt me in class to correct my pronunciation. I was rather astonished. After class, I looked it up and I had pronounced it correctly. I was irritated, and considered many ways to address it, but after the fact it seemed awkward. I will be prepared in future, but I have never had it happen before and doubt I will again.

    Anyway, I wonder if you have any posts dealing with rude emails from colleagues!

    • Thanks for the comment. That’s interesting and it seems we would be wise to to include some/more information in our syllabi about appropriate email use. I admit, I have never included that sort of information and part of the reason I haven’t is because I don’t really mind the one line, informal, no greeting, email (as long as it’s polite), especially from student who I have worked more closely with. That’s the tricky part. All of us need to figure out the nuance of when it’s ok to send a quick, one-liner, without a greeting, and when to send something more professional.

      I haven’t written anything on rude emails from colleagues. I wonder what would be different with regard to handling it.

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