Email and respect for colleagues, students, teachers, and other human animals

I’m the last person you’d describe as a Kantian, but I still think that respect is a nice thing to at least pretend to have, if only for the sake of social lubrication, good manners, and not being perceived as an enormous turd.  With that in mind, I ask the following question: under what conditions is it disrespectful for me to ignore an email that someone has sent directly to me, and only to me — an email that clearly expects a response?

To get started, it’s helpful to divide up the people who most often write to me.  I’ll use the categories of colleagues, students, teachers, friends. family, and strangers.  I realize that these categories don’t partition the logical space (someone can be your friend and also your colleague, for instance), but they do a decent job and correspond to folk categories.

Friends: This is the easiest one.  If I routinely ignore emails from my friends, then they’re not my friends.  Of course, it’s fine to ignore “look at this lolcat” and “I’m rickrolling you” emails.  That’s not what I have in mind.  If my friend sends me an email that asks a question, and my friend clearly expects a response, however, then by tossing her message down the memory hole I’m in effect saying, “I don’t care about you.”  Since one of the essential elements of friendship is caring about the other person, too many such episodes destroy friendship.  In his most recent book, Emotions in the Moral Life, Robert Roberts argues that friendships and other personal attachments are in part constituted by episodes of interactive emotion.  For instance, I generously give you my tickets to a concert (Roberts’s example); you feel gratitude for my gift; I feel gratified by your gratitude; you feel gratified by my feeling gratified by your gratitude for my generous sentiment.  A fourth-order emotion that we can make sense of!  Respect, I think, can be construed as another emotion that contributes to such ping-ponging interactions.  If I show you respect rather than contempt by responding to your email, you might feel the emotion of pride or satisfaction (not gratitude since, as your friend, I’m not doing you a favor by responding).  I might then feel pride in response to your response.  And so on.  This is how friendships are made and sustained, and its lack is how they are unmade.

Family: They say your friends are the family you choose, so I guess that means your family is the family you don’t choose.  Like so many terms, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, and other family terms are “thick” in Bernard Williams’s sense.  They are often — perhaps typically — used to convey not just descriptive and explanatory information, but normative content.  In my work on obituaries in local newspapers, I was surprised to see that terms describing these thick attachments far outweighed outright virtue terms.  People sometimes say that their beloved dead were courageous and witty, but more frequently they say that they were parents, spouses, siblings, and grandparents.  I’m not denying that terms such as ‘parent’ can be used to refer solely to biological or legal relations; the point is that we often use them in a thicker way.  You can get a sense of the normative content of these terms by thinking about statements like, “His father is not fatherly,” “My mother is not motherly,” “Her brother is not brotherly,” and “His sister is not sisterly.”  These sentences don’t express contradictions even though they have an air of paradox to them because the predicate ‘Xly’ expresses only the normative property.  Being fatherly is what a good father does.

With all that said, it seems to me that responding to family is just like responding to friends.  If I ignore a family member’s email, I’m undermining the normative strand of our familial relation.  That’s not yet to say that I’m wrong to do so.  Maybe I want to distance myself from some family members, just as I would distance myself from a friend who turned out to be devoted to vice.  But it’s something I should take seriously when deciding whether to respond.

Strangers: This is an interesting case.  Sometimes, I stranger will write to me out of the blue, saying something like, “Dear Mark (if I may), ….”  Often, such strangers turn out not to be total strangers, but rather colleagues at one or two removes.  In such cases, they belong to a different category, which I discuss below.  Sometimes, though, they are total strangers.  In these cases, it seems to me that ignoring their messages is not a sign of disrespect — at least not necessarily.  Life is short.  Typing is slow.  It’s a kindness to respond to a complete stranger, but failure to respond needn’t manifest contempt.

Students: In this case, I’m going to describe only responses by faculty to undergraduates.  Graduate students are colleagues-in-training, so I consider responses to them to be covered in the colleague category below.  The student-teacher relationship is, like the familial relationship, thick: when we describe someone as a teacher, we often mean to convey some evaluative content in addition to specifying a job description.  You could describe someone in an obituary as a teacher, and not have to specify that she was a good teacher.  The same test that I described above for familial relations also works here: some teachers are not teacherly, meaning that they have the job but they don’t live up to the normative standards associated with it.  If that’s right, then emotional interactions involving, among other things, respect should characterize a well-functioning student-teacher relationship.

Now suppose my undergraduate student asks me a question by email.  In the past, I’ve had at most 100 students at a time.  This term, however, I have over 300.  If each of them sends me one email a week, and I respond to all of them, with responses costing me on average 5 minutes, that’s ~1500 minutes or 25 hours.  I’m only supposed to work 40 hours a week (ha ha!) at my job, and my tenure and promotion case is based largely — if not entirely — on my research.  Oh, and I also have to teach the students and prepare for class and hold office hours.  Clearly, then, I need some kind of triage.  This week alone, I’ve received over a dozen emails from students who missed the first lecture. Here’s a direct quote:

I was just wondering if there was any important information that I miss?

My initial reaction to these messages is to send them a link to this terrific poem by Tom Wayman.  Fave frame:

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

I don’t send the poem, though.  Instead, I either write back that, yes, in fact, there was important information that you miss [sic.], or completely ignore the email.  It’s hard to know which of these is more appropriate.  In either case, though, I’ve taken a lesson from Macalester Bell’s terrific book, Hard Feelings, which offers a limited defense of the appropriateness of contempt.

In particular, Bell argues that mild disdain is sometimes a fitting response to unjustified contempt or disrespect.  Of course, in most cases, my undergraduates don’t realize that they’re being disrespectful by asking questions like this.  They’re naifs, not villains.  But they need to become gentlemen (and gentlewomen), and as Oscar Wilde so aptly quipped, “A gentleman is someone who is never unintentionally rude.”  A bucket of cold water to the face might shock them out their naive disrespect.

Can a general principle about responding to email be extracted from this point?  I think it can, though like all principles it will admit of exceptions.  Here’s a shot: it’s OK to respond to disrespectful emails with mild disrespect, but only if doing so is aimed at showing the offender what’s wrong with their behavior and/or attitude; such mild disrespect can be manifested by ignoring the emails, or explicitly in a response.  This is not to say that it’s mandatory to respond with mild disdain.  As Roberts points out in his review of Bell’s book, sometimes it can be more effective to respond with humorous amusement.  And it’s likely better for one’s mental health — let alone one’s digestion — not to feel too much contempt. (Though that’s what Parfit would call a state-given rather than an object-given reason.)

Colleagues: The collegial relation, like all of the others described above, is thick.  If I tell you that N. N. is my colleague, you will presumably take that to mean that N. N. is a good (enough) colleague.  I’d have to explicitly throw in ‘bad’ to indicate that, though N. N. is in my department (or school or whatever), N. N. is not collegial.  Let’s see whether the general principle formulated above applies here: it’s OK to respond to disrespectful emails from your colleagues with mild disrespect, with the aim of improving their behavior and/or attitude; this can be manifested by ignoring their messages, or explicitly in a response.  That rings true to my ear.  Here’s the hard question though: is this principle a conditional, or a biconditional (bearing in mind that it may admit of exceptions in both directions)?  In other words, let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’ve established that I may ignore a colleague’s email if that email expresses disrespect.  Is it also the case that I may ignore a colleague’s email only if that email expresses disrespect?  I want to say yes, but I’ll actually make a weaker claim: I may ignore a colleague’s email only if that email expresses disrespect or I have some other good reason to ignore it.  For instance, if I’m working towards an important, hard deadline.  Or if I already have independent reason to be ignoring this colleague.  Or if my colleague routinely ignores my emails.

I’m curious what my students, colleagues, friends, and family think of this….

3 thoughts on “Email and respect for colleagues, students, teachers, and other human animals

  1. Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed it and it prompted me to reply to someone I was putting off answering.

    Also, does this count as an email? Are you obligated to respond now?

  2. I too responded to several friends after reading the first paragraph! Also, for your dumber students, why just prepare a canned response? Gmail is good with that.

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