Thank You: The most underused words in academia?

About the importance of courtesy in email communications

Sorry to start out with one of my favourite bugbears, but that’s what blogs are for aren’t they? It is my firm belief that academia would be a much better place if we all said “thank you” to others a bit more frequently, especially when responding to emails. Of course we don’t necessarily want to go the British route, where rarely a sentence passes without either sorry or thank you. I must say though I have grown to quite like this. It is one of the many small things that still make me happy about my recent move to the UK.

Imagine meeting a senior colleague

But seriously, why do most of us completely forget our manners in email communications? Imagine you have a meeting with a senior colleague who – out of her good heart – is providing you with some feedback on a paper you have just written. As a senior academic she is extremely busy, but as she is a firm believer in mentoring junior academics, she has spent considerable time on your paper. At the end of the conversation, what do you do?

  1. Thank her profusely and offer to help her out if there is ever something you can do for her?
  2. Stand up and leave her office without saying a word?

Surely the answer is obvious? Nobody in their right mind would contemplate option b, would they?

Are we forgetting our manners in email communication?

So why do 7 out of the 10 academics I help with feedback by email chose option b? Admittedly, my feedback might not have been as extensive as that of your imaginary senior colleague, but I still spent time on your paper or request. Is it because you don’t know me personally? I would argue there is even more reason to thank me. I don’t know you either and I still took time out of my busy day to help you. Sometimes I cannot help wondering: would they react differently if my website picture had shown a guy in a suit?

I sometimes get stroppy and forward my response after a week or two asking whether they have received it. Oftentimes this results in “sorry, yes I got it but I was busy” (so you mean I am not?) or “sorry I didn’t want to clutter your mailbox” (since when is a brief thank-you message email clutter?). Remember that if you do not respond, I do not even know whether my email has actually reached you. Experience shows that emails do occasionally end up in spam filters or are accidentally deleted.

Please put yourself in your counterpart’s shoes: you are not the centre of the universe! If someone has spent time to help you, it is only courteous to thank him or her. This is true even if you thought their feedback wasn’t particularly useful; they still spent time trying to help you. In many cases you will realise later that their feedback was useful after all :-).

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