To email a stranger

Advancing technology has altered our perceptions of generic conventions in interesting ways. What exactly is the difference between a text message and an email? Do we expect them to have different kinds of writing in them? To address different people in our lives? Do we accept different responses as "timely"? As the semester opened at UIC, I found myself receiving emails from students along these lines:

"I am taking another engl class this fall and im an english major i already took a different english class before."

That's it. That's the whole email. To provide a little background, I had sent out a lengthy email explaining the relevant prerequisites for my class and asked for students to check with me, so I had some context for this email. However, I was stunned by the lack of acceptable formatting like a greeting and a closing, capitalization, punctuation, and general respect. On the first day of class, I found myself going over not only the syllabus, but how one should write an email to a stranger who may have some small amount of power over your future, like a teacher who determines your grades or an employer who pays you a salary. Unless a precedent has been set by the authority participating in the conversation, I think an email should follow convention. Here are the general instructions I gave my students.

A greeting acknowledges the recipient. It can be formal, as in "Dear Mr. Smith:" or informal, as in "Hi--" depending on the circumstances. It is also correct to use a comma after the greeting. The variation of comma or colon in letter writing related to the formatting of the paragraphs. If the paragraphs are tabbed (indented), then a comma is used after the greeting. If the paragraphs are justified to the margin and separated by spaces, then the colon is used. In emails, I think the difference more often relates to the nature of the relationship between writer and recipient. If they are strangers, then a colon (the more formal) is used, if friends or family, the comma. A hyphen is an even more informal substitute, typically used with a greeting when a conversation is already established. In this case, I would have accepted any greeting as long as there was some acknowledgement.

A closing indicates that the writing is complete and provides the recipient with a name, rather than just a potentially obscure email address. Closings also vary from "Sincerely" to "Love" followed by a comma and the writer's name a few spaces below. In practice, I think "Thank you" or "Thanks" are more often used when a request is made or a favor is asked. In the case of my prospective student something along the lines of "I look forward to our class Monday" would have been fine.

As for punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure and the rest, I think it makes the most sense to demonstrate to a stranger your language skills by composing as clearly and precisely as you can, regardless of whether you are using the tiny buttons on your Blackberry or the drifting icons of your ipad. I think that need is especially pressing when you are addressing your future English instructor.

Ultimately, I think that emails are a useful and effective means of communication, but the conventions of interacting through writing with another person hold, particularly if that person is unknown or is going to be grading you or paying you. Showing that you understand the conventions and that you are using your best writing indicates respect for the recipient of your email and shows that you are capable of correct and effective communication.