Formality Peeve

27 11 2010

[Happy 200th post!]

Let me get this out of the way first: I like Chris Blattman. He’s a political science and economics professor at Yale, and I like his writings on economic development and public policy. Until recently, I wouldn’t have been able to name a post on his blog that I disliked. ‘Recently’ happened when Chris wrote “Students: How to email to your Professor, employer, and professional peers,” a post that left a sour taste in my mouth.

Some of the priggish rules that he would like you to follow:

  • Use proper greetings
  • Capitalize and punctuate
  • But not too many exclamation points
  • No emoticons
  • No fancy typefaces or stationery
  • Be demure if you ask something
  • No quotes from famous people in your signature

I won’t argue that those rules aren’t practically helpful (mostly as a signaling mechanism), but I would like to see them slowly fade away and die without anyone turning their head. Please – don’t promote them! Geez. (And what the hell, man? Be fancy and archaic, but don’t use fancy typefaces because then, you know, you’re trying too much? Come on.)

The academic stereotype is of an all-knowing, somewhat egotistical white man in an ivory tower, but the academics that people respect are the ones who spurn that image. They’re the ones that are funny and talk like everyone else. The ones that you would want to have a beer with. The ones that use emoticons. The shining stars in academia are those researchers who are pushing boundaries and discovering new knowledge. How is it that people on the cutting edge of their field have trouble leaving behind archaisms?

So people stuck in the past, get with the times. The times are informal and are focused on getting your point across, not on figuring out whether to put your period inside or outside of your quotation marks. Language and grammar change. Go with those changes. (Or do you still use “thine” as a second-person singular genitive?)

I find economics to be pretty straightforward and I certainly understand signaling. (In this case, following writing rules signals that you know the rules that well-educated people should know.) But in terms of communication, tell me for example why it’s important to capitalize the first letter of every sentence? (And don’t tell me that it makes it easier to identify the start of a new sentence. I doubt that non-capitalizers like my nineteen-year-old brother have trouble figuring out where sentences start and end.)

Separately, Chris’s commenter Nicole has a reasonable point as well. Professors are paid by their students (indirectly) to teach them, which includes their being helpful and responsive. If a student has a valid question, respond to it – even if the student has a quote from a famous person in his signature. Be approachable, not pedantic.

Okay, deep breath.

Chris, don’t hate me. You’re a smart guy and I love the random stuff you dig up online. Keep posting awesome things about the marathon and electoral rigging,  Post more cool maps and continue being a reasonable voice somewhere between Jeff Sachs (thumbs down) and Bill Easterly (thumbs up!). Chris Blattman, I like you. Now quit being so proper.

*I’m not advocating that people ignore Blattman’s rules in all contexts. For example, I’d rather not see an emoticon in a JAMA paper but I don’t mind seeing one in a text or email. When things change, follow. When they don’t, well… follow.

posted by jay

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10 responses

27 11 2010
rach g.

I have to say, I don’t fully agree with you.

I happen to write extremely informally with my boss since we work online, and emailing all day long is our equivalent of chatting in the hallway.

And writing to you, my brother-in-law, I feel fully comfortable starting a sentence with “and.”

However, when writing to a professor I don’t know, it’s a sign of respect to use the very basic rules Chris Blattman suggests. Certainly it’s important to do the same when applying for a job, not only as a sign of respect or of signaling, but because it emphasizes attention to detail in a time when too many people just don’t seem to care.

I can tell you right now that if somebody sent me a resume and cover letter for a job opening at my company, and didn’t bother to capitalize or include a greeting, and included emoticons, I might still have a look at the resume for the sake of thoroughness, but there’s almost no way I’m going to offer them an interview. I don’t consider that small-minded; if an applicant wants to send that sort of sloppy first impression of himself, then why waste my time with him?

btw, rules largely suspended in emails 2 friends, blog comments, etc :^)

27 11 2010
jayhorowitz

But isn’t everything you said just signaling? It doesn’t serve a practical purpose when it comes to communication.

“Emphasizing your attention do detail” = a signal
“Showing respect” = a signal
“Giving a good first impression” = a signal

Signaling is fine, but let’s refer to it by what it is. For the most part, I doubt that flouting Blattman’s rules would hamper communication.

Also, I made an exception for venues where the rules haven’t changed, like academic papers or books generally. My point is more that when conventions change we should go with them. (Maybe those conventions haven’t changed for initial contacts…)

Anyway, 🙂

[Quote from famous person]

28 11 2010
J.opps

even for more than just initial contacts. i’ve no problem not using capital letters or full sentences (clearly) when writing informally such as now or with friends, but i email my professors all the time and i would never do so without using perfect grammar, and that’s certainly more than just initial contact. if i’m looking for letters of recommendation for a program ever, let’s say, what impression am i giving to my professors if i can’t even take the time to write properly (pretty much according to blattman’s guidelines)? that i’m lazy/sloppy/uninformed about proper writing etiquette, that i don’t care enough to take one extra minute writing a little less informally? you may not care, but i’ll bet that to my professors it could come across as disrespectful. while i get very frustrated at times with ivory tower stuff at yale and while i agree that the best professors are the non-stuffy, personable ones, i also think there is a time and place for proper writing and that that does include emails to professors/bosses/the like. this may all fall under signaling, but who’s to say that blattman didn’t have that in mind?

2 12 2010
jayhorowitz

eh, you’re right. i’m starting to mentally narrow the types of correspondence where my ire would be appropriate 🙂

29 11 2010
Mark

“The academic stereotype is of an all-knowing, somewhat egotistical white man in an ivory tower, but the academics that people respect are the ones who spurn that image.”

White male academics are supposed to “spurn” the “image” of being a white male?

Take out the racist and sexist undertone of what you wrote to get at what you really meant: “The academic stereotype is of an all-knowing, somewhat egotistical person in an ivory tower, but the academics that people respect are the ones who spurn that image.”

That’s what you really meant, right? Or could you just not resist a little hatin’ on white men? A good way to get a little cheap applause, right?

Suggestion: we all know now that you’ve learned this cool concept called “signaling”. You can stop telling us about it now.

“The times are informal and are focused on getting your point across, not on figuring out whether to put your period inside or outside of your quotation marks.”

The reason for rules of grammar and punctuation is to enable getting ideas across precisely. But as you say, “the times are informal” – i.e., the times are full of trite, sloppy thinking and mental shortcuts that can be expressed with a few emoticons. This will not last. The same sloppy thinking that leads to people communicating in a professional business environment with emoticons and abbreviations leads to a nation that can’t balance a budget and thinks printing money is a solution. Times are going to get HARD. And in hard times, your “signaling” becomes critical – can you think clearly? Are you responsible? Do you care about your customer? These things are communicated with professional dress, correct grammar and punctuation, and observation of ettiquette and manners. The laid-back SWPL hipsters who don’t actually know how to write a business letter or show up for a job on time are going to get a serious education in reality.

30 11 2010
jayhorowitz

And hello to you too, Mark.

You seem like a reasonably intelligent guy. Do you really think I was saying that “white male academics are supposed to ‘spurn’ the ‘image’ of being a white male”? The stereotypical academic is a white dude. Is it racist and sexist to state that the stereotype of a firefighter is a white male? Come on. Check out my post here about conversation stopper words – particularly the ones you used: “racist” and “sexist”.

Regarding your suggestion that I stop telling you about “this cool concept called signaling”… no. Signaling is the point of the post and the word appears three times. Give me a break. And I don’t quite get you anyway. Your final paragraph seems to endorse a signaling paradigm.

Mark, take a deep breath and relax. (And while you’re at it, maybe consider that there isn’t a causal relationship between emoticons and the budget deficit.)

29 11 2010
Ted

I don’t know or care about academic snobbery in this area. However, I do know what I’m willing to read and what I’ll skip. J.opps’ comment above is an example of what I’ll skip. No capitalization, no paragraphs — not readable for me.

It doesn’t take any extra effort to add minimal structure to writing. If you do it all the time it comes without thought. It doesn’t have to be grammatically perfect.

I believe that most who champion the no-grammar approach never learned English well in the first place. Like an artist who throws paint at a canvas, calling it a higher form of free expression, but the truth is that they couldn’t draw a conventional landscape if their life depended on it.

Learn the rules before you break them. (End of MY rant.)

30 11 2010
jayhorowitz

I would have also glossed over j.opps’ comment if it hadn’t been in response to this post. I’ve been thinking about this issue recently and I’ve shifted a bit in my position. I’m not going to go into it in depth here, but I think that the situations in which rules should be relaxed aren’t as numerous as I first thought.

And generally speaking, you’re probably right about most people who champion the no-grammar approach. (Although to be fair, I think most grammar rebels still want something much closer to standard English than “no-grammar” implies.)

30 11 2010
Chloe

You know, I’m not sure what I think. I try to write grammatically correct emails most of the time, but to professors in particular because I respect them and want their respect in return. If I send emoticons and LOLs, I’m not going to get that.
On the other hand, I’ve had professors who act as if they are the only adults in the situation, handing out “permission” for things they have no rights over, and been confronted with me telling them (in as respectful a manner as possible, but I’ve always been a confrontational, questions authority kinda gal) that they should remember that we, too, are adults. I’m not sure my point gets across in any case, but yes, we do essentially pay them for their services, they should at least treat us with a tolerant respect even if we don’t meet their standards.

30 11 2010
jayhorowitz

A big +1 on your last point.

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