From the Community | You are… how you respond to emails

Jan. 8, 2023, 7:06 p.m.

In my nine years teaching at Stanford, I’ve been surprised often not to hear back from people I emailed at all levels, from the President to deans to professors to administrators to administrative assistants. Students and colleagues have told me their requests have also often gone unanswered. 

I’ve heard that this is common in academia. Universities should urge faculty and administrators to respond to all emails from others at their school. 

At Stanford Business School, where I teach practical writing, I warn:

  • If you don’t answer emails you’ll be perceived as aloof, arrogant and/or overwhelmed.
  • If you do answer emails you’ll be perceived as warm, humble and on top of your game. 

Why the big deal? From more than a decade in top management at a large company, and from talking with countless executives about their own businesses, I can tell you that email habits say a lot about the culture of an organization. Are people collaborative? For Stanford, this is particularly important now, because the Doerr School of Sustainability is new (and so very important), and needs support from other schools here.

What troubles me even more: Replying is so much easier than it was in the days of pen and paper. “Smart reply,” using artificial-intelligence software to suggest answers, makes it simpler. And for more complicated answers, so do chatbots like ChatGPT, which millions have already tried. 

Look, I’m not an academic; I’ve worked for almost half a century in the private sector since graduating from Stanford in 1975. I was told when I began teaching at age 61 that academia would be very different from business, that interpersonal and teaching skills are less important than research and publication. It IS very different here. But most disappointing is the way many people deal with email.

Yes, some at Stanford are admirably responsive. Howard Wolf — who as Alumni Director must deal with more than 235,000 living Stanford alumni, many of them as cranky as me — is one of them. 

And my Stanford Business School colleagues who have worked in business all say they always respond to Stanford emails.

But too many are just the opposite. 

I try to help my students. Recently, I sent a short email to three people at the new Doerr School asking for a contact to spread the word about the students’ newsletter on career opportunities in climate tech.  

No response. I sent a similar email to people at the Engineering School. No response. That administrators at these schools didn’t reply to such a simple request – one that could benefit their students – gives me pause. I wonder: Are they aloof, arrogant and/or overwhelmed? Even if they’re not, they might appear to be. What kind of example does this set for students? 

This is by no means the first time I’ve emailed a suggestion to a Stanford dean, faculty member or other administrator without response. 

Even a two-second reply that said “Not interested” would be more polite than radio silence – what my students call “ghosting.” Better yet would be what we in publishing call a “nice no” – “Thanks, but no thanks.” Better still would be an attempt to engage. My former boss at The New York Times, Dean Baquet, tries never to say no. Instead, he says, “Yes, but how about….” 

Jeff Bezos at Amazon is famous for forwarding emails like mine to the appropriate employee with just a “?.” He said in an interview: “I still have an email address customers can write to. I see most of those emails. I see them and I forward them to the executives in charge of the area with a question mark. It’s shorthand [for], ‘Can you look into this?’ ’’

Eric Schmidt, who ran Google and has taught at my business school, has said: “There are people who can be relied upon to respond promptly to emails, and those who can’t. Strive to be one of the former. Most of the best—and busiest—people we know act quickly on their emails, not just for a select few senders, but to everyone.” 

Why can’t people at universities do that?  

Some have argued against responding to so many emails, to preserve your mental health. “In these exhausting times, when so many are overburdened with family responsibilities, stress, grief and anxiety, perhaps we should let go of the outdated, demanding requirement to participate in ceaseless back-and-forth conversations,” wrote Erica Dhawan in The Times.

I get it; we’re busy, and responding to lots of emails is hard. But if an email from someone with a connection to your school is written to you in particular — as opposed to just impersonally blasted to a bunch of people — it should be answered. As part of your job. Or, if you’re an alum, as an obligation to the school that brung ya.

Sometimes we mean to reply but forget to. That’s why it’s always worth trying again – “bumping this up” or “just assuring you saw this.” But if after three emails, still no reply, we have a problem.   

I fear that in some cases, people don’t respond because the email isn’t written well. It should start fast — “bottom line up front,” as my students from the military say. It should be short. And polite. It should use conversational language and avoid jargon. It should try to make a warm personal connection. It should drop a name you know, or have someone you know make an introduction. It should sound confident but not arrogant. Humor helps. And the “ask” should be small and simple.  

How to assure compliance to a “please respond” recommendation? When I was in management, we made people’s pay contingent on compliance with our rules. Didn’t write those performance reviews? Your bonus would be cut. Didn’t search far and wide enough for the best candidate? Ditto. Seen as uncollaborative? Lose out on a promotion. I knew that if I didn’t respond to emails, I’d soon be selling apples on the street out front. And I don’t mean computers.

I’m told it doesn’t work this way in academia. It should. We should be judged by how collaborative we are, not just on what we publish.

Glenn Kramon teaches “Winning Writing” at Stanford Business School; the MBA students awarded him their Distinguished Teaching Award in 2020.

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