Email 101: Four Personae to Banish Now

“The best time to call is…EMAIL.”  -Unknown

In my role as an instructor and program coordinator at a medium-sized university, I receive hundreds–yes, hundreds–of emails every week. Most of these emails were sent by students hoping to benefit from my assistance. However, much to my dismay, many  seem blissfully unaware of the ways in which the style, word choice, and content of their emails actually decrease their chances of getting the assistance they need.

Sadly enough, I have heard faculty and staff (from various institutions) openly, even proudly, admit to ignoring poorly written emails from students. And while I in no way condone such unprofessional behavior, I would be remiss if I did not point out what many faculty and staff, as well as employers, interviewers, principals, and countless others, are saying behind closed doors: The written communication of young people must be improved, if they ever hope to achieve personal or professional success! 

Alas, “those who know better do better,” and it is my sincere hope that “knowing better” will ultimately lead to “doing better.” To this end, I address, in no particular order, four email personae non gratae (i.e. unacceptable or welcome persons): I explain how each  persona is perceived, offer examples* from representative emails, and explain how to “banish” each persona once and for all. But please be advised that this post contains a hearty helping of straight talk, a side of tough love, and a dash of sarcasm; in short, this post not intended for sensitive souls or for the ignorance-is-bliss crowd.

The Four Personae

The Entitled Persona

Perception: The following emails give the recipient the impression that the writer is special and, therefore, deserving of special treatment. For example, he or she should not be subjected to the same rules and policies as everyone else; exceptions should be made due to his or her “special” status.


  • I passed two of the three parts of my comprehensive exam. I know we are supposed to pass all three before moving on to the internship course, but I’m going to ask the Dean to make an an exception. The internship class is all I have left, and I don’t see any reason why I should have to take a semester off. It’s a waste of my time!
  • I have not been able to come to class for the last two weeks because I had to work. Pretty soon, the semester will be hectic and I won’t have any time for work. I’m trying to get all my work hours done while I still can.
  • I am supposed to fly to Tahiti for a family vacation on the same day as the final exam. My dad has already bought a plane ticket for me and he will be really disappointed if I back out now. I would really like to take the final exam early.

Solution: Banishing this persona requires an attitude adjustment, which can be achieved by repeating the following mantra again and again: “I am no more special than anyone else. The rules and policies that apply to everyone else also apply to me, and exceptions will only be made in the event of a catastrophic event, such as a flood, an incapacitating illness, or the passing of a close relative.”

The Lazy/Helpless Persona

Perception: Emails such as these appear to suggest that the recipient should be required to do basic tasks for the writer–essentially, things the writer could do very easily without the help of an overworked university employee. Such emails could also give the recipient the impression that the writer is inattentive, unmotivated, or lazy–the sort of reputation that should be avoided like the Bubonic Plague, especially in academic and professional settings.


  • What is the date of the final exam for PSYC 402?
  • What is our reading assignment for tomorrow’s class?
  • Where would I find the national standards for Social Studies?

Solution: You can banish this persona from your emails with a simple rule, Three Before Thee. All that it requires is checking three appropriate resources before requesting help from another person. For example, to address the first question, we could check: (1) the PSYC 402 syllabus, (2) the PSYC 402 schedule/calendar, and (3) the university’s academic  calendar or exam schedule. Why bother another person over something this simple!

The Emotionally-Unstable Persona

Perception: These emails will undoubtedly cast the writer as an emotionally-unstable mess–a walking disaster–and leave the recipient wondering whether calling mental health services or campus police seems like the best course of action. (And yes, I have witnessed both of these things happen on a university campus in a single day.)

However, if you are truly in crisis, an email rant will not do much in the way of solving your problem. Instead, please schedule an appointment with a mental health provider or call 911 for emergency assistance, so you can receive help from a qualified professional.


  • I know I have not been doing my best work, but I have been going through a lot. My parents got a divorce and it was chaotic because me and my mom had to pack up and move. Right after we moved, my dog got hit by a car and died and then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I got the flu. I was sick for two weeks. I really wanted to write my paper but I just couldn’t muster up the energy. I promise I am a good student. I have always gotten A’s.
  • I know my research paper and other big assignments are all overdue. I am really stressed out right now. I have so much work to do and nobody has explained how to submit stuff on Blackboard. I feel like I am losing my mind and sometimes I feel like giving up. It’s all because the professors in the Astrology Department don’t explain how to do things, so I don’t even know how to use Blackboard. Please help!

Solution: To banish this emotionally-unstable persona from your emails, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to achieve by sending this email?” Then, write a concise email (i.e. as brief as possible), leaving out all the unnecessary drama. For example, the first student could explain that he or she has fallen behind due to unforeseen personal issues, and ask whether or not the professor will accept late work accompanied by documentation such as a doctor’s note, a letter from the vet, etc. The second student could tell the professor that he or she has had no experience with Blackboard and ask where he or she might find instructions for doing basic tasks, such as uploading and submitting assignments.

The Too-Familiar Persona

Perception: Emails in this category are, quite simply, unprofessional. They include words and phrases that, while appropriate for Snapchatting with friends, are inappropriate for communicating with employees in an academic or professional setting. Because emails such as these are so informal (i.e. familiar), they are often perceived as disrespectful by the recipient. And it probably goes without saying that treating people disrespectfully–even accidentally–does not lead to increases in karma.


  • Hey r u in ur office?
  • Who do I see about changing my major to Film Studies?
  • Hey Miss Tracey! I need an appointment for 2:00 on Thurs. Thx!

Solution: I may be stating the obvious, but what the heck; this unprofessional persona must be banished at once. Doing so requires the writer to take several important steps:

  1. Begin with an appropriate greeting (e.g., Dear Dr. Kumar,)
  2. Write words and phrases in full, avoiding all slang and “texting language.”
  3. To make it easy for the recipient to assist you, offer important details such as the days and time frames (e.g., 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.) you are available to meet.
  4. Express gratitude for their assistance (e.g., Thanks in advance for your help!)

Mastering written communication, including email communication, requires work. However, given the prevalence of written communication and the role of written communication in building relationships and ensuring your academic and professional success, it is certainly worth the hassle. As a first step, work on banishing these four personae non gratae from your email communications. And when you’re ready for the next step, move on to Email 102: What (Not) to Write.

*The examples provided in this post are recreations of emails received over the years, and in no way constitute a violation of policies pertaining to privacy or confidentiality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s