Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Email Easy Street

How our reliance on email changes face-to-face interaction.

From a very young age, I've pondered the mystery of "Office Hours." My father, an English professor, would mention the phrase in passing during dinner, and I'd wonder what these hours were and how heavy they were when one held them. Only later did I discover that this was the name for those conferences he had with students, the ones I sometimes had to sit through when absent from school myself, passing the time in his office by playing with purple mimeograph paper.

I have even clearer memories of office hours from my own college days. The first time was in a poetry class freshman year. Per class policy, I had submitted a paper draft to my professor ahead of time and brought with me a list of specific, written questions for the meeting. I recall being fairly nervous about the conversation–it seemed a big deal to be sitting across the desk from my professor in such an intimate, focused setting. And I didn't feel much better after the meeting: he told me that most of my paragraphs just presented the same idea over and over again using different words.

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In retrospect, he was right.

I know it's clichéd to reminisce about how things worked "back in the day." Still, I can't help but think how different professor/student interactions seem to be less than two decades later. The conversations I have with my students outside of class strike me as far less formal than the ones I remember. And much of this change I'd attribute to a specific situational development: the rise of email.

First, the majority of my interactions with students outside of class don't take place in person, but rather in cyberspace. As any faculty member can tell you, these email exchanges range from the appropriately courteous and tactful to the... well, let's just say, not so much. While I pride myself on trying to be accessible to students when it comes to answering questions and addressing concerns, there's just no way I'm writing back to the typo-ridden email addressed to "Hey, Prof" asking me to define four terms that could just be looked up in the book.

I've heard colleagues decry such emails as evidence that today's students just don't have the same sense of respect and propriety as their predecessors did. That kids today are just lazy. Perhaps, but I suspect that faculty have been saying this about students for generations, much like everyone's grandfather seems to have walked the same 5 uphill, snow-covered miles to school each morning.

No, I think we just live in a much different world than we did 20, even 10 years ago. Email makes all of us so much more accessible to each other. It's this very ability to remove boundaries that lies at the core of our love/hate relationship with email, and faculty/student relations are but one of the many social interactions that have changed irrevocably as a result.

After all, it takes just 30 seconds to hammer out that email and send it. Questions, comments, or ideas that we might edit or censor before uttering them in a real conversation find themselves typed out and launched into cyberspace before we have the time for second thoughts. The ease and speed of email communications mark a substantial change from the deliberative, preparation-heavy context in which I interacted with my professors just a few short years ago.

And I think that the ubiquitous nature of email affects my face-to-face conversations with students too. Seeing my full name pop up in their inbox in response to one of their email messages, many of my students appear to feel liberated to drop the formality of "Professor Sommers" in person as well. Knowing that they can send me an email at any time of day, they seem to feel similarly unburdened by the concept of office hours, thinking nothing of stopping by unannounced and knocking on a closed door in a way I never would've dreamed of when I was in college. And I'm pretty sure that last week's offer from a student to help him transfer to an American bank the fortune of his uncle, the Nigerian prince, wasn't on the up and up either.

A few months ago, I blogged about the power of feeling anonymous. As one of the reader comments noted, email affords similar feelings of anonymity, even when the recipient of your message knows full well who you are. We live in an era when many people prefer to have some of their tensest and least comfortable conversations on-line. Distance makes those interactions easier, or at least less difficult. Compared to face-to-face confrontation, email is easy street.

Mind you, I'm no more encouraging people to turn to Facebook to end romantic relationships than I am urging my students to keep those poorly-thought-out 3:00 a.m. emails coming. But I understand the psychological motivation underlying the tendency to turn first towards electronic modes of interaction. And I can see how the norms and expectations that go along with email communication can cause problems when we let them bleed into our face-to-face interactions as well.

Moreover, if I force myself to move beyond the role of preternatural curmudgeon that can come quite easily to those of us who teach for a living, I also recognize some of the values of this new frontier of faculty/student interactions. It's great to stay connected to former students who send me emails semesters or even years later, providing a link to a NY Times article they just read that reminded them of the class they took with me. I'm glad that some of the barriers I perceived between me and my professors are just a little bit lower these days–many new intellectual and mentoring relationships are doubtless being formed on campuses everywhere precisely because these forms of contact are more accessible than ever before.

At the end of the day, faculty–just like our students–need to do a better job recognizing the power that the email universe has on how we relate to one another. We could all articulate to our classes more clearly our expectations concerning electronic and in-person communication. We should explicitly manage students' expectations regarding response times. And we might all stop to ponder that in the social context in which we now live, "office hours" will never again mean the same thing that it used to back in the day.

Is that a bad thing or a good thing? Probably a little bit of both.

 

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Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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