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I am a professor in a popular STEM field with a reasonably prominent list of publications, enough that if you Google AREA or method XXX you may encounter my name. About once a week I receive emails like this (copied textually).

Hi MYFIRSTNAME

I realized that you have experience in THIS AREA, and I have a question, I'll be grateful if you answer. I have used the XXX method to determine the number of YYY, considering that I have no training data, What criterion or method can be used for verifying the accuracy?

best regards

SOME BODY

I do not mind giving advice to unknown persons who ask for it. In fact, one reason I am a professor is that I like to teach others. But if I write another person, I do not call them by their first name, I introduce myself and explain what problem I am trying to solve, and only after I ask politely if they can help point me to the information I need.

I would like to tell people who send me these emails that

  1. I would like them to introduce themselves
  2. They are not welcome to call me by my first name, I would prefer them to write Dr. LASTNAME, or something similar,
  3. I would like them to acknowledge that I may be busy and under no obligation to teach them
  4. That answering the question will take some time and in general, since this question is important to them, it doesn't look good that they took less than 1 minute to ask it.
  5. In addition, some questions aren't even clear enough; I would have to write back to ask what they really want.

Details: I am in the US, but I grew up in Europe, and I am a woman. I suspect that the letter writers (who are either male, or gender unknown) would be more respectful if I was a man.

Things I thought of doing:

  • not replying
  • replying in 1 line e.g "try this.." or "I don't know". This encourages the behavior I want discouraged, so I practically never do it.
  • putting up something on my web page asking people to be mindful of my numbered points above. This would make me look stuffy to everyone know does know me, and may be easily missed by those it is aimed at.
  • replying with a message explaining that I would like to be asked nicely. I have not tried this because I do not know how to start writing such a message.

What I would like to ideally happen is to receive requests for help that are considerate and reflect the writer's effort to make my work of responding easier, as explained.

I do not know if my cultural expectations are in line with those of the letter writers. I hope to get help on how to act in response, including how to phrase a possible response email.

Please keep in mind that I DON'T have the time to get into prolonged email exchanges with random people on questions of etiquette. I don't want to make them feel bad either, I would like to help or not help with their issue and move on.

  • Hey, I'm not sure I understand your question. Can you clarify what action you want to take? Also, keep in mind that we can't answer "what should I do" type of question. Also, "I am also curious if you think I should not be bothered by (2)" is primarily opinion-based and can't be answered here. – Ælis Apr 27 at 20:06
  • @Ælis I rephrased the question you commented on: Is it appropriate for the letter writier in the situation as described to address me by my first name? Is this the correct way to pose this question? – yo9cyb Apr 28 at 1:18
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    possibly relevant on the gender issue: twitter.com/Jamaicanhist/status/1122139212466155520 – Kate Gregory Apr 28 at 15:58
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    @KateGregory Yes, right on! I once had an email from an undergraduate student, who worked with a male junior collaborator of mine, where the student was addressing me by my first name, while referring to his advisor, cc-ed, as Professor X. From everything he wrote, he came across as "entitled". This student's case is however not typical; the typical case is the one cited in my question. – yo9cyb Apr 28 at 16:42
  • You might find some helpful posts searching on Academia too - for instance this question has some suggestions for dealing emails like that. – Em C Apr 28 at 18:05
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Your time is your own and you are allowed to put whatever limits on it you want. I recommend you add a section to your web site that sets out the terms on which you will help strangers. If you're worried it sounds stuffy, edit it to focus on "to enable me to help you the most effectively" sort of thing. And if you feel stuffy asking not to be addressed as Firstname, pick a position: either you are ok being addressed like that, or you are not and that's that. Own it.

When you get an email that doesn't follow your rules, simply reply with a link to that page and think no more about it. (If you are feeling super generous you might include one clarifying question that they should be sure to answer in their second try.) When you get one that does, you can answer it.

Or, you can just delete these emails without replying at all. Or with a simple "My schedule will not permit me to help any more external people this month/semester/year." My approach is to answer in one sentence if I can; for anything longer I either decline, or write a blog post and reply with a link to it. This approach interprets these questions as being of value to me: people want to know X, neat, that gives me something to blog about.

The key is to know your own mind on this. You don't owe strangers detailed answers. (And they cannot really be taught that they owe you polite address, well thought out questions etc.) You also don't owe your friends an artificial persona that doesn't reflect your true personality.

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    I like the blog entry idea. Thanks! – yo9cyb Apr 28 at 15:45
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    Scott Hanselman points out that everybody has a limited number of keystrokes left. He has also said in the past that instead of answering emails he tries to create blog posts answering the question so he can get the most value from his remaining keystrokes. – Trebor Apr 29 at 8:12
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You already suggested a number of good ways to combat this issue yourself.

Personally, I would discount your idea of "replying with a message explaining that I would like to be asked nicely". I believe that this could harm your reputation, which you said is good and that you are well-known in your field. A request to be addressed formally can be misconstrued as arrogant.

Further, I would try to put out of your mind the notion that this happens because you are a woman and that you would get better treatment if you were a man. Firstly, I think the fact that you are a woman at the top of your field pretty much proves that you have had equal opportunity, and the ignorance of others does not change that. Secondly, I am a professional man who regularly receives ignorant and monosyllabic demands from women who can't even get my name right, so I am certain that this behaviour is present in both genders.

Rather than assert a desire for respect which may inadvertently sound arrogant, I believe you would achieve your goal by forcing such enquiries down a more official process which conveys how valuable your time is. This sends the message that only enquiries which are correctly addressed will be answered. Take this SE site for example - there are rules and a degree of quality control to ensure that questions asked here are not ones which could be easily answered by a cursory Google search, which fit the scope of the site, and which can reasonably be answered. You need a process like this.

I think your best idea is to divert people to your website where they can find your terms and conditions for making contact. If you are happy to receive these requests via your email then you could continue to answer those which are properly constructed. For those that are not, you could perhaps send a standard reply such as:

Please see my website for information on how to make an enquiry: [web address]

Then, on your website, lay out the conditions for accepting a question. Perhaps something like:

I am normally happy to give advice on matters concerning my field, but please note that as my time is limited I will only reply to enquiries which are clear, respectfully addressed and which clearly identify who you are.

Please also note that a response to your question may take some time as I am frequently busy and that any response I send is as a courtesy and without obligation.

One technical solution would be to have a "web form" with mandatory fields so that nobody can omit any of the information you require - their name for example. However, you would find then that the enquiries you receive will only contain the information you want out of obligation, and not necessarily be "respectfully" addressed.

It should be quite clear to anyone who has been diverted to your website that their original enquiry did not meet the criteria. However, having read that you are not under any obligation to reply, persistent "offenders" should not be surprised if you then do not reply at all.

An alternative method that bypasses the need to update your website would be to add an auto-reply to your email that contains pretty much the same text as I suggest above. Auto-replies (like out-of-office replies) can be configured to send only once to each recipient, so your regular corresponders such as friends and colleagues would not receive it, only new email addresses that contact you. It could say:

Thank you for your enquiry. I will respond shortly.

If this is a new enquiry, please note that I happy to give advice on matters concerning my field, but as my time is limited I will only reply to enquiries which are clear, respectfully addressed and which clearly identify who you are. If your enquiry does not meet these criteria you will not receive a response.

Please also note that a response to your question may take some time as I am frequently busy and that any response I send is as a courtesy and without obligation.

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    I was going to suggest the auto-reply solution myself. For me, this gets around the potential perceived rudeness of a terse reply, as the sender can see it's automated and therefore not aimed specifically at them. With that in mind though, I would probably emphasize in the template that the reply is automated just to be sure. – Will Appleby Apr 29 at 14:43
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    Thanks! I like the idea of defining a procedure. But what I think I should do is reply with a link to the procedure. This is because these emails and requests are only a small fraction of the emails I get (much less than 1%). I would not like to spam everyone else with autoreplies. About making it visible on my web page, this may be understood as an invitation to send me questions (especially if I provide a form). So, I think I will write an explicit procedure, and put it on the web in a place that's not easy to find without my sending the link. – yo9cyb Apr 30 at 1:31
  • @yo9cyb I get what you mean about spam, and you'd have to sort the tech side of it out - but out-of-office replies are only sent to a recipient ONCE (how many times does someone need to be told you're on vacation?!), so like I said, your regular correspondents wouldn't have to be spammed every time they mail you. You might also be able to exclude people in your address book, depending on your mail service. But if the website works better, I'm happy. – Astralbee Apr 30 at 10:01

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