To Whom it May Concern
Some of you may find what I’m about to write utterly mind-boggling, perhaps even to the point of finding yourself unable to accept this seemingly impossible truth. Nonetheless, I give you my word as a curmudgeon (a pledge I take somberly) that what follows is true. What’s more, people around my age (honestly, is anyone that old?) may still carry enough of a dim remembrance to corroborate my report of this strange bit of ancient history: It was at one time considered a necessary part of basic education to teach children how to write proper business letters. There was a standardized format, and anyone hoping to correspond with professionals in any field needed to master it. We learned this skill in grade school—not in specialized or elite grade schools, mind you, in all grade schools. The format included a date, a name and address for both writer and recipient, and a formal greeting. I’m sure it all sounds terribly stiff now, but it was one of the things, along with polished shoes, clean fingernails, and a firm handshake, that let people know you were a person who'd mastered at least the most basic requirements for presenting yourself to others—standards, incidentally, which were not limited to those who had wealth, status, or education.
Recently, I had occasion to consider a large number of applicants for a limited number of open spots in some classes I teach. Each candidate contacted me via email, which (as I’m sure you’ve already guessed) presented me with a glaring suggestion for this week’s invective. The faux pas were legion. I offer herewith corrections of those that were most common.
Have we met?
There’s a recent trend in emailing to skip the preliminaries and go right to statements that ought to be about four sentences in, like “This sounds great,” or “I’m looking for something part time,” or "I'll be back in town next Tuesday." While this is all fascinating information, as the recipient, I’d first like very much to be acknowledged. How about a simple greeting before we talk about you and your needs? If nothing else, it shows that you know to whom you are writing.
Don’t be pushy.
Several of the responses I got began with demands for information: “When does this start?” “How many openings do you have?” Again, this came without a greeting, an introduction, or even an explanation of what the person was writing about, let alone a graceful introductory phrase such as “I wanted to enquire,” or “I was wondering.” Such brusqueness, particularly as the sole content of an email, is presumptuous in the extreme. And if I’m the person on the receiving end, it results in the instant dismissal of the candidate.
Check your reading comprehension.
When sorting through a sizable number of applications, there are few things as annoying as multiple requests for information that was already provided within the very invitation to which the applicant is responding. (I had someone ask me “What time does the Sunday 12 noon class start?” "For the sake of convenience," I responded, "the aptly named 12 noon class starts at 12 noon, making it an easy time to remember.") This clearly communicates one thing: The questioner didn’t think enough of the opportunity to read about it thoughtfully. It also asks more of me at a time when I’m already somewhat overwhelmed with the task of considering each application. And so, not wanting to rob such applicants of the fun puzzle of hunting down the information by rereading what they've already received, I simply don't respond.
Show proof of evolution.
If one's email contains written equivalents of Cro-Magnon grunts where words ought to be, one may find it challenging to attract serious consideration. I regret to report that there are no open spots in “ur class,” nor will I be sharing what I am “up2.” If your email includes non-words such as “lol,” “lmk,” “fwiw,” or “vq7,” I will assume that you’re incapable of communicating in English and will therefore decline to interact as it's the only language in which I am fluent. (What’s that? You’re wondering what “vq7” means? It means about as much as those other grunts as far as I’m concerned. That’s what it means.)
Communicating in the fractured hieroglyphics of this, the laziest and most entitled generation thus far may be a choice some make when texting equally can’t-be-bothered cohorts. Soon, they will forget what words mean and not one of them will understand what the other is saying. Regardless, such gibberish has no place in professional correspondence among adults or those who hope to interact with them.
Don’t share what isn’t there.
Readers, you would have been amazed by the number of people who wrote to tell me they’d be writing later. Others wrote to say they didn’t qualify but might apply in the future. Still others wrote to tell me they weren’t available for the class at all. These are emails that I was duped into opening under the misguided notion that I might therein find pertinent content.
Applications that cannot be acted upon are worthless. If one has nothing to say, one ought not to say it.
Have some patience rather than trying mine.
The temptation to immediately follow up must be resisted mightily, particularly if the follow-up consists of checking to be sure the first missive was received. Remember the well-known definition of insanity; if the first was not received, then it stands to reason that the second, sent using the same methods, will meet a similar fate. If, conversely, the first application has been received but failed to elicit an immediate response, a flurry of follow-up emails can only slow the process and put pressure on the person with whom one is hoping to collaborate.
Of course, many of these annoyances would disappear if we could somehow go back to the old days, when the art of the business letter was still being taught in grade schools and communiqués required a typewriter and the US Postal Service (or the older days when they required an ink pen and the Pony Express). Back then, I’m sure no one ever wrote just to say they’d be writing later.
On the other hand, we still had to lick the stamps. Perhaps there is something to be said for progress.