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When Rude E-mail Responses Shut You Down, Say This to Get Back to Work

It's a happy little mailbox, but sometimes the message from a prof is a little quick and curt. Use professional communication to turn it around!

It’s a happy little mailbox, but sometimes the message from a prof is a little quick and curt. Use professional, assertive communication to turn it around!

(I’m checking on the student who missed three weeks of class to see if they met with the professor. I’ll update as soon as I know, but I hope there is a favorable outcome. Here is a recent write-in that I’m also escalating because as the term closes in on all of us, e-mails between student and professor become more abundant. It’s easy for curtness to become the norm… even when that may not be the intent. Here we go…)


I am taking a class where I don’t feel like I e-mail the instructor much at all. I don’t want to overreact, but I am very upset by the responses I’m receiving. I’m trying to be congenial in my e-mails. I am even apologizing in advance just in case I’m bothering the instructor. Recently, I had to e-mail to ask for clarification about an assignment. I wanted to make sure I understood what was expected of me. The response? “I said what I said.” That’s it.

I don’t want my grade to be affected because of poor communication. I am unsure of how to proceed and I’m thinking I might need to drop this class, which would be upsetting. I have never been in a situation like this before and I don’t know what to do.



As always, I appeal to you, my wonderful audience, for input first. Should the student continue to ask questions? Address the abruptness? In my opinion, I feel that both are in order, if the student feels that it is possible to stomach the latter. Here is my response:

Dear Student:

Thank you so much for writing. You aren’t the first person to complain when profs behave this way via e-mail—online profs or otherwise. It’s not kind or civil. E-mail is a part of our jobs, like it or not. If a prof doesn’t want to be “bothered” communicating with e-mail answers, then honestly, office hours or phone access should be the only offerings on that person’s communication “menu” (unless otherwise required by their institution). If the prof teaches online, however, then e-mails are a required part of the job.

I can understand not being warm and fuzzy, but being curt or off-putting, in my opinion, is unacceptable. Sometimes, this is part of a person’s personality, or they truly don’t realize how they are coming across. I know these e-mails can be very, very upsetting and intimidating to students.

My first recommendation is to keep asking questions until your questions are answered. Do NOT apologize because you have the right to e-mail! This is a part of your responsibility as a student, if you will, particularly in an online course.

Think about it this way… if you did poorly, grade-wise, and you blamed the prof, the first thing the prof would say is, “Well, you didn’t e-mail me for help!” So, the blame would go right back to you, the student. This is why apologizing for “bothering” the prof is unnecessary. You are a student. It is your job to need help. It is the prof’s job to provide help in at least a civil and constructive manner, even if the tone isn’t overtly friendly.

From there, when your prof provides cryptic responses, you can say, “I understand ________ may appear clear to you, but this is not answering my question. I am trying to do my absolute best in class, and by my being proactive about requesting your assistance, I’m trying to meet and exceed your expectations. Can you please clarify what you are looking for so I can do that?” You can also say, “I am not the type of student who asks questions unless I genuinely require assistance. My grades thus far in your class will show you the level of work I strive for.”

Beyond that, I hate to say this, but a phone call may be in order. It is very hard to be so direct to someone voice to voice. You can soften a stern prof easily with a kind and appreciative tone and that person may even feel badly for their poor online behavior.

I don’t know if you’d be at all comfortable addressing the tone issue in a non-grading period. You could see where this situation goes and then send a note just saying, “I need to talk to you about a problem I’m having so it doesn’t hinder the rest of my performance in this class. I try not to e-mail unless I truly need help. However, when I have e-mailed, the responses I’ve received felt like I was bothering you. While I’m sure this was not intended at all, I have felt uncomfortable about asking further questions. I even thought about withdrawing because of this. I wanted to talk to you first, however. I appreciate you reading.”

The key, of course, is to use “I” language, keep the feelings and observations completely to what is happening with you.

If confronting the issue is not at all something you feel you can tolerate, I understand. Many students would not feel comfortable addressing a professor about their tone, but I do think a prof needs to know. The prof honestly may not realize how they sound. I try to be very jovial in my e-mails, but as the term continues, even I get a little more “business” than I intend. Sometimes I have to catch myself if I sound sharp, particularly if I know I just e-mailed the entire class with very thorough instructions (Admittedly, I e-mail my students an almost ridiculous amount with reminders… but I’m a Communication prof!).

Just so you know, if it comes to the point where you need to talk to someone at the college about this, you’d go to a division chair/department head. They *may* ask if you talked to the prof about it first, or they may not. That person would have to decide if this is an issue a student could reasonably discuss with a professor (that would be totally based on the perception of the division chair/department head—they may handle the complaint, themselves, too). You also have the student evaluation to fall back on, at the very least, unless the person is part-time or tenured, in which case, you may not be offered one, but I would report it to the division chair/department head anyway—if you choose not to talk to the prof directly during the term.

I hope I’ve been helpful to you. I know you will find the right way to deal with the issue that is comfortable for you. Don’t drop the class. You’ve done NOTHING wrong!


Did you know that Say This, NOT That to Your Professor has quite a few chapters on e-mail communication with professors? You can look inside or read this awesome review about just that angle by

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