Seems not everyone is thrilled with the new Gates and Hillman Centers on the Carnegie Mellon University campus, even some of the people who may work there. Randal Bryant, Dean of the School of Computer Science, was so concerned with what he termed “a litany of complaints or a lack of enthusiasm about the new facilities” that he wrote an e-mail to “scs-all” on August 24, 2009 (that means he sent an e-mail to all students, faculty and staff of computer science).
In his message Dean Bryant said, “I feel obligated, therefore, to give you a review of some basic etiquette. You know that it’s not in my nature to make statements like this. Things have to get pretty serious for me to send e-mail to scs-all on this subject.”
How serious are things? How bad is geek etiquette? Dean Bryant said, “I am getting a lot of reports from people who are dismayed (and I am asking) you to be kinder to the people who have been working like crazy to get things ready, and to the people to whom we owe these amazing buildings.”
Dean Bryant then listed his etiquette tips. They included:
•If the president of the university asks you “How do you like your new office?” don’t complain about the elevator or AC not working, or that the wrong furniture was put in your office. (Yes, some people really did that.) Don’t say something ambiguous like “It’s not too shabby.” Remember that our administration made a big stretch financing this project to the tune of $98 MILLION DOLLARS. It has involved considerable effort in fundraising, and the university took on a lot of debt that will take 30 years to pay off. We’ve also moved into what I think is the the most amazing academic building in the world. Instead of complaining to someone who really is in no position to fix an elevator, try saying 'Thank you. I really love this place.'
•When you feel inconvienced (sic) by the work that hasn’t been completed, or you can’t find something, don’t get into a tirade with Jim Skees, Guy Blelloch, or the construction people. They have literally been working around the clock to get things ready. Try saying 'Thanks for your hard work.'"
Dean Bryant said that he advised the above “because in the next several months we’ll have a lot of people passing through. People like Bill Gates, Henry Hillman, Rick Rashid, an (sic) many alumni and visitors. These people have also made a big contribution to the welfare of SCS. Expressions of gratitude on your part are important.”
The message raised a few eyebrows and a few hackles. One person from SCS told us, anonymously: “I believe in gratitude but not enforcing it. I’m not paranoid but memos like this make me so (or I’d let you quote me). I felt it was a form of censorship and as an institution of higher learning we can’t allow that. It was also condescending. Funny, many of us who received the message will not even move there."
Other students, faculty and staff we interviewed had these comments:
“I was offended.”
“It was like asking someone for a gift.”
“I was insulted. It was tactless and sarcastic.”
“I question the word choice. I felt it was appropriate but used the wrong tone.”
It is hard to read these words, “Try saying “’Thank you, I really love this place’” without the sense that you are being sarcastically scolded by your mom.
When asked about the message, Dean Bryant said: “My purpose was to stop people from being petty. We have had people working around the clock to get this building open. The workers had sent warning messages and had told us that moving could be awkward. I had no intention of abridging academic freedom. I am not a controlling person. There have to be quite a few people talking to me about the complaints for me to act. And, this is not a case of everyone in the building not liking it. But imagine walking up to Bill Gates and saying, ‘The wrong furniture was put in my office.’”
Dean Bryant said that he spent a lot of time writing the message and that it wasn’t aimed at students. He also said he has received many thank you’s (over 50) for writing the message and few complaints (2). But he admitted that it might have sounded sarcastic. In fact, he said, “If I could re-write it, I would.”
In any event, the message was widely distributed and has pointed to the weaknesses of e-mail. It carries facts well, but not emotions. It lacks context cues: facial expression, tone of voice, body language. And, more importantly, it quickly becomes a matter of public record, meant to exist for an eternity to make you very proud or very embarrassed.
So, hey, the next time you want to write an e-mail, show some restraint! Or, consider the other messages or media you could use to accomplish the same purpose.