23 November 2010

Small Gestures

This article in the The Chronicle of Higher Education is disturbing. It's not so much disturbing because it's written by a person who writes academic papers for pay, though that's troubling. It's not so much disturbing because this person has written graduate papers and dissertations for students who have gone on to actually graduate, though that's troubling too.

What's most troubling is the example that threaded throughout the article, a graduate student in business who cannot cobble together a coherent sentence in her emails: "You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?" Read through the article and it gets much, much worse.

To be fair, this person might be a non-native speaker of English and doesn't understand what most English speakers know about syntax, grammar, and punctuation. But I have to ask, how did she get into graduate school? How did she get through an entire undergraduate career unable to write an email, much less a term paper, and actually finish well enough to be accepted into a graduate program? I'm perplexed.

I've seen students who don't take the time to write a proper email. They don't use capital letters or punctuate or sign their emails with their names. They write to me like I'm their pal. I've also seen international students who struggle with writing but it's painfully obvious, in email and in essays. I always ask my students to write in front of me, longhand, so I can gauge their abilities (or lack thereof), but also so I can better detect inconsistencies in students who can't put together a coherent sentence but turn in stellar work. Something doesn't add up.

When I brought this all up to Adam we got into a discussion about how the way we present ourselves says a lot about how we feel about ourselves and other people. When I write an email and use proper punctuation and appropriate tone, when I respond in a timely fashion and I'm cordial, I give the receiver cues about who I am. It's the same with how I dress or shake hands or make eye contact. So much is embedded in these small gestures.

It's like dressing up for a holiday. Growing up we always dressed up for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we still do even now. A few years ago I went to two different friends houses on Christmas day and found myself to be the only one wearing slacks. Everyone else was dressed like it was Saturday. I was taken aback.

There's something special about getting dressed up for special occasions and for other people. There's something special about writing a proper email or making sure your hair is brushed before walking out the door. We do them and, like it or not, they are received by others as a reflection of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. So, I suggest we do them well and with kindness, as we send and receive, and revel in treating ourselves well and kindly, too.

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