O tempora, o mores


Most of the students who send me emails start off with a proper salutation such as “Dear Yolanda” or “Dear Ms Hübner”. Still, I regularly receive emails from students in which the salutation simply reads “Dear,”. It would appear that my name is the comma in this case. Another regular occurrence is that “Dear” is immediately followed by my last name. I can’t help but wonder why students would write such emails. Even something like: “Dear academic advisor” would be a more appropriate salutation if someone doesn’t know how to address me.

Yes, really. I’m going to rant about the current generation – Generation Z or whatever you’d like to call it – and its email etiquette, or lack thereof. My contacts in secondary education have told me that writing formal emails and letters is still part of the curriculum of the subject Dutch, which means that ignorance is not the problem here. So what is? Of course, young people tend to use a hodgepodge of slang terms and Dutch on the various social media platforms, but surely, I can expect our students to know how to correctly address a university employee? And that this is not the same as sending a message to a friend?

I’m well aware that people have been complaining about decreasing standards since ancient times: “O tempora, o mores”, Cicero said as early as 63 B.C. The statement “What greater service can we render the state than to teach and educate the youth?” also stems from his pen, and I think it’s quite relevant in this context. At the TU/e, we carry out our educational mission with great dedication. The education of students is not officially part of my duties, but I can’t stop myself from responding to students who send me such awkwardly written emails. I understand that not all of my colleagues who receive these kinds of emails think it’s worth the effort to call students out on this. However, I believe that it’s important to offer students this feedback as part of their professional development.

When students use certain words or phrases that I understand, but that are not part of my own vocabulary, I don’t respond to them. This is simply a matter of a generation gap in our language use. For example, the word “letterlijk” or “literally” is very popular in this modern usage of language; it’s (mis)used all over the place. And a chance encounter can be described as “very random”. I often double check with my twenty-year-old son to see if he knows some of these words or expressions; and usually, his answer is that these are “very normal” words and expressions that “everyone” uses.

Perhaps I should be glad that the students still bother to write me emails in Dutch and refrain from using slang in their emails. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that they don’t. Slang is the language of the youth, and therefore, it’s exclusively reserved for young people. Using slang to connect with the youth of today is out of the question for me; my son says I’m far too old to use slang, even if I could. So, I’m not allowed to ask the students about their King’s Day “fissa” (party) with their “matties” (friends), because then I’d be making a fool of myself. And I don’t want to do that, of course.

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