Friday, December 10, 2010


Dear Big Administrator of Big University,

Today I got your LETTER. Wow, an actual printed and signed letter, on letterhead, sent by U.S. Postal Service from you to me. Nice watermark.

You couldn't have known that the mail guy in my department office would put your letter in someone else's mailbox and then the 'wrong' person opened it, realized the mistake, and eventually put the letter in my mailbox. Fortunately, whoever mistakenly opened the letter did so quite cleanly, so your letter was still fairly pristine when it got to me, but it was slightly delayed by its unexpected detour to another mailbox. That's OK, e-mail can go astray as well.

Also, it was worth it because, when I saw the letter had been opened, I showed the mail guy the slit in the envelope, hollered "Omigod, the check is gone!" and totally freaked him out (before confessing there was no check and I was just being a jerk). That was the most fun I had today, which is sad, I know.

You also couldn't have known that I seldom look in my mailbox anymore. When I do get physical mail, most of it is junk mail. It is quite miraculous that I glanced at my mailbox this week, when I wasn't expecting anything interesting. In fact, even once I saw that there was something in my mailbox, I almost ignored it, so sure was I that it was not important.

Oh well, some legitimate e-mail gets caught by my university's spam filter, I've been known to delete legitimate e-mail without reading it because I thought it was spam, and other e-mail I may accidentally overlook if it arrives with tens of others. Correspondence by letter and e-letter can go astray.

So, you couldn't have known the perils of sending a real letter to me with your important request. The problem is, though, that your letter says that you value my awesome expertise and wisdom and therefore want me to do something for your University on a particular date, but you did not first check whether that date was OK with me. Alas, it is not. I have another commitment on that date. Perhaps there is a reason why the date is more important than the person (me)?

Anyway, one of these variables is going to have to change, and your letter does not seem to provide the option of changing the date, so I think that means I will have to decline your request.

I thought about discussing this with you, but, although I searched far and wide in your beautiful letter, you provided no e-mail address. Of course I could easily look this up, but am I right in inferring that your preferred mode of communication is by letter? Should I send you a letter on my university's letterhead saying that, unfortunately, I cannot come to your university and share my awesome wisdom with you on the specified date? And then I will wait for your reply by mail? And then, after you write to me, I will write back expressing my further regret? Maybe we will be pen pals!?

I can sort of see why you, a distinguished administrator, thought it would be more formal and respectful to send me a paper letter on letterhead, even if e-mail would have been totally fine with me, but the lack of any contact information is a little strange. Wouldn't further communication be more efficient if we dispense with the parchment and quills and shoot each other some informative e-mails? Or are you tired of only getting junk mail in your mailbox, and are hoping that I will write back, on paper, by mail?

I don't know, but I have a feeling that your ability to take the time to write, print, sign, address, stamp, and mail a letter to me might have something to do with the fact that you have an administrative assistant. And I also think that my inability thus far to reply to your letter, by mail or e-mail, has something to do with the fact that I don't.

If you read this blog and know that I am writing this post instead of writing to you, that would save us both a lot of time. Otherwise, I will drop you a line.. somehow.




mOOm said...

Don't know why you are making a big fuss about this. Use the web to get that person's e-mail or phone number and contact them. Yes, it probably still look more respectful when requesting someone to do something (for free) to request in hard copy though I wouldn't do it myself.

NJA said...

I was notified of my first grant success by a cryptic email asking all grant-holders to register on the funder website and provide a project profile. No congratulations or confirmation of award, just "register here". When I chased it up with emails and phone calls, I was delighted to hear that it wasn't an error and that I actually had been given the grant.

Of course, the funders had intended to inform me by letter some 3 weeks previously (even though the entire grant application process had been online). However, that snail mail letter had garbled my university address by managing to leave out my department name. It also decided not to specify my full first name on the address (only first initial), so our university postal service took a chance on guessing the recipient's identity and delivered it to somebody else in our gigantic university with whom I happened to share a surname.

He or she opened it, realised the error, and put it back into internal post, whereupon it wandered homeless for a month and a half until it eventually ended up in my mailbox, battered, torn, and clearly opened and resealed several times.

Despite me informing the funders of their error in leaving out my department name when posting the letter (even though it was correct in my registration details on the grant website), they continued to send me mis-addressed letters about the grant for the next year. And all this happened only 3 years ago...

Anonymous said...

lol, if you or your readers might be interested Oxford and Cambridge still prefer pen and ink in their communications...though there are slight changes.

Anonymous said...

Give the guy a break. He is probably very very old. Just look him up and send him an e-mail. Aren't you just a bit curious?

Ps. No-check joke: totally awesome!

Anonymous said...

highly amusing. :)
Didn't they at least leave a phone number...??

Personally, rather than email, I think you should text him back. Did you know that if you send a text message to a landline, a computer voice will read it to you (I'M SERIOUS - I didn't believe it until a friend and I tried it with our office phone!)

Female Science Professor said...

Actually, there was a decent honorarium offered, but I am still otherwise committed for the specified dates.

I looked him up. He's just a bit older than I am.

And random blog post ≠ big fuss, but thanks for assuming all my posts might be significant.

Ms.PhD said...

Amusing! I particularly like the Jane Austen style of the voice you used here. I think your reply should read,

"Dear Kind Sir:

I am, unfortunately, otherwise committed on that day. Thank you kindly for thinking of me, I would have been honored to be your guest."

GMP said...

Hilarious, FSP!

Anonymous said...

Or what about getting requests for reprints in the mail? It was the funniest thing: a pre-printed postcard with blank spaces for the journal name and paper reference (they were filled in with my masterpiece). I couldn't bring myself to do it; I couldn't print out a PDF and send it by mail to someone who could have done it himself. This guy is at a school that is similar in rank to my large research university, so there is no question of whether he had a subscription to the most popular journal in chemistry.

Female Science Professor said...

Back in the Old Days, it was very exciting getting those reprint request cards. That's how we knew who was interested in our papers enough to want a nice copy on glossy paper instead of just a self-serve photocopy in the library. I did not like getting ones that were pre-printed "Dear Sir..", but other than that, it was cool.

If you requested a reprint, they were typically sent with a signature and a little note written on the front page, like "With my best regards" or something like that, though I used to struggle with what to write on my own. "Thanks for your interest" seemed too pathetic, but I'm just not a "best regards" kind of person, nor have I ever written "Cheers!" on anything, electronic or paper. But not signing seemed rude. This is one struggle that has been eliminated by the advance of technology.

not Mervyn Peake said...

In March 2009 I was invited by another dept at our sometimes stuffy MRU to give an internal seminar in October 2009, which I did. The original invite was by email, and I was told it would be followed up with a formal invitation, which I never received. Last week I received by snail mail the invite letter, dated and postmarked March 2009.

I have no idea how it eventually got to me. It might never have been put in the US mail, as our internal and external incoming mail are intermingled. How inconsequential these formalities have become.

Anonymous said...

The ones that irritate me are the administrators who print out a copy of their mass-mailing communications, then have their secretaries scan the paper and e-mail the megabyte file to everyone in the university. Generally there is only one or two sentences of content (and that usually of no interest to anyone).

I added a size limit to my spam filter to block most of this noise.
Anyone who wants to send ma a big file can put it on the web and send me a URL to it (with password protection, if necessary).

Doctor Pion said...

I'm just thinking of the COST of producing that letter, which probably exceeds $20 today even if he had an admin asst do it. But then an admin asst can send forged e-mail in the name of a Major Office; ours do it all the time.

But do consider the possibility that he wants your autograph. Just be sure to put your e-mail address prominently under your name on the sig line. ;-)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Ha! Your observation about having/not having an admin assistant is spot on.

I primarily use my mailbox as storage. Occasionally I'll have one of my undergrads look through the junk stuff to see if there is a book we should request or a good sale on eppendorf tubes.

Anonymous said...

Scott Adams is reading your blog...

Bagelsan said...

I'm sure that Dilbert is great, but if you could be so kind as to print it out and mail it to everyone instead...


Candid Engineer said...

I am totes going to send you a letter, on my formal mango letterhead stationary, detailing all of the reasons why random blog post = big fuss.

In all seriousness though, I just love real mail, and almost no one sends it anymore. The first article I published came with reprints- but none since then. I now wish I had the occasion to send them out, instead of emailing PDFs.