The title of my question exaggerates a bit to stress its point, but it concerns a class of questions where the OP seeks advice on basic human communication with a professor. I have seen many many question on academia.SE where the OP has some basic inquiry to make and is seeking advice about how to talk to or email the contact person, usually a professor. Often the enquiry is a basic one involving normal administrative matters, with no special issue that makes it especially difficult or arduous, and it is unclear why any special advice would be required. There are many examples of this, but here are a few of them:

I have not seen questions this basic on other SE forums. I find them rather annoying, since they lack any real substantive content on academic matters, and instead ask trivial questions about how to undertake basic human communication. Pretty much every question of this kind is answered by this general question, but most of them strike me as so trivial that the simple answer to all these questions is: you tell/ask them that thing you want to tell/ask them. Some of these questions are already marked as duplicates of that general question, and this is desirable. In my humble opinion, it would be a good idea to either close or mark-as-duplicate all questions of this kind.

I suspect that many of these questions come out of a sense of nervousness that students, etc., have when they want to communicate with academics. The implicit premise in these questions seems to be that professors are some kind of sanctified emperors and you need to seek detailed advice on etiquette before speaking in their presence or sending them an email. Answers often give some help with forms of words to use, etc., and this is a good attempt to help, but it has the side-effect of reinforcing the view that some special advice is needed to speak to an academic.

My question: Are questions of this form off-topic? They strike me as having minimal to no academic content, and the OP is essentially just asking about basic human communication. If not considered off-topic, are they merely trivial duplicates of How should I phrase an important question that I need to ask a professor?

Follow-up: Two answers have raised the possibility that questions of this sort might come from questioners with different cultural experiences who need assistance with basic communication skills. In such cases, we can also refer questions to InterpersonalSkills.SE.

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    The issue at hand in determining whether IPS or Academia is the better fit is the generality of the situation. If its a matter of academic culture that wouldn't normally arise outside of the academic setting, it should stay here. If it's a general cultural issue, it belongs on IPS.
    – aeismail
    Apr 27, 2018 at 3:09
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    There are a couple things you could try, as an experiment, to see if your reaction to these questions changes at all. (1) See if you can write a question on IPS that doesn't get closed in less than 24 hours. (2) See if you can get a response from a polite email to a researcher you don't know, in a language other than English, that you are not fully bilingual in, and then engage in ongoing correspondence in that other language. // Thanks for bringing this up -- although I don't share your degree of annoyance, it's definitely an interesting issue. Apr 28, 2018 at 12:35
  • @aparente: You are definitely overstating the degree to which this is a problem of ESL correspondence. That is not the issue here (see e.g., questions linked above).
    – Ben
    Apr 28, 2018 at 23:32
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    I checked each of your links. At least half of them are non-native speakers of English. Apr 29, 2018 at 2:58
  • Just saying: I actually feel more like every SE has something corresponding to this 'type of questions'. On Workplace.SE they are very similar to the ones here (how to thank... how to tell boss... how to write an answer to a recruiter...). On Biology.SE there are homework and species identification question with no sign of effort solving them which can be answered without prior knowledge using Google. I could go on. The people asking are often one time users that just "got curious" or are completely caught in anxiety by the situation they are asking about.
    – skymningen
    May 3, 2018 at 10:14
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    And that was not meant as an insult to the questions or the people asking them. I have gotten caught in anxiety before, but my reaction is to 'not trust anything the internet says" in that case, why others feel it helps them to vent out and ask about it anonymously. I usually try to give a carefully written comment that not ridicules the question but hints at existing answers or trivial solutions. If you are anxious, abstract thinking is very hard to do. Which could make it very hard to identify that your question is not specific to academia or that it has been answered in other forms before.
    – skymningen
    May 3, 2018 at 10:18
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    Sort-of duplicate: academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3225/… Also, @Ben is correct. May 3, 2018 at 11:46
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    I find it highly amusing that this is directly under the "How can we be more welcoming to new users?" link on my sidebar.
    – Odysseus
    May 5, 2018 at 16:21
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    Professors are hardly ordinary humans, their quirks produce a need for a specific set of rudimentary-human-interaction skills. :)
    – Nemo
    May 6, 2018 at 15:56

3 Answers 3


Questions about academic etiquette are not necessarily trivial. There are certain issues related to cultural sensitivity that may arise in particular circumstances. (For example, how to address an email is a non-trivial matter in some countries!)

That said, many of the questions could be included under the header of "How to ask ask an important question." (I do note that at the moment the answer does not address the possibility of a discussion that shouldn't be had by email.)

If the question is of essentially the same nature, then it should be closed as a duplicate, the same way we now use the "journal workflow" question to close many similar inquiries as duplicates.


To corroborate aeismail's answer, let me give you a semi-serious example of the possible intricacies of academic communication.

Up to 30-40 years ago in my country, Italy, you would have formally addressed a university professor by starting with

Ch.mo prof. X,

The abbreviation Ch.mo stands for Chiarissimo, which can be translated as Most Eminent.

Moreover, if within the text you would have to refer to the professor with a pronoun, you would have quite probably capitalized the pronoun initial.

Nowadays, luckily, these traditions are being abandoned (at least in STEM fields) but sometimes you still get students who use them: maybe they don't use that pompous salutation, but they frequently use capitalized pronouns. When I get such emails, I usually reply: "I'm not worthy of capital letters!". A few students reply that they sent emails to a few old-school professors without capitalizing the pronouns, and without starting with "Ch.mo", and the professors got mad at them.

However, nowadays, many Italian students attend courses which are taught in English, and I've been teaching for about ten years in one such course. And I frequently receive emails in English where every single "You" is capitalized:

Dear Prof. Ortolano,
Could You please [...]

At this point I tell them that they should definitely avoid writing emails in English with capitalized pronouns, especially if they're going to write to people around the world because that, yes, would look weird.

So, sometimes, yes, also a simple email can cause headaches for students (and that's why I've answered a few questions of that type along the years).

  • Chiarissimo translates into English best as "Most eminent." It's an old greeting used for faculty in various countries: in Faustian legends, the title character is frequently referred to as Euer Eminenz ("Your Eminence") several times.
    – aeismail
    Apr 27, 2018 at 3:12
  • @aeismail Is it really that the corresponding term? Because we have also the term Magnifico (magnificent) to address the rector, and this looks more similar to Most eminent. Apr 27, 2018 at 5:27
  • Eminent is a translation of chiaro. Looking at the other definitions, nothing else really fits except for “famous.”
    – aeismail
    Apr 27, 2018 at 5:43
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    @aeismail And what's funny is that it also means clear (as in: one who gives clear explanations and is easy to understand), which is ironically false for some professors... :) Apr 28, 2018 at 12:05
  • Great example. +1. Apr 28, 2018 at 12:30
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    In Polish, capitalized pronouns (You, He, They etc.) are a norm - so I guess this example at least partially explains why people make such mistakes writing in English: it's a copy of their native language's structure. Also, in cultures where honorifics are a serious thing (e.g., Asian), such overcautiousness is understandable (not justified from a linguistic point of view, but I get where such habits come from).
    – user68958
    Apr 30, 2018 at 6:22
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    "Chiarissimo" is best translated as you would translate clarus in praeclarus. It means someone whose fame shines very bright. "Most illustrious" may be closer. Cf. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/chiarissimo en.wiktionary.org/wiki/praeclarus
    – Nemo
    May 7, 2018 at 7:51
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    In my books, eminent is more of a translation of egregius. "Egregio" is considered a a greeting for a lower rank of people, so it would be dangerous to substitute it. Of course you can always add duplicates for safety: "Ch.mo egr. prof. avv. ing. Pallo". :P
    – Nemo
    May 7, 2018 at 7:58
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    @Nemo Or also, as Fantozzi would say, Gran Mascalzon., Lup. Man., Pezz. di Merd., Dottor Barambani :-p May 7, 2018 at 14:17

No: those questions are not off-topic

Academia has its own rules and to deny that is to deny that there is a world outside academia. As a student, I had to bow in front of Magnificents, Eminents, and other medieval titles mentioned in another answer; once a professor myself, I begged my students to avoid titles with me - leaving them only more perplexed. They don't need to thank profusely when I answer their questions, as it is (part of the reason) why I get my paycheck; contrarily, they regard me as very generous as I am setting time apart from saving the planet/evolving mankind. At times I was offered gifts, a practice that I thought was confined to doctors - a similar priest-like profession in our modern world -always smiling but firmly returning the presents. Academics in many of the world best institutions occasionally adorn themselves as high ranking priests of some archaic religion. The rest of the time, they wear blazers with elbow patches and sandals.

Professors talk and behave very differently from the high school teachers you just said goodby to, or the office manager you are running away from. Students often enroll in universities in distant countries, with very different cultures. Professors everywhere are often dismissive toward undergraduate students. They often have life/death power over their subjugates - no parents-teachers meetings to mediate, no Human Resources offices to help you solve workplace disputes. For as much as we love academia, we need to recognize it's a very quirky world.

Yes, most of those questions are duplicates

That is something that is very common to StackExchange websites, and we shouldn't be dismissive either. Your comment is very timely as it goes along very well with this recently published apology by StackOverflow to its programming newcomers. The average response from experts to beginners in StackOverflow is: this question is trivial/this question is duplicated, followed by a rain of downvotes and condescending comments. I find Academia to be thousands of times gentler than StackOverflow. Still, the same sectarian attitude is there.

The average Academia recent user is a young student who for the first time is facing what is typically a workplace issue - aggravated by the super-human aura of the professor. This site is here to help people; we should try to help. If a question is really a duplicate, we should kindly point to the question it refers to. If we don't, it means it isn't a duplicate. Let's remember that all those unwritten rules we are so familiar with in Academia, were learned by us making the same trivial mistakes, having the same goofy hesitations we smile at on many of the questions we see on this site.

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    I agree with everything except your comments about duplicates. If a question is a duplicate, it should be marked as such, rather than attempting to answer it anew. However, a polite note such as "Thanks for posting. This question has already been asked; take a look at the linked question for answers."
    – aeismail
    Apr 29, 2018 at 23:50
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    Sorry I should have clarified that: duplicates are duplicates, but nobody would know until we mark them - your kind of polite note is what I would love to see on all StackExchange sites. And if new or quite new user asks a duplicate question, it should never be downvoted.
    – famargar
    Apr 30, 2018 at 7:59
  • On the other hand, downvoting by users puts it in the review queue, which can bring it to the attention of users who know it’s a duplicate. Just don’t do both!
    – aeismail
    Apr 30, 2018 at 13:24

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