I have to admit that as a proud grandmother I am so delighted when I hear over and over what a pleasure it is to serve my grandkids from wait staff all over the place in all kinds of restaurants. Lots of “May I have”, “Please” and “Thank you.” I remember my own grandmother teaching me how to shake hands and look people in the eye and say “Maam” to older women and “sir” to men. Now some of my upbringing had to do with southern survival as Black folks but the looking in the eye and firm hand shake was about respect. Dressing appropriately was not even a question. And even today as I go to the theater in jeans—I dress it up a notch. My grandmother would not be totally appalled.

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One of the things I say all the time is that college is the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life. Maybe being four years old with a tough grandmother is too. But for sure at college you are focused on preparing for work and life after you graduate. So this story becomes important. This is an actual email that was received by another pre-health adviser at another college. Needless to say, all the other advisers thought this person extremely ignorant about professional demeanor and communication, and we laughed at the student who wrote this!  I wanted to share in case any of you thought that the message below seemed OK!


Shorthand is fine for emails and texts to friends.  It is completely unacceptable when you send a message to someone in authority or someone you do not know.  It is the same regarding the use of someone’s first name when you have not asked permission to use it.

There was a really good piece in the New York Times entitled “U Can’t Talk to Ur Professor Like This” by Molly Worthen. The piece highlights the ways in which students today—regardless of background and the caliber of the school, seem to have forgotten the rules likely laid down by their grandparents or others along the way. Social media, more casual attire in all contexts, all carry a sense of informality and equity that does not actually exist everywhere. Organizational structures have hierarchies. People have worked hard to earn their stripes and even though some do not seem to deserve the recognition because they behave badly they are still entitled to the acknowledgement of the work they have done to get where they are or at least the office they hold. The CEO may sit in the bull pen but s/he is still the boss. And some CEOs or other leaders have been known to behave rudely themselves but that does not excuse you. Especially true if you do not have equal power. I know of one young man who was consistently rude to the secretary of the Pre Med adviser.

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She, of course, told her boss what was going on. And when it came time for a reference for medical school what do you think happened to his? Not so great. Making nice is politically savvy. Courtesy is just making nice.

In situations—work or school—where the power balance is not even then being nice to the people who have more power just seems intelligent and a survival strategy. And again don’t forget the power of the people who serve the powerful—the assistants and secretaries who can decide whether you get an appointment or not. The secretaries of college departments hold a ton of power. They know where faculty are and when. They know the rules and which can be tweaked. If they like you good things can happen and if not…

Even your barista has power—you get actual nonfat milk in your latte – or maybe not. Think of how you like to be treated when you are in a role of service.

The impression you create can be make or break in a world where 80 percent or more of jobs come from connections. Entire firms and departments have been built on relationships formed at college or even in the military. So a reason to not be a jerk in college (or anywhere) is not only to assure no one sees it on Facebook (including employers who now trollsocial media for evidence of your character) but also because you never know where you and your classmates may end up.

Then there are recommendations… Your professors will be part of your network. If you are asking questions and connecting with them after class during office hours they will come to know you. If you have made a good positive impression—the kind courtesy creates, then when they hear of opportunities you will come to mind, especially if you are doing well in their classes. Similarly as a dean I have been part of many, many student’s networks and written volumes of letters of recommendation for the students whose problems I have solved. Sometimes the mentoring relationships I have built as a dean continue well beyond college. But these are the students who have been thoughtful, courteous and sometimes kind.

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In creating a presence – a reputation for yourself at school or later at work , what you also do not want—aside from being seen as nutty or inappropriate – is to be considered a “user”. People don’t like feeling that the only reason they hear from you is when you want something from them… especially so if you forget the thank you. That is just another form of rudeness. If someone does a kindness for you be sure to try to reciprocate genuinely.

Kindness is being talked about a great deal these days. It is something you can’t manufacture and comes from the heart. It is the little gestures and the big ones. It is how my husband taught our kids to take their restaurant leftovers and have them packaged for the homeless. It was how my father warmly greeted the airport Red Cap with the same smile and interest he gave to the CEOS he dealt with. It is good for your soul. Seek ways to engage in random acts of kindness. The universe has a way of rewarding those.

Marcia CantarellaMarcia Y. Cantarella, PhD is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. She can be reached at www.icanfinishcollege.com where you can find more blogs and other resources as well. She also has audio courses which you can find here.

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