College Students Must Major in Manners

Amy Alkon, manners maven.

Amy Alkon, manners maven.

There are old-fashioned etiquette rules that still matter, like not licking your plate clean unless there’s a power outage or you are dining with the blind. But at the root of modern manners is empathy—asking yourself, Hey, self! How would I feel if somebody did that to me?

Remembering to use empathy as a behavioral guide is especially important for students going off to college for the first time, and especially when engaging with professors, whom students too often treat as service providers. Taking full advantage of college means being mindful of treating them as people. The following tips will help you do that:

Think of college as a four-year employment contract:  To get the most out of college, “treat your college classes like a job and your professors like your supervisor,” advises Texas State University Psychology Department lecturer Carin Perilloux.

There actually is a rulebook: It’s called “the syllabus,” and no, professors don’t slave away writing it so they look busy enough to get tenure. Pay special attention to the part laying out class policies (such as cell phone use and where to sit if you arrive late).

Some of the rules may seem arbitrary and annoying, like a professor’s ban on hats or pajamas in class (yes, probably a violation of your constitutional rights). You show that you take a class seriously by wearing what you’ll eventually be wearing to work (or at least something in the neighborhood of it), which probably won’t be pajamas unless your life’s ambition is providing philosophy instruction to your cats.9_18_GoodManners

Emailing your professor: Use of “u,” “ur” and “n stuf ” is fine if you are 12 and emailing your BFF. When corresponding with your professor, take that extra millisecond to tap out the “yo” before the “u.” (How much time do you really save by typing “how u bin?”)

Start your email off with a salutation—“Dr.” or “Professor” or whatever professional title they’ve told the class they prefer—as opposed to “Hey.”

If you are asking to meet with them, propose a few times and look up the location of their office in the campus directory instead of asking them to write out directions. Chances are, they didn’t slave away getting a Ph.D. because all the jobs for mall information officers were taken.

These may seem like minor points, but they are not unimportant. It’s through small gestures of consideration like these—taking care not to needlessly suck the professor’s time and energy—that you show respect.

Show respect for the material:  University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne says, “I love students who ask questions out of pure curiosity,” as opposed to only caring about what will be on the test. “In fact, the instant a student asks me, ‘Are we responsible for this material?,’ I write him or her off as a warm body in a seat.”

Phone and computer use in class: Even if there’s no ban on laptops or phones in a particular professor’s classroom, you’d be wise to enact a personal ban on puttering around on Facebook or texting away on your phone. You won’t be fooling the professor. As Chapman University associate professor Tom Zoellner said, “When you see students typing away, and it’s clear they’re not taking notes, it’s kind of a bummer.”

Cutting class: “Do not miss classes; that’s a sign of disrespect,” advises Mr. Coyne. But if you simply must miss a class, inform the professor ahead of time and ask for any assignments. If you’ve been absent without giving notice, apologize and ask the professor what was covered—but not by saying, “Did I miss anything important?” or “Did you do anything in class on Monday?” Answer: “No, we just put our heads down on the desks and wept quietly because you weren’t there.”

Gratitude is good: “Send a thank you card when you graduate; we really appreciate this and can use it for promotion and tenure,” says Dominican College assistant professor Sarah Strout. Better yet, don’t wait till you graduate to express gratitude. Research by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others finds that being grateful—taking note of what is good in your day and in your life—is one of the most effective ways to make yourself meaningfully happier, and it has cascading benefits for others in your life.

In fact, getting in the habit of expressing (sincere) appreciation for professors and others you encounter in college can be as personally and professionally transformative as the education you are paying tuition for—getting you on track to being the sort of person who changes the world instead of the one who just changes the bong water.

Amy Alkon is the author of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014).