Once a month, my company sends out mass emails alerting professors about new texts in their fields. Part of my job is answering anyone who writes back with requests, questions, and concerns. Usually I can expect to reply to a few hundred emails in the days following a mailing. And while 99% of these emails are from considerate, helpful, understanding professors (who get helpful, considerate, understanding replies from me), every once and again someone is just plain mean.

This one, which I received today, concerned a professor whose name accidentally had a note written next to it in the email we sent him (Move To Hum means move to the humanities mailing list):

You can’t really believe that my name is “Professor Smith Move To Hum,” can you? If you want my response, address me correctly. TS

It was the afternoon, and I was probably on email 200 for the day. Why did this guy have to be so mean? Did he know a real person answered these emails, a real person who didn’t deserve such condescending treatment? As usual when I receive emails like this, I write a mean response back, erase it, and then write an overly-polite, cowering apologetic email that I begrudgingly send. But this time I sent the first one:

Hi Professor Smith Move to Hum

Sorry for the mix-up… as you might guess, this is a computer-generated email list. However, the data comes from somewhere and that somewhere is ME – a hardworking woman with a useless graduate degree who has a pretty sad and monotonous data-entry job. And, as a person who answers hundreds of these emails a day even though she wishes for better things in life, please give me a break when something goes a little wrong – at least be nice when alerting me to a problem. Or do you not ever make mistakes?

Anyway, I’m guessing from the note on your files that you’re a humanities professor and not a history professor. If that’s the case let me know and I’ll move you to the correct mailing list and, who knows, I might even correct your name.

After I pressed SEND I quietly waited to be fired. But nothing happened except that the guy (his name has been changed, of course) wrote back a few hours later.

I apologize. Thanks for your reply. Please keep me on the history list. TS

Then I guess I felt a little bad, too. Maybe I had caught in a bad moment or during a bad day. Maybe he, too, was in the middle of a thankless task that made him cranky. On the other hand, maybe he simply never really thought about how customer service people might want to be treated as people, too. That they might need even more humanity than people who don’t answer spam emails on a regular basis for their paycheck.

It’s like people who yell at telemarketers – why would you do that? Do these angry, yelling people think that it was that specific person’s idea to call people up all day one after another and bother them? No. No one likes being a telemarketer. They’re just trying to get by. And if the best they can do is be a telemarketer, let’s be extra nice to them, because things have probably not been going their way.

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