I recently completed my Masters and got this email from… well, the question of who it’s from is part of this this post.

People just don’t care what they write or say. They’ll say a lot and won’t consider how much of it is true or sincere, and whether it matters.

This email I received is a good example. It’s full of things that are either completely false, or just meaningless and insincere.

And it happens so often that our reaction to this kind of communication is extremely subdued, if we react at all. People read communiques like this all the time, and they know that they’re not real and are just automated or boilerplate drivel 90% of the time. But they just take it in stride. It happens so often that we no longer blink at the idea that so much of what other people communicate to us is untrue or insincere.

Let’s break this down and be serious about what it says.

Hello Sherif,

I’d like to personally congratulate you on being a proud 2015 University of Waterloo Arts graduate, joining over 50,000 alumni from our Faculty who live and work worldwide.

The email starts with what is likely the biggest falsehood of the message. It reads “I’d like to personally congratulate you”. But the “To” header reads “University of Waterloo Arts Alumni Office”, and the email is <alumlist@alumni.uwaterloo.ca>.

The list part hints that this was sent to a mailing list that just forwarded to all graduated students. That is an inconclusive tell, but the header and the language don’t match. Am I getting this “personally” from the Dean, or am I getting it from the Arts Alumni office?

If this was a personal email, would there be a link that read “Unsubscribe from News email”?

Actually, they themselves admit that this message was sent on behalf of someone else:

This message is sent from The Office of Advancement on behalf of the Faculty of Arts Alumni Office

So I’m not getting the message “personally” from the Dean, I’m not even getting it pesonally from someone at the Arts Alumni Office. I know I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but it matters! Don’t say it’s personal if it’s not.1

The email also makes an assumption that I’m proud, but I won’t get into that right now.

Next:

I believe passionately in the value of an Arts education, and know that the unique combination of skills and knowledge, with an emphasis on analysis and engagement, will help you capably navigate the rapidly changing realities of our time. Whether you plan to work, further your education, or travel, you are now equipped with credentials from an outstanding Canadian university as you move into the next phase of your life.

I’m willing to believe that he does believe passionately in the value of an Arts education.2

But what does “unique combination of skills and knowledge, with an emphasis on analysis and engagement” mean? I am honestly asking. How is the combination unique? Are you saying that the way the University of Waterloo Arts Faculty combines the two is unique among all other Ontario universities? Canadian universities? All universities? Whichever it is, I’ve seen little evidence of it, and your email doesn’t elaborate.

This is an example of university marketing-speak that universities – and to be fair, almost all other businesses – will use, but is actually 100% filler. It means nothing.3

We hope you have enjoyed your Waterloo experience and wish you success today and in the future. To celebrate your graduation, we have prepared a special video just for you.

Again with the personal lie.

Here’s the link to the video.

It’s a montage of photos of happy students, the kind you’d expect. There is nothing “just for you” about it. I’m pretty sure they’re not even graduate students.

Wait. There was one thing that was customized just for me. That link in the email doesn’t directly go to the hidden YouTube video, it first goes to a redirection site and hands it my university email address:

http://lnk.ie/157JS/e=unameredacted@uwaterloo.ca/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18JReIyXizU&feature=youtu.be

lnk.ie is the link shortening/tracking system for “Group Metrics”, an email tracking company. Fine.

Next,

Please stay in touch with us. We want to know how you are doing as you transition from Waterloo Arts student to alumni and ambassador. And we will always welcome your input as we strive to ensure that Waterloo remains a national and international leader in higher education.

They keep saying this “keep in touch” thing. They say it in the paragraph above, they sign the email with it (“Stay in touch!”), and if you watch that video I linked to above many of the faculty and staff seem to emphatically say “stay in touch!” (with varying degrees of apparent sincerity).

I don’t know what to think of this one. My cynicism tells me that they only want you to stay in touch if you are very successful, and successful in a way they like. Create a startup or ten? Get some awards from some other place? Are you potentially someone we can get donations from in the future? Stay in touch!

But that’s business. Fine.


A possible response to my criticism is: “what is the alternative? what do you want them to do? there are thousands of undergraduate students, probably hundreds of graduate students who receive degrees every year. what should the Dean do, email each and every one of them? that’s impossible.”

My response to that is that it’s not my problem, it’s theirs. No one asked to receive a personalized email from the Dean when they graduate. Even if people asked, that’s no excuse. If they want the Deans to “personally congratulate” graduates, then I guess they need to hire a lot more Deans than they have now. Or continue with the automated emails, that’s fine, just own it. Just because it’s a challenge doesn’t mean it’s okay to misrepresent what’s being done.


This was nitpicky at times. None of the issues I raised are unique to this email from the university, and they don’t do anything that isn’t done in countless other emails we get from other companies or people.

But that is exactly my point. Why has it come to a point where we accept such a high frequency of bullshit? The fact that it happens all the time doesn’t make it okay, it just means we’ve come to accept a lot of it.

Consider the consequences of this. People will read this email and many others like it, and they will not care at all about what the words say. Even calling it “reading” is a stretch. Their eyes scan the lines and maybe the words register on some low cognitive level, but it means nothing to them. I honestly doubt that a single person who received this email took it to be sincere.4 That’s how damaged common communication standards are.

You shouldn’t be okay with this.

See also

  1. This is not the first congratulations email I got from the university. A few months ago I got an email congratulating me on “successfully completing the requirements for the Psychology, Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Arts.” They essentially messed up and thought I was graduating with a PhD instead of a Masters. The details of why or how this happened have to do with the fact that when you are given an offer for the Masters program, you are assumed to be on track to do a PhD, but that’s besides the point. The point is that this is further evidence that there is nothing personal about this, and that it’s nothing more than automated formality. 

  2. Although I don’t know if he personally wrote that sentence in the first place. 

  3. Heh, how’s that for analysis? 

  4. That’s if they opened the email or read it in the first place. Another consequence of the low quality of communication.