David Comp vents about some rather rude emails he received from a random reader asking for assistance. David’s certainly not against helping out readers when they email with questions—all he asks is that they respect the fact that he is a busy person and may not respond to them as quickly as they might like. The offending emails went like this:
–Start October 31st message—
I AM A STUDENT OF ENGLISH LITERATURE AND CIVLIZATION AND I AM PREPARING FOR MY DISSERTATION IN LITERATURE ABOUT THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AFRICANAMERICANS IN THE AMERICAN LITERARY IMAGINATION
BUT I DID NOT FIND CORRESPONDING INFORMATION
SO.IF YOU CAN HELP WITH SOME BOOKS,WEBSITES,OR AMY KIND OF DATA I WOULD BE GRATEFUL
I AM WAITING FOR YOUR ANSWER
–End October 31st message–
No response from me other than my automated reply which I mention above.
–Start November 4th message–
I AM STILL WAITING FOR YOUR ANSWER AND I NEED YOUR HELP
,BECAUSE OF TIME CONSTRAINTS MAY I RECEIVE IT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE PLEASE?
–End November 4th message—
My first reaction is to wonder why this person is typing in all caps, the online equivalent of shouting. My second reaction is that I feel David’s pain. I receive a fair number of random email requests too and, like David, I’m generally happy to get them and respond. But also like David, sometimes life and work obligations get in the way and I don’t respond in as timely a manner as I or the writer might like. When this happens, I often appreciate a gentle follow-up/reminder from the writer. What I never appreciate is a pushy, entitled follow up like David got.
David wonders how much of the above two emails is intercultural miscommunication. Seems like there certainly could be some in there—the writer doesn’t appear to be a native English speaker and the awkward phrasing, caps fetish, and weird pushiness might be a result of tenuous English skills and limited understanding of American cultural “norms.”
Even so, I can’t fault David for feeling annoyed. I’d react the same way—and did recently when I received an email from someone I don’t know requesting career information. I was taken aback by how terse and impersonal—and demanding—the email was. Rather than using a gentle and conciliatory tone (”I know I’m imposing here, but might I trouble you for some assistance…”), this email took a rather demanding and impolite tactic, simply saying, “I am having trouble finding an international job and I need your help. Please answer the following questions…” And then (I’m not making this up) there was a list of ten questions for me to respond to. And these weren’t easy-to-answer questions—they were asking for essays. I was astounded that this person thought this tactic was a good way to get my attention and advice. Rather than wanting to help them out, I was put off and wanted to delete the email with extreme prejudice.
If you’re emailing someone for an informational interview, for career advice, or for help with an academic or professional project (especially someone you don’t know or have no connection to), be very conscious of how you approach them, especially via email, and how much you’re asking of them. My main two recommendations when writing someone to ask for assistance, whether you know them or not, are: 1) Keep your requests (especially your first one) short and manageable (you’re much more likely to get a response if the person feels like they can accomplish the task reasonably fast) and 2) Always give the person an out (as in, “I know you are busy and may not have time for this…”). This allows the person to beg out if they are indeed too busy (and you should recognize that they may be) and is also the respectful thing to do.
One final thought: Just because email allows us to fire out quick messages asking for things doesn’t necessarily mean this is a good practice, no matter our culture.