Email tip: People didn’t answer your first email for a reason


It is said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Consider:

From: X
To: Group Y Question blah blah blah.

A day or two later:

From: X
To: Group Y Resending due to no response.

------- Original Message -------
From: X
To: Group Y

Question blah blah blah.

You didn't get a response because your previous message was poorly-phrased, or it was sent to the wrong group, or nobody recognized the question as something they could help with, or any of a number of possible reasons. Re-sending it is not going to fix that. If your question was poorly-phrased, it's still poorly-phrased. The only difference is that now, it's been poorly-phrased twice.

If you're compelled to re-send your question, add information to make it more likely that somebody will respond to the second one. If you merely repeat the question, you're just going to get the same response. (I.e., none.)

Comments (60)
  1. ignorance says:

    There’s also people who think the problem will go away if they doesn’t answer emails. When someone later complains they can say they never read the email.

  2. BA says:

    Yeah, there are certain places that we deal with that if we don’t send them weekly reminders then we won’t hear about anything that is going on over there.

  3. David Walker says:

    I do the same thing sometimes.  I ask a question, then I feel compelled to include the information that I have on the subject.  It’s hard to get out of this habit.

    I have started numbering my questions in my e-mails, to make it clearer that I hope for an answer to them all!

  4. Alien426 says:

    The second message’s topic also probably reads "RE: original topic" or "FW: original topic" since people can’t seem to figure out how to resend a mail (in Outlook: Actions, Resend This Message…).

    Makes you wonder if there would be even more of these annoying resends, if people could just click a button instead of hitting "Reply"/"Forward" and re-entering the recipients…

  5. C Gomez says:

    I think it is important to add more information or context to the second attempt, perhaps including what you’ve tried to solve the problem in the interim.

    However, sometimes questions go unanswered because the party with the answer has not read the question yet, did not have time to answer it yet, did not want to answer at that time, or doesn’t feel like answering at all.

    I have seen people who, upon seeing the original author has been trying valiantly to solve their own problem, finally chime in with a helpful pointer along the path.

    Just my opinion.

  6. star me says:

    Meow.

  7. Adrian says:

    I agree it’s annoying (especially when the second query comes the same day as the original).  On the other hand, I often see useful replies to repeat queries on big mailing lists.  Good luck getting people to stop this behavior when it seems to work.

  8. Nihil says:

    In a work environment, it’s not a resend.

    Usually it implies "Warning, I’m getting bored of you not answering and I would not hesitate to escalate up to your management if an answer, whether positive or negative, comes back" and/or "If project Z fails because of this, it’s group Y fault of not answering back in any way".

  9. Joe Dietz says:

    Not more than 5 minutes after reading the old new thing:

    "Hi all,

    I posted this before and didn’t get any reply, can anyone help with this question please?"

  10. jondr says:

    <quote>our IT "helpdesk" actually sent me an e-mail reply asking me my e-mail address.</quote>

    Cool. I need to remember that one.

  11. Craig Ringer says:

    I see this quite a bit on mailing lists.

    A user posts a question, usually poorly phrased, with insufficient information to determine what they’re asking and/or what the answer is, and with a subject like "help!". The message goes unanswered – after all, the list makes clear in the welcome message what you need to do if you want an answer to a help query.

    Sometimes someone replies and tells them why nobody will answer their question, and what they need to change to correct this. Things like "don’t assume the reader is psychic – tell us what you want to know, what you’ve already done, etc."

    The user re-sends the email. Several times. They appear to believe that sending it multiple times will get them the answer they want, even when nobody can understand what they’re even asking.

    Similarly, I’ve seen people get a reply they don’t like ("No, that’s not supported by the software at this time, and we don’t currently have any plans to implement it. Sorry.") and re-send the message … because the answer will change, right?

  12. Dean Earley says:

    Igor: so when no one on a mailing list can answer, you should get back 300 replies saying "I dont know"?

  13. Don says:

    I highly disagree with you this time Raymond.  I find that the reason most people do not respond to an email is not because it is poorly phrased (in fact that is a poor excuse for not responding anyhow and shows arrogance) but rather that they are inundated with emails and either missed your email or never got to it.  

    I get around 30-50 emails a day that require a response from me or atlease require that I “stay in the loop” regarding the topic.  On top of that I get announcements, newsletters, and trouble ticket emails.  A healthy does of rules sorts those emails out for me, but I still find it very hard to respond to all those emails every single day.  

    My job description says “perform security, write code, support deployed environments, etc”; nowhere in there does it say respond to emails.  Nonetheless, it is expected that I perform all those duties AND respond to emails.  I bet there are a lot of people like me who sometimes are not able to repond to all their email every single day, because their job duties are more important.

    If I need a reponse on an email I will often resend it with the followup flag selected.  Most of the time I will get a reponse.  The reponse email usually starts with something like this “Sorry I did not get a chance to repond to your email, I am overwhelmed with work…”  

    [I think you missed some key context. The message in question was sent to a mailing list, not to you personally. It didn’t require a response from you. -Raymond]
  14. RyanBemrose says:

    I’d also like to just point out the opposite problem I’ve had from what Raymond describes.  Whenever I send a question out, I include all of the relevant information I can think of.

    And nobody reads it.

    To use a simplistic example:

    <me> I’m having problems with a black screen, and think it’s a driver problem.  I’ve checked that the monitor is on and all of the connections are sound.  The computer is on, and the LEDs are responsive…

    <response> Did you check that the monitor is on?  Also look at the connections to make sure they’re plugged in.

    This does not make a good case for including relevant info in one’s first mail.

  15. Don says:

    >[I think you missed some key context. The message in question was sent to a mailing list, not to you personally.]

    Actually, my reponse applies to mailing lists or single recpient emails.  

    There are sometimes when I get emails that are poorly phrased, but I still try to figure out what they are asking or I ask for a clarification.   I have sent poorly worded emails, yet more often then not I still get a reponse.  Not responding to an email, because it is poorly worded just seems arrogant to me.  

  16. AC says:

    "There are sometimes when I get emails that are poorly phrased, but I still try to figure out what they are asking or I ask for a clarification.   I have sent poorly worded emails, yet more often then not I still get a reponse.  Not responding to an email, because it is poorly worded just seems arrogant to me."

    Personally, I see large distribution lists as similar to problem situations in public. People are less likely to help if the area is crowded with people, thinking that someone else will get to them, or perhaps be specially suited to help them.

    The same goes for large distributions lists. Unless you have specific knowledge in the area the questioner is asking of, one figures that someone else will respond. Usually there’s one or two people who -always- respond and are active on the list. You’re just that guy.

  17. Don says:

    >"The same goes for large distributions lists. Unless you have specific knowledge in the area the questioner is asking of, one figures that someone else will respond. Usually there’s one or two people who -always- respond and are active on the list. You’re just that guy."

    If I have do not have specific knowledge I will not respond to the mailing list.  I really have a problem with people who respond with statements like "I don’t know", "I have the same problem," etc.

    I am of the opinion that resending the exact same email to a mailing list and/or individual does get the response you wanted the second time around.  My other point is, if someone sent mailing list and or you an email that looks like it was written by a 5th grader you should try to answer it or ask for clarification.  Yes the individual should have taken more time crafting their email.  There will probably come a point in time when you send an email with poor phrasing.  What if the person who had the knowledge to answer you question had this attitude?  "Well I can understand what you are trying to ask, but your grammar is so bad that you do not deserve a response from me"

  18. Geoff says:

    People rely too much on email. A much better way of getting a response is to get up off your fat butt and wander over to my desk and ask the question. I’ve had people send me email from the next cube down to ask some simple question. Needless to say I didn’t reply. Or to the next 2 or 3 prompts for a reply. Finally,exasperated they asked over the divider why I wasn’t answering their email. Duh.

    I like to write, but find putting together coherent sentences to be work. Writing an email response takes an awfully large context switch for me and even a short one or two sentence response will cause a 10 minute gap in productivity.

    Don’t call me, don’t send me email. Come visit me and ask in person. Its almost always faster and causes a much smaller context switch. And we can get the whole issue sorted out in one discussion rather than an extended email volley.

  19. Grant says:

    "It’s not an elegant social practice, but it does work, and a single followup mail doesn’t kill anybody’s inboxes."

    That’s basically the same way telemarketing is justified.

  20. Don says:

    > "Don’t call me, don’t send me email. Come visit me and ask in person. Its almost always faster and causes a much smaller context switch. And we can get the whole issue sorted out in one discussion rather than an extended email volley."

    what if they work in a different office far, far away?

  21. If this happens a lot to Group Y, they should appoint a dev of the day to be responsible for seeing that every question sent to their mailing list is picked up.

    They should have the following flowchart memorized:

    message was poorly-phrased

    Reply with politically-correct version of "Huh?"  Optionally request clarification of specific phrases in the question.

    was sent to the wrong group

    Reply "this is not the correct group."  Optionally suggest another group.  Optionally add that group’s alias to the To: line, and BCC: Group Y’s alias.

    nobody recognized the question as something they could help with

    Find someone that can help.  If this is the correct group, and nobody can help, talk to the group’s manager.

    or any of a number of possible reasons

    If a group has an alias, there’s a reasonable expectation that someone should respond to questions posted to that alias, and in a reasonably timely manner.  Certainly within a day or two.

  22. Mike G. says:

    This is a problem closely related to Warnock’s Dilemma:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warnock%27s_Dilemma

  23. James says:

    The corresponding irritating tactic by the recipient is to "address" the issue by replying, asking for completely irrelevant information, presumably either as a delaying tactic or in the hope you’ll just give up. Someone did this to me yesterday, in fact; my e-mail to our in-house IT department asking why one of our departmental servers had been disconnected without consultation or notification resulted in a reply later that day – asking me what my e-mail address is.

    Yes, that’s right: our IT "helpdesk" actually sent me an e-mail reply asking me my e-mail address. *sob*

  24. Coleman says:

    Nihil,  that’s total CYA and a bogus implication. If a person has an important issue in a work environment, there are several other (more reliable) ways to communicate it than via email (like the phone or face to face).  

    Another irritating tactic in this regard is to copy the recipients supervisor on an email hoping that will pressure the recipient into a response.  Now, all you’ve done is ask a stupid question of the recipient AND someone higher up on the food chain.  

    Just because that maybe *your* implication for resending the email, don’t think that’s my understanding.  I may just find you annoying and continue to ignore your emails.  If it’s not important enough to verbally address (and then follow up with an email), it’s not important enough to make me think my job is at stake if I don’t reply.  

  25. Igor says:

    Internet does not warrant 100% delivery rate. Sometimes messages get lost (i.e. email server crashes and gets restored from backup). In such situations it is justified to resend an email if you believe that email hasn’t reached its intended destination.

    Moreover, however poorly-phrased or misplaced a question may be, IMO it is *impolite* not to answer an email because of that. Simple "I can’t help you with that" or "No" would not break your fingers.

    Consider this — someone calls you on the phone, you pick up the receiver and then don’t say anything. They will keep saying "Hello", "is anyone there?", etc until you answer. If you don’t, they will most likely hang up and call again hoping that it was a mistake and that they will get to you the next time.

  26. RyanBemrose says:

    You could get no response because your question was poorly formed.  You could also get no response because your question is indeed difficult enough that nobody on the list has a ready answer, and you could get no response because everybody who has the answer assumes somebody else will deal with it, and wants to avoid a flood of identical answers.  We’re all busy people.

    The classic sequence I’ve seen on MS mailing lists is as follows:

    <Sender> Question to mailing list: (blah blah)

    <crickets> …

    <Sender> Ping

    <Somebody> {I don’t know|Here’s your answer|RTFM}

    Regardless of whether it’s impolite, inconsiderate, or just poor etiquette to send follow-up pings, it works.  The first time the message goes by, anybody that doesn’t know stays quiet.  If that’s everybody, then the second message goes out and people realize that nobody else is going to jump on this grenade.  It is at this point that the likelihood of *someone* replying goes up significantly (which is what the original sender is counting on)

  27. Ben says:

    I disagree on this one as well.  On large distribution lists, people are all too happy to reply quickly to easy questions for easy social brownie points. But if your question isn’t easy, or it doesn’t fall directly in the area of expertise of one of the recipients, then none of the recipients will be inclined to go out of their way to try to connect the dots for/with you, or write the requisite lengthy reply.

    The followup mail works, because it tells all the people who *could* help you that you haven’t been helped, and whether due to social guilt or desire to help the cause, this will generally instigate at least one reluctant reply, which often really does point you in the right direction.

    It’s not an elegant social practice, but it does work, and a single followup mail doesn’t kill anybody’s inboxes.

  28. Mikkin says:

    I have a problem with the basic model of mass distribution of questions like this.  I know it is popular in a lot of circles, but it is inefficient and leads to ambiguous transaction dynamics.  Why does everybody have to read and think about the question if only one answer is needed?  And who is actually responsible for answering?

    If you want an answer, send the question to one person who is accountable for answering.  And expect an answer, even if it is a redirect.  If you are not sure who to ask, then ask *that* question first.

    Bulk-distribution of email is best used for three purposes:  (1) distributing information where no direct reply is expected, or (2) prompting for information where every recipient is expected to reply, or (3) spam.

    Email is just not the right medium for crying out in the wilderness.

  29. Cheong says:

    Regarding "sending the same message twice does not make any difference", I can think of 2 situations that it makes difference:

    1) If the first mail is sent on weekdays and requires a long answer, it may be appropriate to resend it on weekend/holiday so someone with free time may be interested to write on it.

    2) If the first mail is sent on non-workdays, it may be appropriate to resend it on weekdays as most technical peoples prefers to read those emails on workdays.

  30. Puckdropper says:

    One technique I’ve seen used is after sufficient (or insuffient) time has passed the original poster finds his post and replies to it asking simply if no one knows the answer.  I’d consider it an acceptible practice so long as the message was a) coherent b) on topic and c) allowed to exist for at least a week.

  31. I’ve got to disagree with you a bit, Raymond. I’ve seen several instances where a message sent to a large DL got ignored or unanswered and was replied to on the resend.

    My gut feeling is that the resend makes the folks on the DL feel bad a little bit – and some good soul tries to help out.

    Another phenomenon I’ve seen is surrounding questions which have uncomfortable answers ("Why is feature X implemented in this bad fashion", "Why did we do bad thing Y"). My theory around this is that the folks who need to answer hope that you just take a hint and go away – and only care to respond when it is clear you’re not going away anytime soon.

  32. Stephen Jones says:

    I tend to agtee with Raymond regarding sending messages to message lists; a resend does let people know you’re still interested and may prompt an answer but if 300 people haven’t replied the odds are the question is too vague.

    With regard to individual emails I disagree though. People often simply ignore them if pressured. It’s highly uncooperative to say "I expect somebody to IM/phone/get off his fat butt and walk over". If you want to address the question another way send him an email telling him so. If you preferred to deal with somebody by email, as many do, you wouldn’t dream of putting the phone down if they rang, or ignoring them if they talked to you  because you think they should be sending an email, so don’t do the same thing when the situation is reversed.

  33. Igor says:

    Dean Earley said: "so when no one on a mailing list can answer, you should get back 300 replies saying "I dont know"?"

    Of course not.

    Let me explain what I had in mind when I said "impolite".

    Situation #1:

    You: Excuse me, could you please help me, I am looking for a store, it should be somewhere in this neighbourhood.

    At that point you could get two responses from me.

    Me #1: Sod off you moron, you didn’t word your question properly! (hint: you should have included store name)

    Me #2: Sure. Do you happen to know the store name?

    Which answer would you prefer in real life?

    Situation #2:

    You: Excuse me, I am looking for a store called "Holy Smoke", it should be somewhere in this neighbourhood.

    And again you can get two responses.

    Me #1: (silence)

    Me #2: Sorry, I can’t help you, I am not from this neighbourhood.

    What I have noticed is that people have much shorter "fuse" when they communicate over the Internet. Being invisible and untouchable means that you can ignore someone but I dare you to try doing the same thing on the street. Try it, and you might realize how impolite your Internet behavior actually is.

  34. Dewi Morgan says:

    Personally, if I called out in the street "Hey does anyone know the way to the Holy Smoke store?" I would not be unsurprised to receive no answer. This is why, when asking for directions, you select a victim on the basis of whether they look like a local rather than a tourist, whether they look like they have time or are rushing, and so on: the equivalent of selecting someone to send an email directly to instead of mailling to a list.

    If someone in the next cubicle emails you, they mean, to me, "this is not an issue worth disrupting your concentration for, and smashing your carefully built mental model: I understand and respect the reason that we have cubicles is for the ability to concentrate – instead, please respond when you are dealing with your other emails."

    To me, that’s a lot more polite than clomping in when I’m in the middle of debugging and completely destroying my concentration with a banal question.

  35. Ryan says:

    "Personally, if I called out in the street "Hey does anyone know the way to the Holy Smoke store?" I would not be unsurprised to receive no answer."

    Yes, but if you called into a room labeled "Direction assistance" you might expect a response.

    Personally, I usually see:

    1) Uggh taht’s going to be a rat-hole and I don’t HAVE to respond. Maybe someone else needs a gold star today.

    2) I don’t know.

    One issue people should keep in mind is that if I need something from another Microsoft team, I am likely to have no clue who is actually on that team. You try and find a DL that looks like a match and hit send. There isn’t always a published point of contact, and if there is you may not have access to the list.

  36. S says:

    If you send a message out twice, it makes you and it twice as important. Everyone knows that.

  37. S says:

    If you send a message out twice, it makes you and it twice as important. Everyone knows that.

  38. Sergey says:

    If after sending a message 2nd time silence continues – send it one more time IN THE UPPER CASE. ;)

  39. Erzengel says:

    "It is said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

    So it’s insanity for the drive through order takers to say "Hi, may I take your order?" and upon getting no response to repeat, "Hello? May I take your order?"

    And you know, the order taker does the same thing over and over again ("Hi, may I take your order?") and gets many varied results.

    Doesn’t quantum physics say that physics is about probabilities? Wouldn’t that mean that doing the same thing will get different results?

    As said before, there are situations where a resend does prove benificial. One would hope that you might include more information on a resend, but if you don’t have anymore information there’s not much to do.

  40. smackfu says:

    This happens to us when someone sends a mail to several people (all in the To) and no one thinks it’s their job to handle it.  The resend is annoying, but does tend to indicate that really no one is responding… hopefully someone does resond to the resend.

  41. Daggers says:

    If you’re compelled to re-send your question, add information to make it more likely that somebody will respond to the second one.

    Of course it helps to mark that extra information with single and double daggers.

  42. agloco says:

    i always resend emails. At first when I got no reply I always thought ive send it to the wrong email, so send again.

  43. Miral says:

    In a particular set of newsgroups, I’m one of the main group of people who answers most questions posed.  Frequently, however, questions will come up that I simply don’t know the answer to, or have a general idea what it might be but am not completely certain about.  So what I usually do in those cases is simply to not reply, expecting one of the others to reply in turn with a more definite answer than I could provide.

    Usually, this happens.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t, and if the original poster then does a resend (to bring the thread back up where it’s visible) then on the second round I will usually post a response indicating that I either don’t know the answer or can give some information but aren’t sure how helpful it’d be (since it’s then clear that nobody with more firm knowledge has replied in the interim).

    So as long as sufficient time elapses between the two posts, resending a question is actually beneficial.  (Not allowing enough time simply annoys people and makes it less likely for them to give you a helpful response.  Unfortunately for the querent, everybody has different ideas about how long is "long enough".)

  44. "" says:

    Insanity is obeying a proverb.

    "If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again."

  45. Igor says:

    And most likely everyone annoyed by double posting hates being asked "Would you like something for desert?" or "Would you like fries with that?" everytime they order in a fast food restaurant when the clerk should already know after 100th time that *they* never want desert or the fries. In the end it’s all about ego.

  46. Martin Cowen says:

    Re getting an email asking for your email address, I have had a cheque returned in the post stating the reason for return was that they didn’t have my address so couldn’t process my subscripton. I returned it saying they must have my address, and as proof here is your envelope back again, but they still returned it.

  47. Craig Ringer says:

    I find that the mailing list type also makes a big different. Mailing lists that set the Reply-To: header so that replies to go the list by default make it easy to tell if somebody has answered. I know I, for one, glance back for help threads that got no response and have a look if I skipped them before. On lists that reply-to-sender by default, it’s hard to tell whether a message got any attention, and in this case an is-anybody-here-but-the-crickets followup can make sense. As opposed to re-sending, which doesn’t (you got the message back from the mailing list the first time, so you know it got delivered).

    As for `smart-questions’… some of the ideas in that are useful, but I hate it when people post that in a mailing list discussion, because it’s *incredibly* arrogant, sneering and superior in tone, being written by ESR, and is full of prattle about the "hacker" identity. This isn’t the impression most people want to give, OSS developers/users or not. It’s as bad as "RTFM". In my view posting that URL to a discussion is a sin much worse than re-sending a mailing list post. Most people who do any sort of mailing list help / support have their own canned "not enough information or full of gibber" messages that achieve the same end, but are diplomatic and don’t reek of an ego immeasurable by normal means.

  48. Nihil says:

    > ways to communicate it than via email (like the phone or face to face).  

    Verba volant, scripta manent.

  49. Hayden says:

    The "CC the boss" tactic is usually necessary when you (in a "non-strategic, none-core" department) need to ask somebody in a "strategic, core" department to do anything. Especiually if the "strategic" department is in the USA, and you aren’t.

  50. James says:

    What really bugged me a few years ago was having people pick my email address off archived mailing lists for a subject – and then email me directly about other aspects of that subject.

    Hayden: a few years ago, someone emailed me, CCed to my supervisor, complaining about me not having sent him some document by the deadline. I rather enjoyed replying by forwarding him back his own reply to the document in question…

  51. Cooney says:

    You: Excuse me, could you please help me, I am looking for a store, it should be somewhere in this neighbourhood.

    Sure, there’s a store in that neighborhood. Several, in fact.

    What I have noticed is that people have much shorter "fuse" when they communicate over the Internet. Being invisible and untouchable means that you can ignore someone but I dare you to try doing the same thing on the street.

    I refer you to this: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19

  52. Dave Harris says:

    RyanBemrose wrote: "The first time the message goes by, anybody that doesn’t know stays quiet.  If that’s everybody, then the second message goes out and people realize that nobody else is going to jump on this grenade.  It is at this point that the likelihood of *someone* replying goes up significantly (which is what the original sender is counting on)"

    True, as are several other comments along the same lines. Raymond has a point, though: improving your email will improve your chances of getting a reply, over and above any improvement got by merely resending it.

  53. hunterhudson@hotmail.com says:

    Could you add me to the reply, I’m not on this alias?

    ;-)

  54. …Sorry I haven’t written much lately, I have plenty on the way. Counting down 3 months until my wedding

  55. Raymond and Matt just posted their own thoughts on e-mail etiquette, especially as it applies here at

  56. The tragedy of the commons.

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