Email tip: Nostalgia is not a question

This is another special case of Don't forget to ask your question, indeed an even more extreme case of Making some statements and asking for advice isn't a question.

I remember in version X, we used to be able to accomplish Task Q by clicking on W and then selecting X. Now you have to click on Y and select Z.

Nostalgia is not a question, and it isn't actionable.

What is your question? Do you want an explanation of why it changed? Are you looking for a way to change it back? Are you just reminiscing? Or maybe you're congratulating the design team for simplifying the task?

Comments (21)
  1. Mark says:

    The clue is in the phrase "have to".  Users don’t like being forced to do something.  Whether you respond by reverting the change or justifying the decision is up to your priorities.

  2. Bryan says:


    You’re assuming that there’s a problem and reverting the change or justification of the change are resolutions.

    The question requires more information whereas if the person had stated their question explicitly it wouldn’t.

    What if this statement was intended as a compliment (we used to have to do this, but now it’s much more intuitive).

  3. malduarte says:

    I can relate to this feeling, but I agree with Mark.  "Now you have to…" usually hints that the person is not happy with the change.

    In situations like this I would, by default,  explain why the change was made and ask back if the change was causing problems. Sometimes people need someone "help" to steer their own questions.

    Good communication is a two way street.

  4. malduarte says:

    errata to my last post: s/someone/some/

  5. Mark says:

    Bryan: yes I am assuming that.  But to assume anything else will aggravate someone who already needs placating.

    • "I have to type my password every time I open Outlook."

    • "I don’t know whether this is a compliment or not. Come back when you can explain yourself."

  6. Erzengel says:
    • "I have to type my password every time I open Outlook."

    I’d just respond: "Yes you do."

    Hopefully they realize they need to elaborate on the problem. Although sometimes they never respond. Maybe they just think "OK, so I can’t get around the problem."

    Honestly though, it’s like "Don’t forget to ask the question." If you send a question, that requires a reply. If you send me a statement, it does not require a reply. Usually I take a statement to be the end of the conversation. This is a problem when it’s the first email in the conversation (and isn’t intended as a memo).

  7. Pierre B. says:

    /me scratches his head.

    Raymond is giving an email-tip, not asking for help on how to handle this particular example.

  8. Keithius says:

    Sort of reminds me of this:

    "If you don’t specify what you expected to see, I may not understand why this is a bug. The splash screen has blood on it. So what? I cut my fingers when I was coding it. What did you expect? Ah, you say that the spec required no blood! Now I understand why you consider this a bug."

  9. poochner says:

    User: "Blah is broken."

    me: "What exactly is it doing that’s not what you expected?"

    Something along those lines usually works in that simple of a situation.  Of course, there’s also a presumption that I’m in any position to care (such as random rants about politics vs. issues with computer systems under my control).

  10. Mikkin says:

    Thanks for the info, but I already knew you have to click on Y and select Z. Have a nice day.

  11. Mark says:

    Erzengel: so if someone emails you "my clothes are on fire", you ignore it because there’s no question?

    Seriously, given how much he focuses on reading between the lines, Raymond’s clearly trolling everyone here.

  12. Gabe says:

    Mark: If somebody emailed me to tell me that their clothes were on fire, what could they possibly want me to do? Run over and extinguish them? Laugh? Commiserate? Tell them to call the fire department? Give them advice on how to put the fire out?

    Those are all valid responses, and it’s hard to know what they want, particularly if I don’t know them.

  13. Erzengel says:


    No, like I said: I usually take a statement to be the end of a conversation. This causes issues when it is the first email in a conversation. When it is the first email in a conversation and all I recieve is a statement, I usually reply with the most obvious course of action.

    Him: "My clothes are on fire."

    Me: "There’s a red lever on the wall that says ‘pull in case of fire’."

    Like Gabe says, you’re really thinking, "OK, that’s great. Should I point and laugh? Run over and put you out? Call 911? What?"

    I would usually expect "My clothes are on fire" to follow my own E-Mail to someone requesting they do something they don’t want to do: "Sorry, can’t. My clothes are on fire, gotta put it out." Statement: End of Conversation (Attempted).

    If it’s an "actionable" statement, such as, "When outlook opens I need to enter a password. I should be able to enter it once and let the computer remember the password.", then it’s a different story. There’s an implied, "Can you fix this?" in the statement. But without it, there’s just issues with "what do you want me to do about it?"

  14. Stephen Jones says:

    Raymond is a super-geek. Super-geeks can’t be expected to understand normal discourse like normal people, and his email correspondents are being naive in presuming the opposite.

  15. Bob says:

    Hi Raymond,

    A question not related to this thread. The comments in Suggestion Box are closed. Could you reopen it?


  16. Adam V says:

    Stephen Jones:

    I consider myself a "normal" person, and I don’t think that the email in question contains enough information to make anything more than an educated guess as to what the user wants.

    Yes, it’s a very good guess; I’d give it a 99% probability that the user wants to do task Q the old way. But there’s still a 1% chance that the user understands that task Q is a sensitive task, so UAC now pops up when you attempt it, or realizes that menu AA disappeared, so task Q had to move, or whatever else could have happened, and they’re just bitching to Raymond because he’s a convenient target. (Especially because everyone thinks Raymond wrote all of Windows, so they complain to him about IE issues, or localization issues, or tell him "Vista is crap", etc.)

    Who knows? Maybe they’re baiting him, so he displays his social skills of a thermonuclear device, and they get to brag to all their friends.

  17. schwiet says:

    Raymond, this reminds me of a question I had about managing network connections in windows.  What do you think?

  18. Jason says:

    I think there’s also an implicit "from people who should know better" in there. If a client tells me "X isn’t right," I know I’m going to draw the actual problem out of them over the course of an afternoon despite my best efforts to train them otherwise.

    For what I’d assume to be a mailing to a dev team there’s a much higher bar, even if you’re non-programming management: Don’t just whine, tell me what you want.

    One of my clients would get back something like, "Yes, we changed A-B to X-Y because of Z. We thought that because of JKL it would be easier this way. Are people over there not liking it/preferring the old way?"

    A fellow programmer (who should know better) would get, "Yes."

    Preemptive pre-snarky comment: I almost typed "because of 123 it would be easier…" above. Then I realized that nothing is ever easier with 1-2-3.

  19. David Walker says:

    Bob:  I’ll answer this for you.  The answer is No.

    Raymond has repeatedly said that he has enough suggestions to last for several years.  So, don’t wait for the suggestion box to be reopened.

    Raymond is also not inclined to answer questions that have been answered before!

  20. Also, Bob, if you’ve been to the suggestion box then you’ll have read this:

    "Note the enormous topic backlog. Consequently, the suggestion box has been closed temporarily and will reopen once the existing backlog has cleared, which I estimate will happen sometime in early 2010. If your suggestion is that important, I’m sure you’ll remember it when the suggestion box reopens."

  21. Marc says:

    Nice this blog covers grammar as well :)

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