Matt Gemmell

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Courtesy Suicide

writing 2 min read

I received an email recently with the subject:

"I wonder whether I might be able to ask you a question..."

It struck me as such a perfect example of a self-limiting email habit that I did actually read it. It was, of course, from a lovely person, who was extremely polite and who (as I eventually determined) had a technical query. If you’re that person, I hope you take this constructively, as intended.

I call this kind of email courtesy suicide, because the over-application of (what you think of as) courtesy will actually result in you not getting a reply. You’ve done two terrible things even before I consider reading your email:

  1. Your subject doesn’t tell me what you want.

    I maintain a very popular blog (you’re reading it). I write for publications, including an actual paper magazine. I share a lot of code with the development community. I’m a speaker at conferences. I’m a freelance UX/UI/accessibility consultant and developer. Unsurprisingly, I get a lot of email.

    Please, please, help me to categorise it by using a subject which summarises the contents and purpose of the message.

  2. You’ve made me work hard to understand you.

    Your email’s subject was hard to understand; this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the message, and my motivation to read it is already almost zero.

    You are sending me email. You should do the work beforehand to summarise and be succinct, to make the task of reading it as easy as possible. If you cannot be succinct, please don’t communicate with people. You’re a time-sink, and you’re getting in the way of better things.

Since this particular email was from a developer, and developers make up the bulk of my readership here, let me run through my mental parse-tree for the aforementioned email’s subject. It’s as follows, with my own thoughts as comments (i.e. beginning with “//”).

I wonder {

    whether I might {

        be able to {

            ask you a question... // You just did, despite lack of question mark.
                                  // It wasn't a positive experience for me.

        } // You doubt your ability to ask a question?

    } // Is there some doubt as to whether you want to ask?

} // I see. Keep wondering. Let me know how that turns out. Or don't.

It’s only 3 PM, and already I feel tired after reading your subject line. The email itself continues in this oh-so-courteous-and-circumspect way for several paragraphs, only reaching the actual topic about half-way through. For the record, the correct subject in this instance would be something like “Question about performance of real-time data storage/retrieval in Cocoa”.

That subject may pique my interest, and it will certainly gain you some subconscious points as my brain breathes a sigh of relief at how easy it was to parse and categorise the message.

When writing email (or any other communication), by all means be courteous - but understand that the primary form of courtesy is to be considerate of others’ time. Excessive verbiage isn’t courtesy; it’s just waffling. Get to the bloody point.

It’s time that’s the limited resource. If you want me to give you mine, it’s best not to start by stealing some of it.

(If you enjoy a high wit-to-words ratio, you may enjoy following me, @mattgemmell, on Twitter.)