How do I respond to this email?
March 16, 2017 10:44 AM   Subscribe

I've cold emailed someone in my industry and she responded with a rude email. How do I respond?

I work in teacups (not really but as an example) and I cold emailed someone who has done some interesting things in teacup manufacturing. One thing I do from time to time is reach out to industry leaders to get their story, engage in conversations, and see if there are ways to help each other. I guess it's networking but I'm not trying to get a job or ask anything specific from them and have been upfront about that. I've been super lucky in that 9/10 people have been responsive and kind and when we do talk, we have super interesting conversations and have stayed in touch!

Except...this person replied that they were busy and that I should ask questions over email. Fair enough - I asked some specific questions about teapot manufacturing. She replied yesterday with one brusque sentence saying: "That's a generic question, and there's a lot written on this already."

Ouch. How do I respond to that? Here are my options:

1. Respond blandly...."Thanks for your response. Will check out the blogs out there. Have a great week!"
2. Address it? "Thanks for your response. Apologies if I took up your time. Cheers!"
2. Not respond? But that's lame.

I guess I am also surprised by the brevity of it, and it's been a while since I've dealt with an email interaction like this.
posted by treetop89 to Work & Money (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think this person has signaled twice that they're not interested in this type of interaction. They're not critical to your progress at work, and you're not going to change your mind, so you should #3, not respond, and move on.
posted by mercredi at 10:47 AM on March 16, 2017 [85 favorites]

Drop it. There's no way to "win" this discussion going forward, and lots of ways to "lose" it.
posted by Etrigan at 10:49 AM on March 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

The thing is, it's a waste of time for her to craft some personalized email about stuff you can find through a google search. I genuinely think her response was appropriate and it was your expectations that were out of line. Could she have written a more polite response? Sure. Was she IN ANY WAY obligated to? No.

I suggest that you do not respond. You will not get anything out of further exchanges with this person and if you needle her with passive-aggressive comments she will forever remember you as someone she does not want to work with.
posted by kate blank at 10:50 AM on March 16, 2017 [65 favorites]

They don't want to speak with you; don't waste any more of your/their time on this.
posted by griphus at 10:50 AM on March 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

Just forget about it and don't respond. Also perhaps reflect on the actual feedback you got (rather than the way it was delivered). Most subject-matter-experts will resent it if you ask about very basic questions that can be answered by doing a Google search.

I say this as someone who frequently reaches out to interview people, both for networking and for magazines.
posted by My Dad at 10:51 AM on March 16, 2017 [14 favorites]

+what My Dad says. I get emails like this from time to time and if they are too assuming, I find them frustrating. I want to help people who are interested in breaking into my industry, but I am very busy and can't do the legwork.

Sometimes I get requests from people who make it easy for me to help. They suggest coffee at a place they know I will be (a conference or something - not creepily in my neighborhood on a morning that they stalk my social media feed!), or they have a very specific question in mind that is directly, clearly related to something I personally have done and can't be googled for.

If you just drop it now she will probably not remember. If you respond further to justify or get more help, or to try to make a better impression, it will probably just make it worse.
posted by pazazygeek at 11:02 AM on March 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've been super lucky in that 9/10 people have been responsive

Spend your time on the 90%; the lesser 10% is not worth the hassle. It seems they're plenty of others to engage with and benefit from.
posted by mountainblue at 11:04 AM on March 16, 2017 [11 favorites]

Most subject-matter-experts will resent it if you ask about very basic questions that can be answered by doing a Google search.

Seconding this for emphasis.

Also, I find "networking" for the sake of networking annoying as all get out, i.e., I want an actual reason for contacting and getting together.
posted by she's not there at 11:08 AM on March 16, 2017 [16 favorites]

Keep in mind that email often makes people sound more blunt or short than they intended - they may not have been trying to be rude
posted by thelonius at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

This person may very well get cold calls and emails all day long. She said she's busy; let it go.

I'd also reconsider your practice of doing this. I manage the lives of several busy executives and I am never nice to the cold callers and emailers because if I were, they would keep calling and emailing and I would never get anything else done. You should not take this personally, but you should also consider whether asking strangers questions about googleable things is the best use of your and their time.
posted by something something at 11:15 AM on March 16, 2017 [24 favorites]

I guess it's networking but I'm not trying to get a job or ask anything specific from them and have been upfront about that.

So you're tying up their inbox and their time asking questions about how they do their thing, and you're not offering anything in return (compensation, a shoutout somewhere, even a cup of coffee?) And then on top of it, the answers you seek are publicly available?

When the ROI is zero or negative, I'd bounce it from my inbox as well.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:15 AM on March 16, 2017 [16 favorites]

The thing is, it's a waste of time for her to craft some personalized email about stuff you can find through a google search. I genuinely think her response was appropriate and it was your expectations that were out of line.

She could have been more polite but yes, I agree with this. I am a subject specialist with several decades of experience in a topic and I get many emails a week for people asking for help with issues in that topic, from students in the field, to people with a new product, to people who are looking for work with the industry. I usually try to respond politely with something that is useful even to people pitching a product.

However, I have a limited amount of time to respond to strangers when I have legit industry work to be doing. So I reply to every library school student who wants an interview, but if they ask me for information which is on my resume, FAQ page or could be found with 30 seconds of Googling, I let them know that, hopefully politely.

And, because of the nature of email and easy-access-to-everyone sometimes these emails catch me when I am not having the best day, just came back from the dentist, whatever. So sometimes I reply abruptly. I do not know the person and they are asking for something from me. I like to feel that there's a general karmic payback, that this person will pay it forward to someone else or that I might be able to get similar help when I need it in the future. But the immediate transaction is me giving something for... nothing.

So it sounds like this is working pretty well for you. I'd encourage you to focus on the positive and just move on here. You do not have a relationship with this person, there is no onus on you to respond. Maybe they're having a bad day, maybe they're a bad person, you don't know. 90% is a pretty decent return rate and I think you're mostly doing just fine if this is the way you've decided to approach people.
posted by jessamyn at 11:15 AM on March 16, 2017 [34 favorites]

Remind yourself that these are trying times and a lot of people are stressed and overwhelmed. It might well be that she would normally be glad to talk about teacups with you but her organization [is facing some kind of structural crisis or something] and she just can't handle it today.
posted by Frowner at 11:16 AM on March 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

One thing I do from time to time is reach out to industry leaders ...

Except...this person replied that they were busy and that I should ask questions over email.

I'm concerned about what you mean by your very vague phrase "reach out." (This was originally an AT&T slogan. How did it become part of the language?)

Do you mean that you actually phone them? If so, please stop that. It wastes your time placing the call, wastes the time of the receptionist, maybe some back and forth on the other end deciding whether to put your call through, and then wastes the time of your "industry leader" figuring out why you're calling, before finally, maybe, having some kind of useful conversation. I would never accept your call. Recommendation, email only.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:56 AM on March 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

I disagree with folks saying you should stop your practice of trying to connect with people in your industry. If you are having successful and pleasant (for both parties) interactions 90% of the time, sounds like your general judgement about who to contact, what to ask for and how to phrase it are all pretty much on target. I mean, maybe take extra care in the future to make sure you aren't asking a question that is too general, but it sounds like you usually don't ask general questions (and you say you asked specific questions in this case).

Chalk this one up to "eh, sometimes people are brusque," drop it and move on. No biggie.

Side note: It is useful to realize that the people you're contacting might be very busy people, and to take that into account when you're deciding how/whether to reach out to them. I urge you not to start getting preemptively apologetic though. That's an easy temptation if you are youngish and worried that you are asking too much from older/more powerful people, and it isn't necessary and won't add any value.
posted by aka burlap at 12:03 PM on March 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

From how you've described it, I'm pretty shocked people have been as responsive as they have so far. In this case, I wouldn't respond at all.
posted by mzurer at 12:13 PM on March 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

If you are sending an email, ask yourself if you are requesting a Favour or a Big Ask. Do you have a prior relationship with the person you are contacting? Do you have mutual friends who can vouch for you? Is what you are asking something of huge benefit to you but not to the other person?

Favours come with an expectation that at some point the asker will be in the position of helping you out with something. It is a mutual beneficiary situation: if I help a friend by proof-reading his article, he might lend me a place to sleep next time I pass through his town. If I introduce a friend to another friend – maybe one day one of them will introduce me to someone interesting. Sure I end up feeling great about helping out people, but I also know that I’ll have an IOU in future reserve if I ever need it.

Big Asks come with nothing. I don’t know the person asking. The request has come out of nowhere and often the Big Ask would result in me handing over significant sources of income (including hard-earned knowledge) to complete strangers. In return? Once I’ve helped out with the Big Ask, chances are that I’ll either never heard from the asker again or I’ll keep getting Big Asks until I have nothing left to give.

So, a random thought here: industry leaders tend to get a lot of Big Asks coming into their inbox. You might have been lucky and reached a number of people who thought it would be mutually beneficial to establish contact with you. This time? You are possibly a Big Asker and the person went "nah, hell to that". Move on. Stop doing the Big Asks and instead pitch yourself as someone it's worth doing a Favour.
posted by kariebookish at 12:27 PM on March 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a rule of thumb, I think that if the person is more senior in the industry than you, you should exhaust online resources and only approach them with specific questions that they are uniquely qualified to shed light on. It shows you've done your research and understand where their work fits into the bigger picture. I wouldn't ask for vague things like their "story," preferring instead to say, "I saw on LinkedIn that you did [thing] and I'm curious about [thing] for my own professional development. Did you find that [thing] related to [niche issue] in [way]?"

And generally, I wouldn't insinuate that the connection is mutually beneficial unless you know exactly what you can offer the person, or they're at or below your level of seniority. For people who are industry leaders, better to go into it with the tacit vibe that they're doing you a solid you can't repay by lending their time to you.*

*And it's fine to not be able to repay people! As you have seen, some people enjoy helping for the sake of doing it and will meet up with you regardless of what you can do for them.
posted by delight at 1:41 PM on March 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

As a professor you get so damn many of these cold call emails, from journalists and cranks and international colleagues and random autodidacts. Some are interesting and intriguing. Most are obtuse and evince clear ignorance of and disinterest in what I actually know about or do. Many think they are asking an original question or that I should automatically be intrigued by their hypothesis, where it would take a recitation of very basic premises and literatures to disabuse them. I get paid to do that for students who have paid for the privilege.

Email has made it possible for anyone anywhere to reach out at very low effort cost to anyone else. Sounds great. But if you're perceived as some kind of gatekeeper or expert it's disinhibited people who wouldn't be able to compose a letter or come to a public lecture or buy your damn book just reaching the hell out.

I get so many of these that I ignore many of them, respond with a polite sentence to the ones that are polite and reasonably respectful, and once in a while, when having a bad email day and wishing I could close the laptop and go home at 8:30pm, I fire off a snarky or sarcastic or just plain annoyed response to one of these that strikes me as particularly self-important, arrogant, clueless, or presumptive.

If you're gonna cold call, expect some door slams. It's human nature. Some people don't like others viewing the fact that they have a published email address as an invitation to random people to get in touch.

Best was when I worked for a public university and would get bizarre questions from people who thought that as taxpayers they were entitled to my expertise.

God help you if you reply to my snark with bullshit.
posted by spitbull at 2:59 PM on March 16, 2017 [17 favorites]

I heard some really good advice on the John Hodgman podcast. I wish I could remember what episode it was.

He said that he gets lots of cold emails from people who want him to do something for them--blurb their book, write an article for their magazine, perform at their event, etc. Some of these emails--especially from younger and less experienced people--are long and chatty and difficult to read. The problem is that people try to make him like them by doing an impression of him. They write weird, circuitous comedy essays instead of just making a clear ask.

That advice really struck me because I'd totally been one of those people when writing to people in my field. When I was writing someone to ask them to help with a project, I'd write these long, ornate essays explaining the background and genesis of the project and why they were the missing keystone. I really needed to knock it off. Now, I have a rule that when I'm first contacting someone I don't know very well, I keep it under five sentences (with a link for more information, if appropriate). Now, I'm in a position where I'm starting to get those cold emails. And man, I'm more likely to reply to the short ones.

You might also want to think about other ways to get the sort of general camaraderie it sounds like you're looking for. Like getting on some email listservs or message boards in your field. Or going to a conference and hanging out in the hotel bar afterward.

One more thing: if you're a man, do one more extra gut check before you send an uninvited email to a woman. The women I work with are always a little extra suspicious of these sorts of communiques. They all have stories of men who really specifically and creepily cornered them under the veneer of professional networking.
posted by roll truck roll at 5:40 PM on March 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

I guess I'm the only person who thinks you should respond. I'd go with #1. I am in a field that involves sending and receiving lots of requests, and hearing and saying "no" is part of it. She could've padded her answer, but she cut to the chase, but at least she bothered to tell you why, and in my experience, that is also generally helpful.

I think your #1 is perfect and the best thing you can do for your goal of building relationships in the field over time.
posted by salvia at 6:32 PM on March 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I could be your teacup manufacturer. Came in to say much the same thing as Spitbull, upthread. The magic and the curse of the internet is that it is basically free to contact someone. I'm not famous or anything, but I do get interviewed in magazines in my field, invited to speak at conferences, and control a moderately large budget. For that, I usually get about 50 "cold call" emails each and every day and maybe 20 phone calls on weekdays. While most of them are transparent, unapologetic sales pitches, there are a couple every day that fall into that category of people wanting to network, do informational interviews, students doing capstone projects, journalists writing stories, or some similiar request. Your description of your email would certainly fit that category. Here is the thing: I'm willing to help or network or whatever, but I don't have unlimited time to do that. If someone can't meet me halfway, it isn't going to happen. I feel that I owe people responses who take the time to write me, but often those responses are going to be one sentence, to just acknowledge receipt and say, "not a fit" or direct them to my assistant to schedule a call, or whatever. Not to be too harsh, but your correspondent has already forgotten about you under the weight of other emails; whether you take option #1, #2, or #3 isn't really going to matter to them. For that reason, I would suggest option #2 because that is the high road for you.
posted by kovacs at 7:47 PM on March 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd just say 'thanks anyway, sorry for the bother.'
posted by Sebmojo at 7:50 PM on March 16, 2017

Can I ask why you think you should respond? Is it because you want to close the loop, or acknowledge the response, or somehow maintain a tenuous connection?

I don't think you need to respond, and I don't think responding will accomplish much here.

Also, I don't know if you are solely cold emailing people but consider asking your current contacts if they know someone who would be a great resource on x, or if they can suggest someone you could talk to about y. There are some people who have the time, interest, desire, resources, energy... whatever, to engage in this way and they often know other like-minded folks. You may have just caught someone who isn't interested in this, period.
posted by sm1tten at 8:24 PM on March 16, 2017

Oh yeah if you're gonna send cold call emails in our own self interest MAKE THEM SHORT.

Wall of text emails from people I don't know are an auto-delete for me. I also get paid to read.
posted by spitbull at 3:01 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I guess I'm in the minority here, too. I agree with the general "drop it and move on" current, but I see nothing wrong and a lot right with a polite response. A cheerful thank you and apology for taking up their time can still go along with dropping it and moving on. :) A combination of your #1 and #2 responses? Or either one.
posted by leticia at 8:52 AM on March 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's a lot wrong with a "polite response" when the recipient is clearly already ticked off at the time wasted. The teacup SME is pretty obviously annoyed. Wasting more of her time will not help, and may well only serve to cement OP's name in her mind as a &$?€ clueless pest; ideally she forgets the exchange. I would not want a leader in my industry to view me as a time-sucking dork. She already said she is busy.

I'm already kind of amazed that OP is cold-calling and immediately wanting to take things out of e-mail -- I would hit 'delete' -- and that OP asked an expert about stuff that was easy to look up. It makes me wonder if the other "9 out of 10" folk think OP is possibly very young or otherwise in need of patience, or if OP is networking with more purpose and the recipients expect a favour in return in the future.

The fact that the question asked was already well-answered...something seems off about the whole thing here; I have no explanation for why OP would try to get a phone call with a SME over a well-answered question. Whatever the reason, I'd be hoping she'd forget my name ASAP, not clutter my inbox yet again. There are no thanks to be offered here, and OP has been tut-tutted (though the mail was brusque and not rude) enough by the teapot expert to not need to apologize, I think.
posted by kmennie at 1:45 PM on March 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

treetop89: "I've cold emailed someone in my industry and she responded with a rude email. How do I respond?
Except...this person replied that they were busy and that I should ask questions over email. Fair enough - I asked some specific questions about teapot manufacturing. She replied yesterday with one brusque sentence saying: "That's a generic question, and there's a lot written on this already."

I find it quite bizarre that you consider her reply rude. From your post title, I was expecting something like "How dare you ask me such stupid questions? Leave me the fuck alone, you leech."

Her reply is direct. Not the same as rude. I would think carefully about whether your expectations of 'polite' behavior from women mean that they are not allowed to be direct.
posted by medusa at 2:46 PM on March 17, 2017 [9 favorites]

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