Please answer the question
July 9, 2018 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Why does this keep happening to me? People don't answer the question that I have asked them. Instead, they've answered some other question or have given a partial answer. Example inside.

I've asked this before, years ago, and it keeps happening, and today, I have a perfect example. Why does this keep happening to me? Please examine this email exchange.

The question:
"A concern came up came up from a few of my folks: As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC), and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon, does that mean they’ll have “double parking privilege” this month? In other words, are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?"

The answer:
"Anyone using XYZ or another unmanaged lot might end up double paying for parking for the second half of the month. However, ABC parkers will not see a second deduction for ABC on their next paycheck, but rather, there will be a deduction consistent with the new garage they are parking in, as our parking payroll deduction is taken twice per month."

Do you see the problem? What's provided doesn't answer the question. They failed to answer the "will it stop" question and instead answered "how do payments work." It's tangentially related. But it's not my answer. I have to send another email for clarification. "Thank you, but what I meant was..."

It drives me nuts!

This is a frequent occurrence with all sorts of people, so it can't be explained by saying I just happen to be communicating with dumb people or people that are prone to misreading things. I'm the consistent part of these exchanges, so is it how I'm asking my questions?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Grab Bag (51 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think the problem here, respectfully, is everything before "Are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to stop working on July 12". If you know the question you need answered, ask that question first, and skip all the stuff which might confuse someone.
posted by Jairus at 2:31 PM on July 9, 2018 [54 favorites]

Best answer: A clearer way to ask might have been "can we continue to park in ABC/XYZ as well as DEF during the second half of the month?"

However, that's not why you got the answer you got. You got that because someone couldn't be arsed to read your question carefully. Someone saw the words "double" and "parking" and "paid" and just cut and pasted something they hoped was what you wanted.

You can try being more precise with your questions, but don't expect too much. Most people aren't listening/reading carefully.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:31 PM on July 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It is common and often because people skim. One thing to try is to keep your questions short, since that is something you have control over. To really nitpick your example, you asked two questions:

A)does that mean they’ll have “double parking privilege” this month?
B)are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?

and those are two opposite questions because if the answer to A is yes, the answer to B is no and vice versa. If they have double permission, the passes will not stop working. If the passes stop working, they don't have double permission. Their first sentence says that they will end up paying twice if they use ABC but not if they use XYZ. To me that answers the payment part but not the pass part.
posted by soelo at 2:33 PM on July 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think it's you, or the people you're communicating with specifically. I think it's just a thing that happens with people, and written communication can exacerbate it. I think a lot of times, especially in professional situations, people get used to answering a specific question, so when they read an email, they are looking for one of the questions they often get asked. Once they see certain words/phrases, their brain slots it into that question and they answer it without fully reading the email.

It's super frustrating! The only way I've managed to mitigate this is to separate the question I'm asking from the context-info, and sometimes even bolding the question. ie,

"A concern came up came up from a few of my folks: They have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC), and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon.

Does that mean that people who have double paid will have “double parking privilege” this month? Or are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?"

I think of it like with AskMe. You know how sometimes askers give so much context it muddies the waters and makes it harder for people to just ask the question being asked? I don't think you did that exactly here, but it is helpful to just make the question itself as clear as possible.

(I also changed some of the words in the question part so that it can be read and understood on its own if the person doesn't read the context. I've found this is useful.)
posted by lunasol at 2:33 PM on July 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

This happens on almost all discussion forums.

I think it can be attributed to people just skim-reading a question.

There is an knack to phrasing questions on forums to minimise misinterpretation errors. For example, be really concise and give each separate point it's own line. And you can always highlight most likely misinterpretations. e.g. "I am NOT asking about how payments work..."
posted by jacobean at 2:35 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have the same issue. I get too wordy in my questions. I usually preamble and then itemise the questions afterwards. Or intro sentence, then questions, then more elaboration afterwards (if necessary), depending on the kind of person I am communicating with. Skimmers get the first option, attention-deficient people who are also micro managers get the second one.

1: So I expect this makes how many questions there are clearer and
2: I get at least one the questions answered
3: Always make the most important question you want answered the No.1

"(insert possibly passive aggressive overly explanatory passage here for the micro managers so they would look dicks if they didn't give the answer I wanted)"
posted by Brockles at 2:38 PM on July 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

This drives me crazy, too. And I've given it a lot of thought. I don't think you are going to like my answer.

Cool Papa Bell, I know you from MetaFilter enough to recognize your name, and a brief tour just now through your activity confirmed my hunch. You are smarter than most people you encounter every day.

The world is genuinely full of people who are dumb, people who don't listen, people without empathy, people just waiting for time to pass while you are talking so they can have their chance to say something, people with bad hearing, people who are upset or having a really bad day. It appears that they don't listen because they actually are not listening.

In the case you quoted, this person may have been a relatively low-paid employee who found the question confusing, or cut-and-pasted some nebulously applicable boilerplate verbiage from a manual, or just didn't care enough to give the question any thought as to how to respond.

I recognize that for me to say the world is full of morons and sociopaths is depressing. This is a dark attitude, but when it finally clicked for me, I began to regard communication in general as less effective than I previously thought it was.

Also related: those myriads of people who need to repeat the same thing five or six or seven times in a conversation. Yes, I heard you the first time, but for some reason you keep on saying the exact same thing. Ugh.

Sorry for the downer answer, but I think you are giving people credit for being as smart, concerned and empathetic as you yourself are. The overwhelming evidence is that they are not.
posted by seasparrow at 2:38 PM on July 9, 2018 [36 favorites]

There is also the selective answering, where someone answers the part of your question you want to hear and waits for you to clarify/ask again to give you a negative response.
posted by typecloud at 2:59 PM on July 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

I sit at the reference desk in a large academic library and have had plenty of time to ponder questions and answers.

Sometimes people don't know what they are asking for, and so tell a long story that circles around a question that hasn't been formulated yet.

Sometimes people don't have an answer so they tell you something they do know, and hope that's good enough.

Sometimes people are frustrated and want you to know it, so they tell a long story with a question tacked on the end to legitimize their complaint.

Sometimes people mistake a request for facts with a request for explanation of process.

Because of all this potential for misunderstanding, I find that:

short, to-the-point questions lead to simple succinct answers.


ask first, explain afterwards
posted by gyusan at 2:59 PM on July 9, 2018 [35 favorites]

When I first heard the word “mansplaining” I thought it was referring to this phenomenon. Ask a detailed question and get back something that sounds like they were just listening for keywords. My strategies for dealing with this:
- try to avoid asking questions over email
- breaking things down to their absolute simplest terms, even simpler than I think is possible
- expecting this type of response as the first phase of communication; OK, now that we got through that we can go to the next level. This just makes it less frustrating.
posted by bleep at 3:05 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm tired today, and have a bit of a headache.

I've read your question twice, and I still don't understand it. It seems needlessly complicated.

On a different day, I might understand it perfectly. I might even write a question that's just as complicated.

How many groups of people are affected by this question? Because it seems like it could be four groups of people, or it could be one group of people. If the question was better-phrased, I feel like I would know instantly.

Sometimes it's useful to make sure that all your sentences have a single clause each.
posted by clawsoon at 3:07 PM on July 9, 2018 [22 favorites]

Best answer: I have this happen to me pretty regularly with specific people. It has gotten so bad with one individual that no matter how I ask the question, I know I'll get an answer that has nothing to do with the question I ask.

An example:
Q:"Do we have a policy on what field is used for noting gift books and donations? If so, which field do we use?"

A:Copied and pasted definition from the manual for the software on note fields, copied and pasted definition from the industry standard on note fields, and a three paragraph explanation of the concern a donor back in 1986 had about publically available notes indicated they'd donated books to us.

Which eventually I parsed to be "No. We don't, but here's some crap we did in the past and why."

I've tried being more precise and it helps with a lot of people, but not my favorite problem child. At this point, I am just assuming that it's a test from the universe and I am to just let it slide.
posted by teleri025 at 3:07 PM on July 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's not just you. Some people—lots of people—are just unreliable interlocutors. To answer any question that you don'tvalready have a prepared answer for you need to A: Pay attention, B: Comprehend the question C: Know the answer and D: Communicate the answer clearly. Those are a whole bunch of things that many people are just plain bad at. Instead, whether because of incompetence or just laziness, they give a semisensical canned response that they hope will make you go away and stop bothering them. It's endemic and seems to be worsening with time. Hell, our damn President operates this way. I don't know if there is a solution.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:11 PM on July 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

it can't be explained by saying I just happen to be communicating with dumb people or people that are prone to misreading things.

Basically, I'd suggest you are grossly underestimating the number of people who are dumb/prone to misreading things.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:13 PM on July 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed with the suggestions to simplify the questions you're asking. Consider rewriting so that each question is one question only. If context is needed, put it after the question.

For example, you wrote:
A concern came up came up from a few of my folks: As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC), and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon, does that mean they’ll have “double parking privilege” this month? In other words, are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?
I would simplify this:
Question: Some people have already paid for parking this month in lots XYZ and ABC. Will those parking passes be good for the full month?
I wouldn't even address the DEF question until the matter of paying for that parking pass arises.

TBH, I had to reread your question to be sure what you were asking. Asking about "double parking privilege" is confusing if all you need to know is "will the passes be good for the whole month?"
posted by Lexica at 3:18 PM on July 9, 2018 [10 favorites]

OMG, Cool Papa Bell, this happens to me ALL THE TIME. I think I'm just wordy when I ask questions, though I try not to be.

But even on Metafilter, I'll ask what I think is a fairly straightforward question-- "Do you know any historical romances set in the France of Louis XV?"-- and I'll get a bunch of answers which don't... actually answer the question. And it drives me absolutely CRAZY.

I have favorited this post.

You are not alone in this!!
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 3:19 PM on July 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hesitant to answer now because I feel as if I'm revealing myself as dumb, lacking empathy or -- horrors! -- low-paid, but I had to read a few times to understand what you were asking and to understand the response.

If you're looking for whether they'll be able to park in 2 lots this month, I'd ask:
Will employees who already paid for lot ABC or lot XYZ at the beginning of the month be able to park in their original lot and in lot DEF this month?

But if I was your respondent, I'd have said:
We don't manage payments for parking at lot XYZ, so if an employee paid for the full month to park there, they'll be able to park in XYZ as well as in DEF once their first DEF deduction occurs. But since we do perform deductions for lot ABC, employees will be able to park there until the next payroll deduction. Then they will need to switch to lot DEF and stop parking in ABC.
posted by kimberussell at 3:20 PM on July 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Lots of people skim and answer the question they expect rather than the question they’re asked. It’s frustrating as hell, but there’s no way to avoid it completely. I ran into this problem with a doctor recently where I asked her multiple times if sedation was going to require an IV and she kept answering that it wasn’t general anesthesia. She’s obviously a smart person, but she wasn’t answering my question.

That said, I found your email a bit confusing. It seems like the “in other words” part is actually posing the opposite scenario, if I’m reading it correctly. I’m a technical copy editor, so a big part of my job is writing questions for authors that will yield a useful answer. I find it’s important to make questions as short and simple as possible and, if a question has multiple parts, to designate the parts as a, b, c, etc.
posted by FencingGal at 3:21 PM on July 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: No offense, but I think in this case it's because the question setup kind of sounds like you're asking a different question.

"A concern came up... they have paid for the current offsite parking this month... and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon."

That sure sounds like you're about to ask about double paying. Who gets "concerned" about having double parking privileges?

If I were answering, I would have answered the implied "we're concerned that we already paid for the month and now we're paying again" question and also the specific questions you asked at the end.
posted by salvia at 3:22 PM on July 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

A more reliable/useful interlocutor, faced with a confusing question, would request clarification. Sure there are ways to make your questions clearer, but a significant number of people are going to give you non-answers no matter what you do. They are the permanently confused, and they are legion.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:25 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would agree that you should lead with the question, but I also noticed that your "in other words" was describing the opposite of "double parking privilege" which is kind of confusing. If I'm skimming, I might parse that as asking about double payment and roll with it.

As to your actual question, I think you're trying to ask the following: Can employees use XYZ and/or ABC between the 12th and the end of the month (given that they have already paid for the full month) as well as DEF (for which they will presumably be billed in the second half of the month)?

The response looks like they're trying to explain that employees haven't been charged for the second half of the month at ABC, but might have been charged for the full month at XYZ. In that case, neither of your questions is answerable without explaining the payment arrangements. If you assume days paid = days eligible to park, the answer seems complete, albeit indirect.

You might try rephrasing things that aren't answerable as yes/no (for example: What day will the ABC parking lot passes expire?) and see if that gives you more direct answers. If you need to add context or explain the underlying assumptions, do that in a second paragraph.
posted by stefanie at 3:30 PM on July 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have had trouble with this before, because I tend to write my questions like you do, in a fairly complex and wordy style, with multiple clauses that are dependent upon each other. (I mean, geez, look at my last AskMe question—I can really get super complex with my questions, haha.)

I work in chat and a ticketing system, though, and people skim things constantly, so I've had to actively work to address this by reading back over my questions before I ask them and breaking them up, cutting out any extra words. No one reads a lump of text like that, and my questions often get ignored if I don't offer clear questions to answer at very least, and at best anticipate what the potential answers might be as well, to give them direction on what kind of answer I'm anticipating and save them time writing up answers. I'm still not actually sure I totally understand your original question as it's phrased, without more context.

The way I address this is being very clear to set up the question's context with a brief sentence or phrase, then use formatting to indent the part that is actually the question, and bullet or number a list of specific questions I have. So here's how I'd phrase your question, I think.
A concern about parking came up came up from a few of my folks, and I'm wondering if you can help clarify.
1. The people who currently park offsite (i.e., in lots XYZ and ABC) will soon begin paying for DEF-area parking. Does that mean they’ll be able to park in all three lots (XYZ, ABC, and DEF) this month?

2. If so, will they be able to park in all three lots for the whole month, or only after their payments for DEF-area parking go through on July 12?

3. When the payments for DEF-area parking go through on July 12, will their XYZ and ABC parking passes also stop working?
We're trying to be sure that we're all parking in the correct areas and that we understand what access we'll have and when, so there are no issues. We definitely appreciate any clarification.
I added the second question, which was implicit but unstated in the first question when I read it. It might not have actually been part of what you wanted to ask—you might already know the answer to that, e.g., perhaps you know that everyone who starts paying for the DEF lot will only be able to use it after July 12, or perhaps the DEF lot won't even be built or fully owned by the company until July 12, heh. But as someone totally outside the situation, I think one reason your question was unclear, or at least doesn't seem to match up with the answer that you got, is that your time frames don't match up. You're asking about parking this month, which to me would imply the entire month, and the answer you got suggests that the payments (and thus perhaps parking access) will match up with pay periods, which are perhaps biweekly. So that's another source of confusion.

Something Matt Fraction once wrote about narrative seems applicable here—whenever you're trying to ask or answer a question, remember that you're telling a story, and consider this.
“The most shopworn tool in my toolbox reduces stories down to two things: what happens, and what’s it about. Story and plot. Call it whatever you prefer; far from an original thought, asking myself what happens (‘Batman fights Riddler’) and what’s it about (‘Mental illness affects all socioeconomic strata’) serves as my dumb little compass when I can’t figure out [where to go or what to do]. Recentering and refocusing. Wait, what happens? Wait, what’s it about? Oh, right. Punching the Riddler.”
So what happens? You're paying for access to a different parking lot. What's it about? You want to know where you should be parking and when. Those things should inform what you emphasize in your questions.

The story framing in the book Houston, We Have a Narrative, about how scientists can better represent their work through narrative, can also be useful.
___ and ___, but ___, therefore ___
The book's example was from The Wizard of Oz, e.g., Dorothy is a girl living on a farm in Kansas and her life is boring, but one day a tornado sweeps her away to Oz, and therefore she has to begin a journey home. In your case, people are currently parking in lots XYZ and ABC, but on July 12, they'll begin paying for lot DEF, and therefore, there is some confusion about which lots people can park in and when. That framing should shape the way you approach the question.
posted by limeonaire at 3:40 PM on July 9, 2018 [27 favorites]

Other responses have already given good coverage of why people might find this particular sample question confusing—I had to read it a couple of times myself. That said I feel you, OP, on the general problem. What I've found is two-fold:
  • People tend to skim. They have limited capacity for close reading and for dealing with complexity. This holds even for people who are, broadly speaking, both smart and diligent. The shorter and simpler the I make my questions, the better my chance of getting a good answer. I'd love it if people were all super conscientious and read I write everything carefully and completely, but that's not what happens—and it's not necessarily fair for me to put that burden on them.
  • People read and answer through their own perceptual filter and what seems important to them. That's true for all of us. While it's frustrating to ask what seems like a well-formed and specific question and get a response that is tangentially related as best, I find it either indicates an ambiguity that wasn't obvious to me before, or it's just something I have to accept as part of dealing with imperfect human communication.

posted by 4rtemis at 3:50 PM on July 9, 2018

When I get answers like this, I often find it's because one of us is making an incorrect assumption the other isn't aware of, so we just end up talking past each other. Once you figure out what the assumption is and correct it, everything starts making sense.

Taking your exchange as an example, working off of kimberussell's and stefanie's explanations, I think the assumption that you've made here is that billing for XYZ, ABC, and DEF are all handled by the company you're emailing. However, the company actually only manages lots ABC and DEF, not XYZ. The person replying is confused by the question you're asking because to them, it makes no sense - it's obvious to them that they only manage ABC and DEF, so why are you asking about ABC and XYZ together?

Teasing out these assumptions can be tricky, even when you're giving it your full attention, let alone when you're just skimming.

Also, maybe it's because I have no context and have never handled paid monthly parking before, but I had to read your question several times, and the comments, before I understood it - I think. I agree with the other commenters' analyses of the phrasing.
posted by airmail at 3:54 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

You should definitely try to keep your questions, and correspondence as short and clear as possible to make it easier for people to answer. Even if you do this there will still be people who don't read or misread your question.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:02 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Often when the answer to your question is "no" or "I don't know" you instead receive in response an answer to a question the answerer would prefer to answer.
posted by phunniemee at 4:03 PM on July 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Ask your question in your subject line. Yes, it should be that short. “Will the ABC/XYZ parking passes stop working on July 12?” Repeat it as the first line of the body of the email. Explain more details under it, if you absolutely must. But get away from exposition before the ask. It only muddies things.
posted by greermahoney at 4:04 PM on July 9, 2018 [22 favorites]

A lot of the answers so far have mentioned the fact that people skim questions, or that some people are not just smart enough to comprehend some questions. These are both true, but spurious. What I suspect is the correct answer is lurking like a specter behind those ideas. That is: the people tasked with answering your questions are usually not being paid to answer your questions. It's a common misconception that customer service is there to help the customer, and to some extent, that's true as long as questions are simple and infrequent. But in medium- to high-volume contact centers, where there's a ticket queue, the customer service agent is being paid to resolve your ticket. Whether they resolve it correctly is immaterial. That person's supervisor will occasionally look at their tickets to make sure they're not incompetent, but on a day-to-day basis, and at their performance reviews, they're evaluated on the raw number of tickets resolved. Consequently, in order to resolve as many tickets as possible, they skim questions, and they don't dig deep to find answers to complicated questions. It's entirely rational in response to the incentives. It's not because people are dumb; it's that the system is set up to force them to play dumb. Most customer service is performative: the customer service department exists so that the rest of the company can tell their customers "look, we have a customer service team!", and customers just assume that they'll be helpful. You should not make that assumption.

Source: me getting let go from a medium-volume contact center for resolving too few tickets when management explicitly stated I spent too much time researching complicated issues instead of solving quickly and moving on.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:18 PM on July 9, 2018 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I had to learn to change my written style for these sorts of things. I wrote paragraphs where short sentences would suffice.

Unlike others here, I don’t think this has a ton to do with intelligence on the speaker or the recipient’s part. I think it’s smarter, not to mention more respectful of other people’s time and energy, to cut to the chase and speak as clearly as possible.

If you find yourself providing illustrative or introductory details, restating (“in other words”), etc., that’s a signal you haven’t been as clear as you could be.

Personally, I stick to one question unless absolutely necessary.
posted by kapers at 4:28 PM on July 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I had to read a few times to understand what you were asking and to understand the response.

Yep, I didn't understand your question either. And, to be fair, I think the general answer is what most other people have been saying which is that people don't really read carefully or don't care that much if they give you a good answer so much as they want to get your email out of their "to answer" list. But, you wanted to know how you could improve. So with the understanding that you are mostly doing fine, here is me reading your question in my "OK I have the minimum possible attention to give to this" internal voice.

A concern came up came up from a few of my folks

don't care

As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC)

they paid for parking, got it

and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon

Yep they are paying for parking

does that mean they’ll have “double parking privilege” this month?

"double parking" is a thing that exists but it does not mean what you are talking about so I am confused and have no idea what this question is asking.

In other words, are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?

Oh this was the question all along!

So really, take out every single word that is not a part of a question and you will be doing future question-answerers a favor. And as others have said, put the question or a brief version of the question right in the subject line. Lead with only the question. Add details after the question. Ruthlessly eliminate all words that are not part of the question.

And again, this is only because you asked. I think mostly the issue is with other people, but if you're totally peeved having to re-ask a question, this will make it more liable for people to not screw it up the first time.
posted by jessamyn at 4:42 PM on July 9, 2018 [23 favorites]

Best answer: A friend of mine pointed out that people's processing of sentences tends to fail as soon as there's more than one clause in a sentence.

This is true, he said, even if the two clauses are completely independent and joined by a semicolon.

It's as if we wait to process the sentence until we hit a period. When we hit a period, we try to process everything since the last period all at once. The brain hits a stack overflow once you go over 4-7 items.

(That's half his observation and half my half-baked theorizing. I have no idea if it has scientific validity, but it's a useful rule of thumb.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:52 PM on July 9, 2018 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, especially those that pulled apart my question and examined each piece, or even those that said, I've read your question and can't figure it out.

I'm having a real head-slapping moment here. I can now totally see how some of my common style quirks and tics (multiple clauses, and "In other words...") are working against me.

Seriously, this is possibly the best question-and-answers I've ever gotten from AskMe.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:05 PM on July 9, 2018 [39 favorites]

Best answer: I think you've already gotten a lot of advice concerning your example, which goes to a couple of rules I have to constantly remind myself to follow:

- only one matter per email

- if the question branches at ALL, or if it requires the construction of a mental "flow chart," no matter how simple, either CALL them (and hope for the best) or, crazy as it sounds, refer to rule number 1...

ex. of a type of compound query I find just doesn't work by email:

"Hey, CPB, are you available for lunch tomorrow? Do you like Mexican food, because if you do there's a new place down the block."

As simple as this sounds, it's going to end in tears. More people than I care to think about will answer: "Lunch tomorrow sounds good." (stop) or "I've heard of that new place." (stop)

As a general statement about how you're not alone, and people are just frustrating, I offer this exchange which was typical of everything I ever tried to get across to one of my son's teachers, ever (and this was in a face-to-face conversation):

Me: "Can we let all the parents know about the password for the class photo site? I'm constantly having parents ask me how to find the pictures I took of the activities. Can you email it to everyone?"

Him: "We have to have that password on the site because we've got pictures of the kids on it."

Me: "Right... no problem there. Parents just don't seem to have it."

Him: "We gave it to everyone at the first meeting."

Me: "Apparently lots of people missed it. Can we send out an email on the topic?"

Him: "We have to have that password on the site because..."

This is a guy with a master's degree.

I'm developing the theory that there is a special kind of stupid/lazy where the person hearing just can't put themselves in the shoes of the person asking, and/or they feel as long as they haven't answered the question they can't be blamed for an outcome. This makes me think very dark thoughts about the human race as a whole.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:06 PM on July 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I found this Freakonomics episode to have vast explanatory powers for the entire universe:

Three Hardest Words: "I Don't Know"
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:08 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a wordy person whose natural writing rhythm can be complex and not easy to parse by someone who has two minutes to devote to skimming my email. I've had to train myself that in some contexts (work, volunteer jobs, etc.) I just can't do that. I spend much, much more time editing and rewriting my emails than I do drafting them in the first place.

Most of my specific suggestions are covered above - questions clear and succint, itemized, as early in the email as possible. Cut out anything that's repetitive or unnecessary. And then cut down even more. If I'm really worried I've cut too much, slap a "Let me know if you need more information to answer these questions" on the end and let the person ask for the clarification they need.

In your case the edit process would probably have started with your wording, then cut down to

"A concern came up from a few of my folks: As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC), and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting on the 12th, are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?"

Then I'd probably look at that and decide that it doesn't actually matter that the concern came from my staff, and I could cut the question down further, and end up with something like:

"Will my staff who have paid for offsite parking for July (e.g., XYZ and ABC) continue to have access to those lots for the rest of the month after the DEF parking begins on the 12th?"

And, yes, you could cut that down even further to just "Will the XYZ/ABC parking passes work from July 13th-31st?", and I might do that depending on past interaction with the person I'm talking to, and how likely I think they are to get derailed.

The time I spend on editing is worth it to NOT spend that time mad at my colleagues.
posted by Stacey at 5:12 PM on July 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

This thread has been very useful to me, because this is a common problem I experience in day-to-day interactions, but I hadn't really considered that I could try to fix it by deliberately asking smaller and simpler questions. I'll be sure to test these strategies out.

I generally just repeat the original remark over and over, varying the wording slightly, until eventually my interlocutor notices and says something responsive to it. That usually works after 2-4 tries. It sounds rude, and maybe it is, but it was rude of them to only pretend to listen to what I said, too.

Interestingly, some people never screw this up. Some of my friends and coworkers will reliably be able to listen to something I say, think about it, and then say a thing which is useful and responsive 100% of the time. It's a real pleasure to interact with them.
posted by value of information at 5:31 PM on July 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

This drives me nuts and I've started paying attention to it to try to figure it out. At this point here are my answers:

1) They don't know and are embarrassed to admit it, so they are trying to B.S. the answer
2) They do know, but there is some kind of political issue at play (ex: the reason I can't have a raise this quarter is because the boss's boss screwed up the budget and my boss is going to protect his boss by not giving me a straight answer).
3) Self-protection - the person answering the question thinks they would look bad if they told the truth, so instead they give me related information hoping it will be enough to make me go away
4) They actually know the answer and want to provide it but think giving a lot of background context is more helpful than just answering the question directly
5) They don't really understand the question but hope that if they talk about related information some of it will turn out to be what I wanted to know
6) They think I'm asking the wrong question and instead of telling me it was the wrong question they are just giving me additional information on what I should be focusing on 7) Their brain works differently from mine. They have the raw material for the answer in their heads but have to process it verbally. Sometimes I can ignore most of what they say until the end.
posted by bunderful at 5:46 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

You've gotten some great answers. One other thing to try is to respond "Thank you for that information. For my next question..." and then repeat your question. It can be really confusing to try to point out that you already asked a certain question.
posted by mermaidcafe at 5:53 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I spend a lot of time at work trying to get answers to questions. The technical experts I communicate with are obviously smart and detail-oriented people, but I'm frequently amazed at the sloppy and incomplete answers I get.

I think there's a few things going on:
* Sometimes I think my questions are very clear, but to someone outside my brain they're not.
* Sometimes I try to make things clear with examples, but that's often counterproductive. Either it's genuinely confusing, or it triggers the "wall of text - run away!" response.
* Sometimes people are too busy to read carefully.
* Sometimes people are competent at some things, like writing code, but not at answering questions.
* Sometimes people don't care.

Assuming they care, I try to make it as easy for them as possible:
* I limit the number of questions per email. It's best if there's just one.
* I write short, clear sentences.
* I use bullet lists, bold text, headings.
* I color-highlight important statements.
* If it's a complex thing, I will do a brief summary at the beginning, and list the goal of the email. Any details (logs/error messages/output) come after that.
posted by loop at 6:17 PM on July 9, 2018

Best answer: The way I have heard this described is writing fiction as opposed to writing news.

The way you wrote your question

1. A concern came up came up from a few of my folks
2. As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC)
3. and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon
4. does that mean they’ll have “double parking privilege” this month?
5. In other words, are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?

Is typical of how we write fiction. There is backstory, some build up of narrative, suspense... then finally, bang, the conclusion, what it's all been building up to. If someone stops before the end (part 5) ... even if they get 90% of the way through, they get nothing out of it

This is the reverse of how we get journalists to write the news, where we put the important information first, and the supporting information and backstory last. The assumption is going to be the reader can stop reading at any point and they will be fine - even if they only read the title, it will make perfect sense to them. They could read the title + 3 sentences and it would be fine.

1. Are XYZ and ABC parking passes going to expire on Jul 12
2. (important backstory)
3. (backstory)
4. (minor backstory)
5. (really minor backstory)
posted by xdvesper at 6:17 PM on July 9, 2018 [23 favorites]

Your example question flat out confuses me. That's on me, and I know I have trouble with questions worded a certain way and take the time to read and understand before I answer. IME, though, most people won't bother to understand before answering; they'll just reply to whatever they think you meant. That, or they do the whole "answer what you wish you were asked, not what you were actually asked" because they don't want to, well, answer your actual question.
posted by Crystal Fox at 6:20 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

People sometimes assume the person writing is pissed off and assume that they are pissed off about the thing that everyone else is pissed about, or about the thing that they themselves would be pissed about. In both your example and randomstrikekeys', the person has answered a "This is shit, grarg" email that you didn't write, but that could have been the rest of the email if they only read the first line.

In that case, and often you don't find this out until after you've asked the question, it can help to be super extra polite and chirpy to break through the "Everyone's pissed at me about this!" brain fog that the person is in. Most people skim polite and chirpy preamble, but it can soften the "You are an idiot for not answering the question", which is what you're actually saying.
posted by kjs4 at 6:29 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I write a lot of similar stuff for work. I use short sentences and bullet points like they are going out of style.

Here is the shortest sentence I can possibly write to introduce the context and tell you what I'm talking about
*Here is one important piece of information you must consider in this
*Here is one more
*Never more than one at a time.
*Go in a logical order if at all possible

Here are the questions we need to resolve in relation to the description above
*Question 1
*Question 2

If I were writing for a magazine I would not be popular with the editor, if I was writing in academia this would not work. But it works bloody well for most people who are at work or in a similar context. So well I get compliments about it. The lists give people a logical set of things to think about and a checklist at the end that they can actually tick off as they answer items. This style of writing also forces you to organise your thoughts, which is hugely helpful. You could consider this.
posted by deadwax at 6:52 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ah. It can often be helpful to flip the order of the two list sections above. That way they read the things that must be considered with knowledge of the questions.
posted by deadwax at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

DBT's DEAR MAN formulation might be a helpful framework as you work though this.

D (Describe the facts of the situation): Some of my staff have paid for offsite parking and will soon pay for the new DEF parking.

E (Express your feelings [here I think it's ok to express their feelings]): They are worried about whether they will still be able to park in offsite parking once they pay for DEF parking. [I think that's what the concern is? This is the part your example skims over, which is why I think it's confusing. Maybe it's: They are worried they are going to end up paying double for parking]

A (Assert what you want): Can you tell me whether they will have access to both types of lots? / Can you tell me if they're going to end up double-paying if they sign up right now?

R (Reinforce/be nice about asking for things): I know they'd really appreciate having some warning about what's happening!

The M-A-N is basically stick to your guns if they come back with objections, which is less likely when you're just asking for info.

Your question is basically asking two questions. I can't tell if your employees *want* to have parking options or are *upset* at double-paying. If I don't know what exactly you're asking me, and I don't want to assume you're upset if you're not, I'm going to give you a neutral answer that mostly addresses what I think the upset person might actually be asking. Which is what your demo answer does.
posted by lazuli at 7:45 PM on July 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Not sure if this was mentioned above, but one more reason is that sometimes people confuse your question with a question they've received before. Possibly a question they've been receiving frequently (in your example, it's possible they've been answering a ton of questions about what happens with payments). There's not much you can do about it, but it might help a bit with the frustration.
posted by trig at 8:24 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: To be honest, I didn't understand your question at all, and I have two graduate degrees, a formal background in English, and have worked for a long time in a role that requires intensive interpersonal communication.

In fact, I had to read through multiple people's responses to find an explanation that actually made sense to me (thanks, limeonaire!).

You've already gotten a lot of great advice, but since you're really interested in getting feedback, I'll throw my two cents in as well.

Here are a few other things that made comprehension difficult for me:

"A concern came up came up from a few of my folks: As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month (e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC), and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon, does that mean they’ll have “double parking privilege” this month? In other words, are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?"

1. Text density. This looks like a paragraph but is really one long run-on question with a clarification sentence after it. Immediately unappealing to look at.

2. Too much going on! In one sentence you have a colon, parentheses, two commas, e.g., quotation marks, three sets of hypothetical three-letter acronyms, and a question mark. In your clarification sentence, you have a comma, two sets of hypothetical three-letter acronyms, stars used for emphasis, and a question mark. I am immediately turned off.

When I read your question here's how I parse it, based on all of the punctuation marks and symbols you used:

A concern came up came up from a few of my folks:

As they have paid for the current offsite parking this month

(e.g. in lots XYZ and ABC),

and they’ll pay for the DEF-area parking starting soon,

does that mean they’ll have

“double parking privilege”

this month?

In other words,

are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to


working on July 12?

The way you constructed a two-sentence email forces me to mentally break it up into 11 chunks that I must then somehow re-combine and synthesize into something that flows and makes sense. All of the flourishes that you think are adding detail and thus aiding comprehension are actually fragmenting my concentration. It's like dotting your question liberally with dingbats. Honestly, if I were a tired customer service rep who got this email in the middle of a busy day, I would feel very frustrated.

3. Three sets of hypothetical three-letter acronyms. I know you are using these as proxies for the real names of the three parking lots you asked about, but in rewriting the email so you could use in in your Ask, you could have just said Lot A, Lot B and Lot C. You are asking us why people are confused by your question, but even the pseudonyms you came up with for your Ask are too complicated. XYZ makes me think about using vertices to name a geometric figure, such as a triangle. I don't need three data points to describe the name of a single parking lot.

I hope my feedback doesn't come across as harsh! I just tried to be as detailed as possible in describing how I mentally processed your question so that you could better understand exactly why your question may be confusing for other people, thus producing answers that don't match your expectations.
posted by the thought-fox at 9:16 PM on July 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

But in medium- to high-volume contact centers, where there's a ticket queue, the customer service agent is being paid to resolve your ticket. Whether they resolve it correctly is immaterial.

And they often have specific scripts they're required to use: the question was about Parking Lot Payments, and they have a paragraph they're required to put in for that.

This doesn't cover all situations; as mentioned, putting the question first and concisely will help a lot. But sometimes you'll do that, and still get an incoherent answer that hits one of the minor keywords in your question - it could be they didn't understand it, or it could be that (sigh) they have strict orders to ALWAYS hand out the parking lot payment answer when that topic comes up.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:13 PM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Good comments here ,but I think the other thing to keep in mind is that there are very few folks in most contexts who actually owe you a close, careful reading. Rather, in most contexts, you owe your reader the greatest possible clarity. People shouldn't have to struggle through your extraneous contexts and multiple clauses to try to parse out your meaning. That is extra work for them. If you're a novelist and they're a critic, or you're a patient and they're your therapist, that's one thing, but if they're just an administrative drone answering a mundane question, the fact that they're skimming doesn't make them inherently lazy or stupid, it means that they only have so many resources to devote to any given email, and if you waste those resources, well, then, it's unsurprising you get an unsatisfactory answer.

In my field, we are often writing for smart readers, but about unfamiliar, complex factual scenarios and the way that tiny distinctions and technicalities should compel certain outcomes. They still get confused constantly. It's part of our job to make it as simple as possible to understand what's going on and what should be done about it, not blame them for their limited reading comprehension.

(Or, to put it another way, through long, painful experience, I have come to realize that when I find myself saying, "Christ, 90% of the world is lazy and dumb!" I am probably talking about some aspect of the human condition that I need to adjust to, rather than expect that it's ever going to change.)
posted by praemunire at 1:47 AM on July 10, 2018 [18 favorites]

There's too much backstory on your question. Email questions, especially those that can be answered with "yes" or "no" should be ruthlessly short.
Will parking passes for lots ABC and XYZ be valid through July 31st?
Just as you didn't get the answer you were seeking, there are hoards of people emailing the same mumbo jumbo lead in to a question like:
Can I pay half price for my July pass since I will be moving to lot DEF?
Do I have to pay full price for ABC and DEF in July?
posted by WeekendJen at 6:17 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've had similar communication problems, going on two decades. ("If I don't give the details, people give me the wrong answer! If I do give the details, people still give me the wrong answer because they don't bother to read! How is this MY fault?")

Some styles I have tried, with slightly more success at times:

1) Question and Details header style - explicitly write the question first, labeling it as a question. Then provide the details, labeled as such, so that the user can skim for context. (Jairus nails this in the first comment, of course.)

Question: are the XYZ and ABC parking passes going to *stop* working on July 12?
Details: Since some of the employees have paid for lots XYZ and ABC, and will soon pay for lot DEF, will there be any overlap in parking privileges? Or will there be a hard cutoff of XYZ and ABC privileges?

2) Pseudo-poem clause-by-line (a later resort when dealing with folks who only seem to read the first five words of any e-mail)

Employees are asking me
Whether parking privileges
For lots XYZ and ABC will cease on 12 July,
In fear of a hard cut-over
To lot DEF.
Please clarify the expiration date
For lots XYZ and ABC,
and the start date
for lot DEF.

3) Pony pic in the follow-up e-mail
(I do not recommend this, actually, and my wife remains amazed that I got away with it.)
I find your answer about double deductions very confusing, given my original question about the access timing. As a representation of my confusion, please see attached picture of a baffled cartoon pony.
(Attached picture file of Applejack from My Little Pony looking confused, with a head-tilt.)
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 8:48 PM on July 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

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