The art of the electronic nag
February 8, 2019 10:39 PM   Subscribe

Let's say you have to ask someone to do something for you over e-mail and they do not get back to you. How frequently can one (re)ask without coming off as a nag?

I was just thinking: you know how like in polite conversation you really can't ask someone to repeat themselves again more than like, twice and after that if you still didn't understand them, it gets super awkward to kinda ugly to keep asking them to repeat it even more times, so you just give up and pretend you understood? Like it's socially not okay to keep asking the same question over and over again?

I have been trying to figure out what the same sort of etiquette is for situations where you have to ask someone something online and then they seem to be ignoring it. (Assume that phone calling or in person isn't an option.) Sometimes I have situations where I need something Right Now but for the sake of hierarchy and politeness, I have to like, give them three days and then they still don't respond. Or it may be a situation where I end up wondering if I'm being ghosted, but I don't want to be "the idiot who can't take a hint" so I'm afraid to ask if it's a ghosting vs. flaking vs. forgetting or what.

So let's say that you've asked whoever about a thing, and it's several days later and you have no response. What is the polite and ethical way to handle such situations without pissing someone off or being a nag? How long do you wait before asking again? Or having to ask again after that? Or do you just not ask and "take the hint?" Are there any socially accepted guidelines to the frequency of the electronic nag? Do you wait three days? One day? More? Less?

Assume that in some situations that it's an emergency and/or timeliness is an issue, but in some situations it may not be, like the loose attempt at trying to get together.
posted by jenfullmoon to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If it's part of their job and you need it to keep working, daily.

If it's important to you but not part of their job, varies from a couple days to a week, can use plausible deniability and contact them on different platforms if available.

If it's a personal situation and you're not really friends yet, I think you can contact them twice in a row and then you have to let it go, time your contacts based on this knowledge.

All this varies a lot, having patience with other people's personal ideas about this is good, timelines for communication are kinda all over the place at this point in technological time.
posted by momus_window at 11:07 PM on February 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

If timeliness is an issue, that's what telephones were invented for.

I limit my email nags to once per week.
posted by flabdablet at 11:39 PM on February 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

I find terms like "nagging" to be uncomfortably gendered, but if email's not getting this person's attention, you need another way to communicate with them. I'll email someone twice in say a week, and then find another method. You say phone and in person are not options -- what about IM'ing or texting or Slack? The other option, if it's something work related and you need their response to finish your own work, is to cc their and your manager on email #3. That's a bit passive aggressive, so use with caution, but never fails.
posted by basalganglia at 12:52 AM on February 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

To: Joe
CC: [your supervisor or whomever has tasked you with this]
Subject: re. [Widget Specs]

Hi, Joe.

On review of my task list I see I still have this flagged as an open item. I contacted you on [date] and [date] with a question about [widget specs].

As I have not received feedback on [widget specs] I will consider this item closed.

Thank you,
posted by phunniemee at 2:41 AM on February 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

(This ^ applies only to work, however. Do not send this email to acquaintances you're trying to meet socially.)
posted by phunniemee at 2:43 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Apologies for the length... this is something I'm fairly passionate about since so much of my work and life involve email.

As far as I know there's no socially accepted guidelines for this, it's more dependent on the culture of the organization or group.

Assume that in some situations that it's an emergency and/or timeliness is an issue, but in some situations it may not be, like the loose attempt at trying to get together.

These are wildly different scenarios with their own "rules" -- if something is an emergency but my only contact option is email (really?) then I usually put something like [URGENT] ahead of the subject in the email and very clearly specify when I need a response and what happens if I don't receive it.

In those cases, if it's truly an emergency I'll escalate to other people on their team, their manager, etc., if I do not receive a response quickly enough to deal with it. Note that your emergency is not necessarily mine.

If it's merely timely, then I'll follow similar steps as the emergency but adjust as needed depending on the consequences of not getting an answer.

In social situations I'd say twice. Once as normal, one follow up with a polite note like "hey, checking in on this in case you missed it..." some appropriate time period before a get together or whatever. If you email me about getting together and I don't respond after the second response then you should probably consider that either your mails are going into my spam folder or I don't really want to get together. (Note, I would consider it very rude not to respond to somebody trying to get together with me if they had any reason to believe we were or are friends. I would only apply a zero response strategy to .. I dunno, a former high school acquaintance who was trying to connect to sell Amway.)

It's really, really situationally dependent though. I do like 87% of my work communication through email. Much of my messaging is involving like 30 people CC'ed on a message and the assumption that everybody involved is going to read every damn message to see if they have picked up an action item somewhere. If there are 20 messages in a thread that are between two or three people I tune out. If on the 21st message somebody says "oh, yeah, jzb can you do _____" - I consider it on them to follow up directly if I miss that.

I used to be a tech writer/reporter and PR people would "spray and pray" stuff at me all the time that was wildly irrelevant to my beat(s). No response is my response in those scenarios. Among my peers, the consensus was two emails were acceptable - first one and a follow up. A third email was wildly unwelcome. (Pro tip if you're in anything like that position - if you've sent two emails and gotten no response, you will not win any prizes by continuing until you do receive a response, and you will likely do harm to your own and your client's reputation.)

In some open source communities, like Apache, there are "rules" that major decisions have to happen in email for documentation / visibility purposes and there are rules around required response times. We have what's referred to as "lazy consensus" - if you don't voice an objection within a reasonable time period (usually 72 hours) then it's considered a "yes" or whatever to the question at hand. I highly recommend this whenever it can be applied - In work situations where a group has to produce a thing that requires or invites input from many people, if I'm leading the effort I try to level-set with a "lazy consensus" approach. If you want to have input considered, it needs to be sent in a timely fashion. If you reply late and something has moved on, I may very well tell you that the stage for input has passed and next time consider replying when asked. (This is hard, but not impossible, to apply to folks above you on the corporate ladder.)

Finally, I know you said to assume phone or in person aren't an option - sometimes that's true. However, in a work environment if I have a team member who failed to deliver something because a person didn't reply to an email, but they didn't pick up the phone or whatever, I consider it their failure and not the person on the other end of the email. (Assuming they didn't get me involved early on to raise a response, etc.)
posted by jzb at 3:25 AM on February 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

You might not have the option of phone/in person, but outside of mountain hermitage scenarios there's probably someone around your target who can corner them in person. This is much more acceptable for work scenarios of course, and don't cross streams be contacting someone's personal friends or family for a work matter. Try to locate reasonably organised people for this role and be ready to return favours.

(The amount of people who ask me to poke my boss about things means I'm owed favours organisation-wide...)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 4:08 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Depends on the recipient. I have e-mails in my Drafts folder that are so important it's taken me 2½ years to respond.
posted by scruss at 6:22 AM on February 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

I like phunniemee's template. But if it were me, I'd skip CC'ing the supervisor because that implies that you're not confident that you can do it yourself. Instead, CC their manager when you thank them for doing the thing.
posted by emelenjr at 6:25 AM on February 9, 2019

Ah. If I'm at the point where I'm sending this email, I CC my own boss to provide the paper trail showing that Joe is not responsive so when we order blue and Joe comes back after widget delivery all het up because he secretly wanted orange my own boss already has the information she needs to back our decision up.
posted by phunniemee at 6:44 AM on February 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you need other person to do something to do your job you just have to keep pushing. Request, 1st follow up, possibly high importance follow up and/or cc supervisor (theirs), all the while following up by Skype but really, pick up th phone and call people. In a professional environment I can’t conceive of a reason why that wouldn’t be an option most of the time. You may only get hold of a gatekeeper but at least the gatekeeper will realise something is getting more urgent.

If it is a personal request you just have to assume people don’t want to do whatever it is after one or two gentler follow ups and move on. If you have some kind of role as part of a hobby/spare time thing that puts this more into the arena of ‚job‘ I‘d treat this more akin to the first scenario except that I‘d get whoever was in a leadership role involved before long and ask them how they want the non responsiveness handled.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:20 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

In work messages, I often include statements like the following, because determining urgency is really hard, and I have almost exclusively emailed colleagues I have zero authority over:

1) "Please let me know how you'd like to move forward on this (as soon as possible / this week / this month). If that doesn't work for you, please let me know if I should approach someone else, or if I should follow up in some other timeframe. It's better for us to have a vague idea which team or person I should be approaching than no reply at all."

2) "Since berry fluid generator 19B is currently firing an Acid Level Critical: Meltdown Imminent alert, if I don't hear from your team in the next half-hour, I will begin shutting down the generator. It is my understanding that using fewer generators is safer than permitting this generator to fail, possibly damaging itself or other parts of our infrastructure. Please clarify immediately if any of this is not accurate." (if you're not responding, here's what I think I should do, and why I'm going to do it.)

3) "It's not clear when or how the generator maintenance crew should bring generator 19B back up. Should we:
a) wait until noon Eastern time, when it will be easier for you to help if it malfunctions again,
b) send you any additional log files or other material to assess the problem,
or c) do something else ?" (multiple-choice makes it far easier for the recipient to figure out what kinds of instructions or feedback I want, and if I'm approximately right and they're really swamped they can just say something like "A but 2pm Eastern thanks")

4) (more common emailing internationally and when I worked nights, usually with "[not urgent]" in the subject line) "This isn't very time sensitive. I am sending it now because now is convenient for me, please respond whenever is convenient for you."

In a big organization, 1) sometimes got replies like "we only do lime teapots, probably someone in the berry teapot division?" and then a berry engineer would say it was a citrus issue, and we'd go around again, occasionally for months. It was also not uncommon for something to be an emergency according to my monitoring tools, and a minor side effect of a complex problem that would be fixed in 8-12 weeks according to the people responsible for that component or service.

For handling emergencies, things like robust technical incident response protocols are your very best friends. If you haven't got anything like that, or you notice places where your current incident management could use improvement, that's a thing to address with management or whoever owns incident response. I'm assuming you mean the kind of "emergency" I have helped resolve, where every X minutes this isn't fixed, the organization could lose $Y0,000, not the kind that could endanger or harm people. If you are handling the second kind of emergency, probably talk to people with backgrounds in other kinds of crisis or emergency response.
posted by bagel at 9:24 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

If your workspace uses Outlook, you can send them a Task which will pop up in their own Outlook and nag them automatically until they mark it complete.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:32 PM on February 9, 2019

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