It’s All Good: How to Answer (Exasperating) E-Mails

I was recently asked a question from a rather frustrated member of the international workplace that went something like the following:

I’ve gotten several e-mails from a client that I don’t understand. The grammar and spelling are so weak that it makes the writer’s intention hard to understand.

Want to keep the relationship positive, of course, and not lose them as a client.

Don’t want to insult them, but am aware of the fact that they’re from a more relationship-oriented culture than my own where signs of respect are expected in all communication.

I find myself replying without really knowing if I’m actually answering what they’re asking about. A lot of guesswork. Am trying to be polite but feel that often I miss the mark. How can I fix this situation and keep this client?”

Had a short think about this and then sent a rather long reply:

“I don’t know which is worse – knowing that you’re not making yourself understood or not understanding someone else.

The truth is that the person you’re corresponding with probably knows deep inside that they have weak language skills and so their writing is shaky. But they’ve got a job to do – and even may be afraid of losing their job. But their linguistic challenge has now landed on your business plate.

Several problems here

This is a problem that becomes even bigger when the two writers involved have English as their second language.

A second problem is that many e-mail writers just lump all their information, questions and comments into one incredibly long paragraph.

A third – most important? – point is that the majority of people employed in the international workplace truly don’t want to show disrespect to others – but sometimes this politeness holds them back from clarifying a confusion situation.

How do you start sorting it out?

Try summarizing what you think they’re written. If necessary, divide what they’ve written as best you can into several points and present them as a list. Say, for example, it concerns an order they’re placing for your company’s products. You start out by writing something like, ‘If I understand your last e-mail correctly, you need the following:’

  • 20 widgets
  • you need them delivered to your factory in ……
  • you need them delivered by August 15th

The need to clear up confusion

If anything about this order is unclear, you need to point this out in your list:

  • Unfortunately, I am not able to understand where the invoice for this shipment should be sent. Could you send me this information as soon as possible?

You should first explain what you need as briefly and clearly as possible, and you should always include a call to action at the close of your e-mail, which can be as simple as asking, ‘Could you please write me back and confirm that the above information is correct? Once I’ve received your confirmation, I’ll send this order as soon as possible.’

If you follow these straightforward procedures, both you and your writing partner will get what you need – they’ll save face and you’ll find out what they wanted in the first place. Repeat as needed. Good e-mail writing luck!”

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