On Writing Emails

If there is one thing I learned over the course of my life, what I spent mostly reading and occasionally writing, it is that any small change that can better a text, is worth to be made. An email written in a professional context is not a personal letter. Especially in German one should never “write as one speaks”. A simple “na ja”, or another filler that goes unnoticed in conversation, can become a nuisance and expresses a kind of attitude towards the receiving part that is (hopefully) not intended.

Why do I come up with such a Binsenwahrheit (Ger., Eng.)? Because I was pretty angry over an email this morning.
Two weeks ago a friend, who works for a very large organisation, in a private conversation came up with an idea: A project is running for twenty-five years, would we like to produce a small booklet? Yes, why not, after all that is something we do. So he looked around in his organisation whether somebody else would already work on this, and yes, the people engaged in this ongoing project have developed a similar idea. He contacted them (in a seemingly not very nice way, deducing from the answer we received).
It became instantly clear that we could not do this, because it simply would be to no avail: As outsiders we would have to start from scratch, they already know the whole thing inside out. Exactly that is what we wrote in an email to those involved. A date for a meeting was brought up earlier by someone else, and we said that we could attend a meeting – if wished; and yes, we could offer our services for correcting, Lektorat (Ger., Eng.) – if wished. Anything else would be out of question.
No answer. The date would be on next Monday, we already have another appointment originally for this date shuffled towards another day; so yesterday we asked politely via email if this meeting would still be wanted.
This morning I received an answer that basically said “who are you clowns – you are not even members of our organisation, and what do you want anyway?” It was formulated a bit nicer, but only a small bit. The author had not read our previous email, despite the fact that is was enclosed; wrote the name of my colleague wrong; indicated that outsiders, who work for money, are some species of squishable insects not worth to lick the feed of those who work for Gottes Lohn.
And he did that with only some small words. He’s either a genius in writing offensive letters or simply has no idea about the meaning, importance and effect of small words. I think it’s the latter.
My first impulse was to write back a colourful notice involving very short words, but of course I did not. My colleague took over and wrote a very friendly text that nevertheless gives a hint of our feelings, for those willing to read, explaining  in the last sentence that we happily erase this appointment from our calendar.

I do not know whether I am arrogant or especially touchy; whether it was a pure accident that the right buttons were pushed and massive anger was triggered.
When writing a text in a professional setting – and not only there – the basic question is: How would I react when I’d receive this text? Stay away from insinuations and explain your own intentions clearly: Clarity and unambiguity are essential. If you have to write in German do not use phrases like “Sie können dann ja mal”; “wenn Sie nicht anders können”; “Sie müssen”; generally avoid words like “überhaupt”, “gefälligst” (originally a very fine word, totally misused, and near to offence nowadays), “mal” (short for “einmal”, but means nothing but “never”) and the like.
And for heaven’s sake: Read the previous mails and if a meeting is discussed and you do not want it to happen – man up and say it! And one last thing: If you are in a pampered position in a damn large organisation, it is pure arrogance to expect poor sods like us to work for free on your crappy elaborates. This goes especially for universities that do not pay the people who transform unreadable yearbook articles in something at least vaguely print worthy.
Sie können dann ja mal gefäligst darüber nachdenken, wenn Sie nichts Bessers zu tun haben, oder überhaupt (complete: zum Denken fähig sind). Mit freundlichen Grüßen, another pissed off no more customer.
Enough of this dribble, and thank you for listening.


8 thoughts on “On Writing Emails

  1. 1. I’m thinking some within the organization reacted defensively to “outsiders” writing the booklet. i.e. protecting their turf.

    2. Business correspondence: formal and professional — always!

    3. Never put anything in writing that one wouldn’t mind being made public.

  2. I fully agree Redakteur LX.
    I have to say it, sorry. Regarding point one: When the idea was on the table I was asked to look for literature etc. And a first look at the list I produced showed clearly that the email writer was the one in charge and the original idea was dead. So we offered only services for editing and made clear that we would not try to intrude or steal or do harm – we were very friendly from the start. At this point the whole thing cold have come to a nice end, if the headhoncho would have written one simple sentence: “No, thank you, we do not want this, there is nothing to discuss – have a nice life.” But saying nothing and playing dead is no solution. What angered me is the high horse he rode, and yes I have to admit that I’m huffy in this respect. He could have at least have read the mail, verfluchter Säckel, sorry.
    And that was that. I guess its over now.

    Gefälligst – belongs to “der Gefallen”, the favour. “jemanden einen Gefallen tun” means to do someone a favour, out of friendliness; “gefällig sein” means to be friendly, or “[to] gefallen”, to please or to be to sbds liking.
    The older official language used it in this sense in business correspondence. A sentence like: “… weisen Sie uns den Betrag gefälligst zum Ersten des Monats an” would have not been understood as unfriendly or insulting (maybe even in the 1970s still). The subtext would be translated as “and it would be very friendly if you would instruct the payment to the first of the next month”.
    Today the subtext would be a finger snip and read as “pay pronto sucker”. I am old-fashioned in some ways, too much as some say, but even me would not write such a sentence on a bill or in a business letter – simply because there is no chance that the receiver would understand it in the old way; he’d be affronted and assume that I think of him as a bad debtor. Helping in no way, and totally avoidable.
    I would translate “kindly” as freundlicherweise, in a friendly or nice way, or sanft. As I understand “kindly” belongs to kind, what I’d translate as Sorte, Art (not from ars, maybe from article), type or manner. A different kind of ethymology, a different way the word developed, another thought in it. But I’m no anglicist.

  3. You are absolutely correct. They should have been more considerate as well as upfront and honest about the situation.

    As I have mentioned before, I admire that Deutsche is more precise and nuanced than English. When I attempt to use it, I am always concerned that I say things correctly and not unintentionally offend.

  4. Don’t be concerned, Herr Redakteur LX – nobody in his right mind would be offended by your use of the language!

    Oh Norma, nobody tells me to fuck off in such a loving way like you do!

  5. “As I have mentioned before, I admire that Deutsche is more precise and nuanced than English.”

    Redkteur lx—may I suggest, with the utmost civility and politeness that I can summon–especially in the context of this post–that that assertion is utter bollocks! 🙂

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