Nov 21 2012


Is it possible that some people genuinely don’t perceive an e-mail with the specific question in it “When do you expect to complete blah task?” as soliciting a response, but rather see it as some sort of rhetorical question or general encouragement?


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  1. 1

    Variations of the following has happened to me a few times, and to people I know:

    I’m not sure how long it will take. But if I finish this particular subtask I will have a much better idea, and can give a positive response. Since I have a day or two before I have to answer (the point of email is that it’s not realtime after all), I decide I do that first.

    But life and other work intervenes. It’s been two days, time to answer, but the subtask is only halfway there. If I push just a little, I can finish it, and give an answer almost in time.

    Unforeseen problems crop up, the task was bigger than thought, and now it’s three or four days, still not quite finished. Answering this late is embarrassing, so I feel I must finish _something_ before I do.

    Which makes the answer even later, which raises the bar further for me to answer it…

  2. 2

    Lol Janne,

    What you describe is like the mechanics of every single boss+employee interaction ever since the invention of the project in 9000 BC

  3. 3

    And sometimes the answer is ASAP (April, September a possibility).

  4. 4
    Daniel Schealler

    When composing an email it should always be assumed that all questions in the email will be regarded as rhetorical.


  5. 5
    Argle Bargle

    Recently, in a response to a “you need to get this done immediately” email I sent “your urgency does not constitute a crisis for me.”

  6. 6

    The email may never get read at all. Depending on who the sender was I regularly deleted mails without reading them on the theory that if it was important the person would send it again – which happened maybe 30% of the time. The added bonus was that the system would show the sender that his/her email had been deleted without being read – delicious! Also coming back from vacation to an accumulation of several hundred, mostly irritatingly pointless emails a quick ‘select all’ ‘delete’ solved that problem. If it’s important you’ll be seeing it again. But most of that shit isn’t important…

  7. 7
    James Davis

    Yeah, “When will this be done?” can easily be interpreted as “Get this done ASAP.”

    Questions in text are complicated. If you need the date and not to ‘light a fire’, consider saying something that shows an answer is needed.

    “When will this be done? I have to fill out a time and effort report with a date of completion.”

  8. 8

    They figure it’s a good bet their short attention span boss will forget all about it in a few hours so why bother.

  9. 9

    I guess its possible. Seems more likely that they are being passive aggressive.

  10. 10

    What skeptifem said. Also: the short answer to your original question? No, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer anytime soon.

    And anyone who thinks that a truly important person with a truly important e-mail will send it again is seriously mistaken.

  11. 11

    My standard replay to: When will x be done?
    How long does it take to catch a fish?

  12. 12

    I might not answer an e-mail like that (especially if I thought I could get the job done immediately) but I would not assume that it was rhetorical. If I did think it was rhetorical I would be pissed off, because why be so passive? Why not just say, “I need this immediately because reasons so, please, make this a priority” instead? Or even, “FFS, get a move on, you’ve had weeks.”

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