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The Stingy Email

In the Writing Tune-Up workshop in McLean, Virginia, last week, I asked participants about their pet peeves, the things that drive them crazy in the writing they read at work. A common email pet peeve came up.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

Employee writes this to supervisor:

Subject: Renting an Offsite Retreat Space

As we discussed, I researched the cost of renting a space offsite for our fourth-quarter retreat. Based on the costs and services, I recommend we consider two venues: South Sound Retreat Center and McMillan House. I would appreciate your view.

The benefits of the South Sound Retreat Center are . . . . [Two sentences of benefits appear here.]

The benefits of McMillan House are . . . . [Two sentences of benefits appear here.]

The costs are similar: [Three sentences about cost details appear here.]

Both spaces are suitable for a professional audience and are available on our preferred dates.

Because the Retreat Center is closer for most people in our group, I am leaning toward that space. However, I would like to know whether you have a preference. Do you have any experience with either?

Let me know if you have a preference, and I will follow up to secure a space.

Supervisor replies:
Subject: Re: Renting an Offsite Retreat Space

Makes sense to me.  


When the employee reads the reply above, he or she is peeved. Why?

If you've ever received a message like that, you know why. You spent an hour doing research. You spent 20 minutes writing a well-organized email. You asked for input. You got a burp in reply.

Here's the way business writing class participants describe the pet peeve: After you put a lot of work into a message, you get two words in response, and those two words may not even make sense.

If you are guilty of such stingy replies, here is what you can do:

1. Read or scan the entire message before you reply. Notice what the writer has asked of you.

2. Give the writer what he or she needs. If your response is a simple agreement, say it nicely, like this:

Subject: Re: Renting an Offsite Retreat Space

Your idea of going with the Retreat Center makes sense to me. I do not have experience with either location.

Thanks for all your work on the research. Let me know if you need anything more from me.


Yes, the second message may take another 60 seconds to consider and type. However, that investment is a lot smaller than the time it may take to relight a spark in a demoralized employee.

What do you think about stingy email? Please share your view.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “The Stingy Email”

  • Stingy email is one of my biggest pet peeves in email correspondence as well. Almost as frustrating as the example above is when you ask someone two different questions and only get the answer to one.

    This is another reason why it’s good to carefully format the emails you send, making sure that the reader can clearly see the items requiring feedback. Putting questions in bold, separating them from a big block of text, and/or repeating them at the very end of the email are good practices, but even then you still get those “stingy” people who don’t provide the information requested.

    Thanks for the reminder, Lynn, that we should be good readers/responders as well as good writers.

  • There really is no excuse for the stingy and vague response. However, the supervisor may have been trying to provoke the employee into being less wordy! I confess that I got lost when I read the hypothetical employee’s message the first time.

    I agree with Lori about the need to help the reader. Since this is an in-house exchange, couldn´t the employee begin like this? “I would appreciate your feedback. These are two venues that I would recommend for an offsite retreat.” He/she could continue with bulleted lists or lists with the same headings in the same order under each venue (I’d suggest a table if this wasn´t an email.). A simple statement of the employee’s preference and request for the supervisor’s preference could end the email.

    I feel that a simplified message where the key information can be seen at a glance would help to produce the desired response.

  • Agree – two questions, one answer, no explanation – grrrr. And agree – the email is too long. I see that happen all the time at work – too much information just means half of it is not absorbed.

  • Granted that sometimes, a well=-researched email can be long for supervisors to read. However, following the rule of putting the “what you want” question at the bottom and separating it from the body is usually a key thing to do.

    When I do that, and send it to a co-worker, supervisor, or whomever, and I only get back a “Sure!” or “Whatever you want.” Yeah. Thanks. I can see how much value you really give to my idea/input/thoughts.

    Definitely a pet peeve.

  • Yes. That’s the comment to both -too long email and too short reply.

    This is a great example of not communicating by style type.

    It sounds like the diligent, relater-style employee was writing to a director-style supervisor. Both communicated in the way they like to be communicated with–not in the way the other likes to communicate.

  • Great comments. Thanks to all. Yes, the original email is a bit too long, and the writer could have requested action in the subject line or first sentence. Formatting would improve it too, but I decided not to add bullets and headings in my blog post.

    If writers create shorter, more focused messages, will readers respond more appropriately? Yes, but some of us still need to be less stingy.

  • I had read an article quite a while back that looked at the e-mail habits of people in different positions within a company. The higher up the corporate ladder, the worse the e-mails were. CEOs had replies such as the example above or ones with very poor grammar as the big shots apparently are soooo busy/important they have lost touch with how to treat people within their organization… apparently e-mail etiquette declines as salaries rise.

  • Lynn:

    I think the whole topic of e-mail is interesting because it has become the preferred method of communication among business professionals. People don’t even like taking phone calls anymore.

    This fact alone dictates that writing skills are more important than ever, yet most companies leave writing workshops and coaching out of their training programs. Big mistake.

  • I once had a manager who would often reply with just “Thx” or “Thks”… now that is stingy!

    It was hard to believe he really was thankful, seeing as he couldn’t be bothered to type the whole word!

  • The reality for me is that some clients ARE too busy — especially in this economic climate — to write what they consider “lengthy replies.” For one client who rarely writes more than a few words in any email, I’ve learned to put a single recommendation/request first, followed by explanation. That way, if she says “sure!” I know what she’s approving. She has no patience for digging through minutiae — if she wants more info, she’ll ask.

    I’m also more effective when I send multiple emails if I have multiple questions, so she can reply with just “yes,” “no” or a bit more.

  • Anne, thank you for that excellent suggestion.

    To repeat:

    Send multiple emails if I have multiple questions, so she can reply with just “yes,” “no” or a bit more.

    That is efficient!

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