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I have just received yet another e-mail from a technical contact at one of our business partners. He has a list of questions that I need to provide answers to but he uses such a lazy form of writing that I can't even understand the questions. I don't have the time or inclination to decipher his poorly worded questions but I have to respond.

What is the professional way of saying "Listen pal, this is the reason spelling and grammar is important. I know you resisted it all through school because you were too cool for proper English but this is not your hockey team WhatsApp group and right now you're wasting my time and and yours. I can literally not understand what you're asking."

  • Have you ever tried something like asking for feed-back/clarification? Kind of you ask for A, I'll fix it using Z, is that ok with you? – OldPadawan Mar 28 '18 at 20:31
  • I have done that but it gets exhausting to have to do that every time and send 5 e-mails to and fro just because I don't understand his language. – Dewald Swanepoel Mar 28 '18 at 20:51
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    Is English your mother tongue? To both of you? – OldPadawan Mar 28 '18 at 20:54
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    Normally it's a good idea to wait at least 24 hours before accepting an answer to encourage people from every time zone to weigh in. – sphennings Mar 28 '18 at 20:59
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    Would give an example of his way of writing English? I think with an example the situation becomes clearer. – Christian Geiselmann Mar 29 '18 at 9:51
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Follow the chain of command. Give him a chance to clarify, but if his clarification doesn't help, forward it to his boss or his co-workers. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I need help. I don't understand this response, could you please clarify it?". Of course the request is ridiculous, but it is ridiculous by his making, not yours. You're just sharing the joy.

If his boss doesn't like being disturbed, he will correct his employee.

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It's not your job to critique their spelling, grammar, and sentence composition. Directly addressing this is a breach of your professional relationship with them. Remember that your current goal in this exchange is to answer their questions to the best of your ability. Your reply should aim to do that.

Focus on the fact that their questions are unclear. Be as specific as possible. If there are ambiguous statements bring up the fact that statements are ambiguous and request clarification.

If you want to try to influence their behavior the only recourse you have available to you is the promptness of your response. You can drag your feet and not answer any of their questions in your initial reply. Instead start your email by explicitly explaining that they were unclear in their previous email and you need to ask a number of follow up questions to make sure you know what they are asking before you can begin to answer their questions.

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    It is very much OP's job to critique his colleague's English insofar as it prevents him from doing his job efficiently. It is completely ridiculous to have to send dozens of follow-up emails whenever a question arises. – user11110 Mar 29 '18 at 11:03
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    @fkraiem If the OP worked for the same company you would be correct, but they work for different companies. – sphennings Mar 29 '18 at 11:09
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I'd start with a reply before any sort of escalation, even if you have his boss' contact info.

The next time he sends a poorly written email, respond,

In order to provide a timely and accurate response, please use full sentences and proper spelling and grammar. The shorthand used in this and prior emails makes it rather difficult for me to decipher what you are asking and increases my response time, taking up more of your and my time.

Thanks for your understanding.

In such a response, you're showing how changing his behavior will benefit both him and you and does not not point a finger directly at him. The 'shorthand' is the problem, not necessarily him.

It may come across as a little blunt but you are working professionals and, therefore, it is expected that you both act professionally. Not using proper spelling and grammar is NOT professional and absolutely should not be used in the workplace, especially to those outside your office.

His emails reflect poorly on him and his company. You are giving him the chance to fix it before it becomes a bigger issue that could cost him his job.

If he responds with hostility or does not change his behavior, that is when you escalate. If your manager is not aware of the situation, loop him/her in and, if you can, contact the employee's manager. It's likely the employee sends emails like this to other partners and he is frustrating more people than just you.

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There’s indeed a simple way to ease decoding the message and save your time and effort:

Grab your phone and call him.

Then go through his list with him and work it out until you have it.

Instead of asking what it exactly is that he wants you may apply the following technique:

Sum up and paraphrase what you understood so far and ask the other person if this is what he wants.

Ok Bob, please check if I got this right, okay? You want a double chock vanilla chai latte without ice delivered in a plastic bag before midnight, right?

Then continue working from there until you get a “yes” and have all you need to fix the issue.

You may want to create a “paper trail” of what you agreed on by summing it up and sending this by email to him. This is to create evidence in case of “but I wanted something else” and at the same time providing a model of how to phrase questions in the future.

I realize that this is only the second best solution to your problem - the best being Bob just getting his act together and providing you with properly written requests.

He might get it after a few of your phone conversations and improve (or not).

When talking, you might even get to know him a bit and some of your frustration might melt away.

It might be that decoding customers requests is part of your job, even if you don’t like that part very much.

It is also possible that this effort is not part of the contract with the customer. Then the extra support your company provides could be re-negotiated and billed. Hopefully you will get a share of this!

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