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(Note that I originally asked this question on the English Language Stack Exchange and was told that it belonged here (Interpersonal Stack Exchange), so I removed it from the EL SE and manually moved it here.)

I am a data scientist and I regularly receive e-mails from people (our office is split between London and New York) requesting things.

I often find that in the majority of cases, the people e-mailing me add a line at the end that is something along the lines of:

"Let me know if anything is unclear."

Naturally, if I am unsure about something, I will always ask for clarification.

Who wouldn't?

My question therefore is this: is adding such an obvious sentence necessary?

I should add that I have worked with the same colleagues who have requested things from me for several months, so we aren't strangers and, as mentioned, I always ask for clarification if I am unsure about something. I appreciate that it might be automatic on their part (like ending an e-mail with "Kind regards,", "Best wishes,", etc.) but there is an element to it that I just don't understand which is why people continue to state the obvious.

It's the same logic as asking somebody a question in an e-mail and then immediately beneath that writing, "please let me know" - the former clearly implies the latter.

Surely if somebody who is given instructions is unsure about a particular part of said instructions, then they would be competent enough to ask the requester for clarification. If they wouldn't ask for clarification unless prompted, then it implies that their competency levels aren't high enough to warrant a role where they are asked to construct things for people who lay out clear, coherent instructions.


Some people have said that the question is not clear, so in an attempt to make it clearer I will summarise below. Also, please note that I am not ranting - I am in fact curious and keen to understand why some people add this sentence to e-mails even if they genuinely know for certain that you are perfectly capable of the task/s they request from you.

The question is simply this: given that you know that somebody is definitely capable of doing what you ask them, and given that you specify clearly what you want, is adding such a line to an e-mail necessary? The reason I ask this is because it sometimes comes across as patronising - I'm sure that's not the case in most instances, but nevertheless it does come across that way sometimes.

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    While the answers to this address the Interpersonal Skills aspects of why people use this formulation, I somehow feel that the questions is almost verging on a disguised rant. Is there a chance you could edit it to make clear what the problem is that you are having that relates to IPS? – Spagirl Jul 25 '18 at 9:47
  • @MusTheDataGuy I was not aware of that. I posted a meta question about this, see here – Kaspar Scherrer Jul 25 '18 at 10:48
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    See this meta answer for an explanation why this question was closed and how to proceed in order to reopen it. – Kaspar Scherrer Jul 25 '18 at 12:41
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    Hi. Right now it seems that's a question about either etiquette of emailing, or about your personal feelings (that is not a question). Generally, on StackExchange, we ask you to provide desirable outcome. What do you want to happen? – Oct18 is day of silence on SE Jul 25 '18 at 18:05

13 Answers 13

100

As a UK-based software developer, I often conclude an email with that line as I may sometimes fill my emails with terms that I take for granted but others might not understand.

I have worked with people who previously felt that those in my role don't want to - or like to - 'make things clear' after an initial email, and so will either go find the answers themselves (which could take a lot of time) or do nothing about it, which would lead to bigger problems further down the line. Adding this line at least makes it clear that we don't bite and are happy to clarify something that isn't clear. This is especially useful if you are higher up than the recipient in the corporate ladder, where they might be even more reluctant to ask for something to be made clear.

Adding a friendly reminder at the end such as "give me a shout if you are unsure of anything" shows you are willing to help and removes anyone else's apprehensions. It may seem unneeded to some, but others - especially those who do not think the offer to help is implied - will find it reassuring.

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    Your answer showed up after I started mine, but I like it. I would say that the wiki link to Formulaic language (which explains WHY we do this) would be helpful. If you want to copy that and include any points from mine I'm happy to delete my answer to make a single answer better? If not, that's fine, happy to leave it as a slightly different answer too if you're not comfortable doing that. – AHamilton Jul 25 '18 at 9:39
  • As a data scientist I often use terms that most aren't familiar with and I'll add such a sentence to my e-mails where I explain something complex. I think the issue here is around context - if I'm asking a data scientist to calculate the no. of times a particular link was clicked over the course of two separate weeks and to then compare the difference, I'd absolutely expect them to understand what I mean and wouldn't want to inadvertently patronise them as it's obvious/clear what I want. If I was asking the receptionist the same thing, I'd add the line as they may not know how to approach it. – MusTheDataGuy Jul 25 '18 at 9:44
  • @MusTheDataGuy It's not always clear whether somebody 'should' know something, even between two colleagues that are nominally in the same role, and assuming that something 'need not be said because it's commonly known / trivial' is such a classic and repeated cause of major miscommunication that it's better to be safe than sorry in these instances. – Bruno Jun 19 at 2:43
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Is adding such an obvious sentence necessary?

Yes. As @Kozaky pointed in their answer's last paragraph, it's a big part of being friendly and reassuring. I agree 100% with that. I'll expand a little.

As a teacher (with students) and business owner (with colleagues), I always add a last sentence along the line of "let me know if you need clarification or something else."

A chinese proverb, often quoted by A. Einstein, says:

He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes.

He who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.

Many times, people will fear looking like a fool. Adding such a sentence at the end opens a door for them, so they may ask something without feeling weird or stupid. It also helps clarifying things.

As a teacher, it took me a couple of years to realize that it's not what you say that's the more important, it's the way people understand it, and the way you say it. Since then, I always ended any course or meeting with this friendly reminder, and never encountered any problem.

You also ask "Who wouldn't?". Many people. Because they are too shy, lack confidence etc. Adding a sentence helps them. And you never know completely who you're talking / writing to.

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    Shame-based cultures equate questions with incompetence. This is basically all Asian cultures. They do not ask questions because their entire education system is like this. Results oriented, don't bother higher ups (teachers) with questions – Nelson Jul 26 '18 at 2:34
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    @Nelson : I agree. And that's why it's important to 1. let them know you're available to answer 2. there's no such hard feeling towards them from your side if they ask 3. show the door (to question) open and keep it open for them. – OldPadawan Jul 26 '18 at 8:09
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Personally, I add "Let me know if anything is unclear" when I'm worried that I've been unclear!

The idea is to take the stress off asking me for help. I use it to mean: "If there's anything you don't understand it's probably my fault for explaining it badly. Don't feel stupid. Don't feel apprehensive about asking because you think it'll make you look stupid. Just ask."

Naturally, if I am unsure about something, I will always ask for clarification.

Congratulations on being a well-rounded individual with good social skills. Not everyone's the same as you. I hate asking for help / clarification. It makes me feel stupid. It makes me worry that other people think I'm stupid. When someone let's me know that asking for help is ok, it makes things a lot easier for me.

  • The reason I added the part about always asking for clarification is because a) I am curious / it is in my nature to want to know and learn things b) I need to know things in order to do my work, otherwise I won't be able to do my job properly. Anybody in an investigative role should always ask questions, whether they feel comfortable doing so or not; otherwise they won't be able to perform to their best capabilities as they will be misinformed to a certain degree. I don't always enjoy asking for clarification, but I do it anyway to make entirely sure that I understand something properly. – MusTheDataGuy Jul 25 '18 at 10:47
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    @MusTheDataGuy - That doesn't contradict that "adding the line takes the stress off asking for help". Which is the whole point of my answer. – AndyT Jul 25 '18 at 10:50
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    @MusTheDataGuy - Ah, right. You prefer all communication to be completely efficient. So you never put "Dear Joe Bloggs" at the top of an email, write "Please could you" at the start of any request, thank anyone for what they've done or finish with "Kind regards" or similar? You don't consider how the way you phrase things can affect how someone feels? – AndyT Jul 25 '18 at 10:58
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    @MusTheDataGuy Re. "when the person person asking the question knows that the person they are asking" [will understand/help]. Sure: if you know that, you can omit it. I worked for 15+ years with the same small core of people, and wouldn't use the line in an email to them because (a) I was pretty sure of the extent of their knowledge, and (b) I knew they wouldn't be reticent about asking if it was necessary. But if I was going out to a wider audience, or newer members of the team, I would use it. [/cont...] – TripeHound Jul 26 '18 at 7:02
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    [...] As to why your colleagues still use it: for some it will just be force of habit -- they're so used to including "just in case" that they don't / no longer evaluate whether it is necessary. Also, you say "I always ask for clarification if I am unsure"... as other answers/comments have indicated, this is a good, but generally atypical position to be in after only "several months" -- your colleagues may not yet have cottoned-on to your willingness to ask if needed. – TripeHound Jul 26 '18 at 7:08
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My question therefore is this: is adding such an obvious sentence necessary?

No, it isn't always necessary if you know the recipients either (a) are very likely to understand without needing clarification, or (b) will not be "afraid" to ask if they do need clarification. I worked for 15+ years with the same core team of developers and would almost never use this type of phrase with them because I pretty much knew [the extent of] what they knew, and that they'd ask if needed. However, if I was writing to a wider audience, or including newer members of the team (about whose knowledge, or their confidence to ask for clarification, I was unsure) then I would include this sort of phrase.

[...] given that you know that somebody is definitely capable of doing what you ask them, and given that you specify clearly what you want, is adding such a line to an e-mail necessary? The reason I ask this is because it sometimes comes across as patronising – I'm sure that's not the case in most instances, but nevertheless it does come across that way sometimes.

As you correctly assume, in virtually all cases, it isn't intended to be patronising... so why do they do it?

Force of Habit

For a lot of people, it will just be habit. Other answers describe how using this sort of phrase "lowers the barrier" for recipients who might otherwise not seek clarification when it is needed. Some email writers will simply have adopted such a phrase and add it automatically without questioning whether it's really needed for the specific recipients of a particular email.

Perhaps slightly lazy, but not patronising.

Better Safe than Sorry

For those email writers who do think about whether such phrases are necessary, they need to be reasonably sure either that you don't need clarification, or that you won't be afraid to ask if you do.

I should add that I have worked with the same colleagues who have requested things from me for several months, so we aren't strangers

I would say "several months" is not that long a time...

You might know you know the material, but it takes a certain amount of time for others to be confident in their assessment of your level of knowledge.

I always ask for clarification if I am unsure about something

It is great that you are confident enough to seek clarification if needed. However, again as other answers have mentioned, a lot of people, either because they are lower-down the corporate ladder, it is just their nature, or because of cultural norms, will be reluctant to ask for clarification.

Again, although you know your willingness to ask, "several months" isn't really a long time for others to have decided (reliably) that you are someone that will ask if needed.

This would especially be the case if most of the time you do fully understand what you are being asked, and therefore have had little or no need to ask for further clarification. From your colleagues' points-of-view, they just see "no requests for clarification" – it's had for them know if this is because you are "afraid" to ask, or simply don't need to ask.

Many people will err on the side of safety and include the phrase even if not strictly necessary.

Cautious rather than patronising.

  • I agree with everything you have written here. For completeness, I should also mention that my company is small (fewer than 25 employees) and the people who include this line on their e-mails are always the same 3 or 4 people whom I have worked with extensively in my time here (basically, we have worked closely on several projects). In fact, on a recent appraisal I was told that one of the things that all of my colleagues said that they liked about me was how I always ask questions, so it's a well-known fact that I ensure that I am always clear on something before I begin work on it. – MusTheDataGuy Jul 26 '18 at 8:33
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    @MusTheDataGuy Then in that case, it's almost certainly just a habit they've picked up – they add that line automatically without thinking about it. Given the positive appraisal, it sounds like there is absolutely no intention to be patronising. If it really bothers you, you might mention – in a jocular and light-hearted way – that "I will ask if needed... there's no need to ask me in every email", but you're probably best to just "tune out" that phrase, knowing there's nothing untoward in its meaning. – TripeHound Jul 26 '18 at 8:39
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The line isn't trying to give you permission to do something you'd naturally do anyway (ask for clarification); it's an indication that the author is not only happy to provide such clarification, but is also perhaps to some degree expecting it to be needed. Read it more like "I recognise that this is slightly complex and that I may not have explained it in the best way; apologies in advance if this is the case", but without the overt and awkward self-deprecation.

It's also used partially as a pleasantry, something to write instead of "ok bye" or "see you later".

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Let me add to the other answers that the culture of asking questions differs among the world. People from different cultures may feel different about being allowed to ask questions.

For example, I have the impression that people from the US are generally very open in this regard - in academic talks/lectures I have seen American students usually ask a lot of questions which also get answered. It is a little bit different in Central Europe and especially in some Asian countries where it is kind of frown upon to ask superiours questions (read for example this question: How to get more co-operation from a teacher who discourages a student from asking questions to clear his confusion? which is about India).

2

There may be another interpretation here, given the IT / service provider nature of the interaction.

I would use this kind of language to convey something like:

'This is a request for work that I expect completing by the recipient. I feel I have provided all of the required information to undertake the task and will be unhappy if you come back to me at a later time with incorrect results or state that you didn't understand. By not responding with questions you are accepting this work item or task, and acknowledging that all required supporting information has been provided.'

That's a lot of subtext, but that's what I feel the addition of the last sentence is about - it's really asking the recipient to consider whether this request for work is something that can be completed / appropriate and to inform the sender if that is not the case.

  • That's one way to look at it, a more charitable view might be "I recognise that I am human and may not have been entirely clear in my explanations, I request that you ask for clarity if my explanation is not sufficient" – Ruadhan2300 Jul 26 '18 at 15:46
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"Let me know if anything is unclear" can be a very useful sentence.

The references to numerical words (First through Fifth) are not intended to indicate a specific order, but just to help point out that a new and different point is being brought up.

First, it can indicate that you are a person who is willing to welcome questions (as many of the other answers point out).

Second, it can indicate that you recognize the topic itself may be challenging. You are basically inviting people to have some time spent going into more detail, if desired. But if it isn't desired, you're respecting people's time by moving on.

Third, people generally don't say this in the middle of a bunch of simple statements. So this can indicate that you're done talking about one particular topic, and that your mind is starting to move onto another topic unless anyone wants to stop that process. Or it might indicate that the very prior or next sentence may be particularly challenging. This may be a polite way of saying, "think for a moment about whether this material was clear. If something isn't making sense, then point that out now before we move onto a different topic."

Fourth, this could be used for enunciation. If you prefer Pepsi over Coca-cola, you could enunciate the word Pepsi, and then make this statement for added effect of how important this is. "Last time I visited a place like this, I didn't get what I ordered. I'm feeling like a Pepsi. Let me know if anything is unclear." The statement may feel a bit unfriendly, putting the sentence's recipient on alert, but that might be the intended result.

Fifth, this can be used for a test of a communications system, such as a wireless phone. "Can you hear me now? Is my voice garbled? Let me know if anything is unclear."

Yes, some people may poke fun at a person who uses such a statement. And sometimes it might be inappropriate, if you are making simple statements that are abundantly likely to be clear. However, there are a number of times when the statement can be useful.

2

It conveys that:

  • You are willing to spend the time to give the recipient clarifications
  • You won't look down on the them for having such questions

You may have the ability to indiscriminately ask questions when you're confused as mentioned in your original question, but if you do, this is a rare superpower rather than the norm.

You may yet need to ponder this more carefully.

Imagine you somehow get into email contact with the person you most admire in the world, and start a profound discussion about life philosophy. Within his email to you, he references a phrase from another language with which you're unfamiliar. What will be your first reaction? Do you dare waste the time of the person you most respect in the world to ask such a trifling question? Or would you prefer to spend your own time trying to clarify this uncertainly for yourself?

Especially in an era in which almost any question can be answered for oneself by pulling from the vast array of resources perpetually at our disposal, the internal debate we weigh now is no longer

What can I do to find an answer?

but has shifted to

Which resources should I utilize in order to find an answer?

Letting people know that you would be happy to be on the top of their list could be tremendously valuable information.

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Absolutely worth doing if you've explained something non-trivial or critically important!

Never underestimate the weird hangups, neuroses, anxieties and even general pig-headedness of people.
Being able to ask questions is a skill, one many of us struggle with. I've known people with subtle or unsubtle anxiety about social interaction who absolutely would be apprehensive about asking questions after something had been explained to them. I'm one myself.

Many times in my own life I've been presented with an explanation of how to do something, been thoroughly confused and/or uncertain how to proceed and not been willing to ask for clarification. I recognised it at the time, understood it was stupid not to ask but some part of me simply refused to ask the questions. I didn't want to test the patience of the other person.

By asking them to call-back to you, you give tacit permission to ask questions and maintain the dialog.
I can't overstate how much this can help smooth over potential hangups.

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In addition to reasons of politeness, habit or wishing to make the reader feel more comfortable about asking questions (as pointed out in all the other great answers) I sometimes include this kind of thing because it makes me more efficient.

I would guess that statement might not make much sense to some people so let me explain what I mean. I'm a person that considers being clear and accurate in my communication to be very important. I'm also a little bit of a perfectionist. Between these two things, I often spend a significant (and probably unnecessary) amount of time writing and rewriting a document or email in an attempt to more clearly communicate to the reader exactly what I mean. In most cases, however, this is a waste of time. Intellectually, I know that the difference between these "quick" emails and the ones that take significantly longer to compose is relatively minimal and I've probably been clear enough with my first draft, but unless I take that extra time to review and revise, I tend to have a general uneasiness about how well I've communicated. Adding an extra line like the one you're asking about can help me to overcome the feeling that the email I'm about to send isn't "up to my standard". As you point out, it's probably irrelevant to most of the people I'm sending work emails to, but it's also harmless and including it gives me permission to hit "send" and move on to the next thing.

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Personally I tend to avoid this formula because it may let intend we think the other is not competent enough to understand my email.

I rather say:

Please let me know if you'd like to elaborate on any of the above points

Or anyway something on this line, so that I'm not putting in doubt the interlocutor's ability to understand my words, but I'm rather showing openness to further expand my though to address any concern.

Coming to your question, I think it's polite to end an email with something like what I proposed, for the reasons stated above.

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In >90% of the cases, it's probably a friendly way to let you know they're open to questions.

However, on (hopefully rare) occasions, it can also carry the subtext that "if you don't reply, I won't accept your lack of understanding of my email as an excuse".

Now obviously a random stranger who isn't socially clueless wouldn't mean it this way, but if it's someone who has some kind of power over you, or whom you have otherwise given reason to believe that you may not respond if the instructions aren't 100% crystal clear, then there's a chance that this may be the intended subtext. You have to just use your common sense and look at the surrounding context to detect if this might be what's going on.

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