Emails: Requests

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An Example

These days I received an email from someone from a company that had asked me for a special English course. I had already spoken to someone else about the course and had a little background information. As I am quite busy, we will have to find a time that fits into my schedule, but I am interested in giving the course as it is a new company of a kind I haven’t taught at yet, so it could be an interesting challenge, and I am willing to squeeze it in.

I was told that someone would get into contact with me to make an appointment, so I was prepared. Still, when the email came, it made me feel very uncomfortable. I will try to describe why, and demonstrate how I would recommend you do not write emails when you are requesting something from someone, especially someone you don’t know and have never met.

It was a German email, and maybe the tone of voice, the brevity, the ‘let’s get right down to business’ is o.k. in a German working environment. But NEVER write like this to an English speaker at first contact (I changed the names and the phone number):

Sehr geehrte Frau Buchtmann,

Dr. Meier bat mich, mit Ihnen einen Gesprächstermin zu vereinbaren. Bitte melden Sie sich unter 1234567 (vormittags) zwecks Terminabsprache. Vielen Dank.
Mit freundlichen Grüßen
M. Schulze
In English, this would translate into something like:
Dear Ms Buchtmann
Dr. Meier asked me to arrange a meeting with you. Please call the number 1234567 for an appointment.
Thank you.
Best regards,
M. Schulze
Whenever you ask someone for something i.e. make a request, choose your language carefully. I don’t know how Germans feel when they receive an email like the one I have (I will ask in my groups), but I will tell you how I felt after reading it, and describe what is wrong from the perspective of an English speaker. (I actually also feel it to be a little too direct for a German as well, but I’m not entirely sure.)
So, what’s wrong with this email?
First of all, the person who signed only gives his or her initial. So I don’t know if this is a woman or a man and consequently don’t know how to address this person other than Dear M. Schulze. This might not be such a big issue, as the email address (mostly) provides the first name, however the initial only adds to the extreme impersonal formality of the email. You wouldn’t do that in English. Assuming this person is Dr. Soandso’s secretary and most secretaries in Germany, as far as I know, are women, chances are to 99.9 percent this is a woman, too. But, you never know. (Tip: don’t just write your initial, write your full name.)
Secondly, it is too short and very impersonal for a first contact email. I have no idea who this person is (only guessing someone’s assistant), so it would have been nice if she/he had told me who she is in a little more detail and why she is contacting me (on whose behalf for instance.)
Thirdly, it is too direct. It sounds like an order and my first reaction was not positive. This meant, I would have to let it rest for a while before I answered, as I knew or assumed it was not meant to cause the reaction that it had. (I’ll share my thoughts with you: something along the line like – who does she (assuming a ‘she’) think she is, she’s not my boss, how can she give me an order like that? I’m busy in the mornings, I’m sitting in class and have no time to give her a ring etc. In other words, her tone of voice did not meet with a feeling or willingness of cooperation from my side.)
When you ask someone to do something for you, formulate it as a question. Make it easier for the person to theoretically say no. Thereby you are not imposing on the other too strongly to do something for you and the other can feel better when doing what you are requesting. This seems to be the basic idea of what we feel is polite: not to put pressure on someone, not being to inquistive or imposing. Only in stronger hierarchical or authoritative systems do people of higher status give lower ranks orders they cannot refuse. In less hierarchical cultures, we feel annoyed by or at least uncomfortable with such behavior.
In case of the request for a phone call above, you could or would write something like:
Could you please give us a phone call under the following number? Unfortunately you will have to call in the mornings (give a time like from 10:00 to 12:00). (‘Sorry for the inconvenience‘ would be great, but maybe asking too much; instead you could write: ‘Hoping to hear from you soon‘. Best regards (Full name).
Much friendlier (and not much longer) and the person requested to give a ring might try to squeeze it in between other appointments instead of growling for half an hour feeling treated like a servant. And hoping that the tone of the email is not the general tone in that company, because if it is, their relationship will be short.

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