I’m sure you’ve received plenty of confusing emails over the years. They’re often long and vague, and leave you wondering what the person is asking you to do.

Trying to decode these types of emails can take a lot of your time. And even if you give it your best effort, you still might get it wrong. So instead of trying to make sense of a confusing email, author Alex Cavoulacos suggests that it’s better to ask for clarification. The way in which you ask for clarification depends on the type of email that you receive:

  • Rambling and unclear – If you get a lengthy email that contains a lot of confusing bits of information, and even after reading it several times, you still have no idea what the person would like you to do, you need to kindly ask for clarification. Send a response that says something like this… Thanks for sharing this information. It’s a lot to consider! In order for me to assist you as quickly as possible, could you tell me specifically what I can do to help?   
  • Not enough information – If you get an email in which someone asks you to provide your opinion or make a decision, but doesn’t provide you with the background information or resources that you need, don’t waste a lot of time trying to track these things down yourself. Instead, send a response like this… Thanks for your email! Could you please send me the [documents/background information] regarding this issue? I’ll take action after I’ve reviewed them.
  • Too many requests (from your boss) – If your boss sends you a huge, crazy “to-do” list that’s more than you can manage, you should address this issue in your response. Try to get your boss to prioritize the list by saying something like this… Thanks for your email. I can get started on these tasks as soon as I’m done with [other project I’m currently working on]. But I’d be more effective if I knew which items I should tackle first. Could you possibly help me to prioritize these tasks?”  
  • Too many requests (from a coworker) – If a coworker (who really shouldn’t be assigning you work) sends you a huge, crazy “to-do” list, you should respond like this… Thanks for your email. Before I begin any of this work, I’ll have to get approval from my boss. Could you possibly tell me which of these tasks are the most important? And are there any tasks on this list that could be cut or postponed? This information will be really helpful when I talk to my boss about how much time it will take me to get these tasks done.
  • A plea from a virtual stranger – If someone from another department whom you barely know emails you with a rambling, confusing plea for help with various tasks, you shouldn’t just ignore it, even if you’re really busy with your own work. Be kind and responsive, and say something like this… Hi. It’s nice to meet you! My schedule is really full right now, but I could help you out with one of the items on your list – possibly by referring you to someone who is more experienced in this area. Which one of the tasks that you listed is the most important?

Cavoulacos, A. (n.d.). The 4 most ridiculous emails in your inbox – and how to answer them. The Muse. Retrieved from: https://www.themuse.com/advice/the-4-most-ridiculous-emails-in-your-inboxand-how-to-answer-them