The art of asking email questions, or not…

I love getting questions in email about SQL Server. I tell every class that they can send me questions and they'll get a response – sometimes just a URL to read, sometimes I engage for hours if it's a really interesting bug, for instance. It's a great way to help the community, it fosters good will for (we're a business after all), and it provides me with some interesting real-life problems as source material for the various Q&A columns I write. Everybody wins.

However, I've noticed a disturbing new trend – people sending questions which seem to demonstrate little or no thought, little or no research, and most irritating of all, little or no politeness. Please and thank-you cost nothing but seem to be sliding out of use during online communication. I mean, if you're going to ask someone for something for free, shouldn't you be polite about it and give them something reasonable to reply to?

This afternoon I got a doozy, and I thought I'd share the anonymized conversation with you. I really didn't expect to be argued with in a response so I thought I'd engage and argue back. No, this doesn't show me in a particularly good light – sometimes (rarely) my irritation overrides my self-restraint and I reply with some mild invective – but the end result was worth it as now I can help him out. If only he'd started with the final email then none of this would have happened and you wouldn't be reading this.

Random email questions should roughly have, in my opinion:

  • Greeting
  • Please
  • Problem statement(s) – but not 100s of lines of code with "Incorrect syntax near ','"
  • Question(s)
  • Thanks
  • And be relevant to things people know (or at least pretend) I know

Enjoy! And keep the good questions coming!

Interested in your thoughts… was I right? was I wrong? I hum'd and hah'd about blogging this at all, but I thought you'd find it interesting.

Original email:


What is the best source to study for the MCTS and MCITP certs.?

That's it. My reply:

Seriously? No please, no thank you and you expect a response?

Not the nicest, and certainly not the usual for this type of thing, but he was the straw that broke the camel's back today. His reply:

You've just made my day Mr Randall. Really.
I've dreaded asking you questions in the past because I've seen you rip people to shreds for silly questions.
I thought, Paul seems like a straight forward guy and doesn't need any fluff. Plus, he's busy.  I figured a short and direct question would be best. I spent about 5 minutes contemplating how to craft my email.
Even if you don't respond, it was a great pleasure just to be shot down by you.  My co-workers will get a kick out of it.
Please forgive me for wasting your time.  I follow your work closely. It's made me a better DBA. I'm an insider and a big fan.
Thank you for your time.
Take care. 

Interesting. I feel sort of like I'm being blamed for this whole thread. Game on. My reply:

Ok – you got my attention for 2 mins.

Yes, yours was a really silly question. And you were not polite about it – if you follow my blog you'll see me railing against people who don't say please or thank-you for random questions, which I usually answer regardless.

Did you do any research into answering your question? Google/Bing? As you know, we don't teach any of these certifications, and I don't think much of them, nor do I have any of them, so it's unlikely that I'll know the best source for studying for them. You didn't even specify which one you were interested in.

And best in terms of what? Cost? Depth? Breadth? Material? Teacher?

Yes, I'm very straightforward and very, very approachable – but I have no time for questions that really shouldn't be sent and occasionally when someone sends one with no politeness in, I respond as I did. You lucked in this week. Feel free to share this reply with your co-workers too.

Btw – my last name is Randal, not Randall. It's in my email signature.

Next time, ask a longer question, with more information, on a subject I'm likely to know about, plus say please and/or thank-you and you'll get a better response.


His final reply, which is a bit over-the-top, but gutsy to reply again, so I'm going to write a short, considerate response helping him out a bit:

Mr. Randal

When you get a free moment, would you please do me the honor of sharing some career advice.

I'm at the point in my career where I can no long consider myself a newbie. However, I'm feel completely lost and direction less.
I want to be an excellent, well rounded DBA, but I don't know the best way forward. I'm a very good Production DBA, but I feel I'm rubbish when it comes to planning and architecting a database environment. I know little about Network, Storage, Virtualization etc. I also have little to no experience with the SSRS,AS,IS. I can really geek-out of SQL internals; and as I mentioned I really wont to know how to have an intelligent conversation about Network, Storage, etc. I only mention the BI tools because it's good to have them in your tool belt.

If you were to mold a DBA, how would you do it? What sort of training? Is there an Immersion Event that fits? I've attached my resume to give you an idea of my experience. [As if the great Paul Randal has time to read a resume. Worth a shot!]

I just need a little bit of direction. I'm hungry, and I've been aggressively trying to plug learn, but I want to make sure I'm doing it the right way.

Please help.

Thank you.

15 thoughts on “The art of asking email questions, or not…

  1. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for sharing this.Writing emails is really an art.A ‘Please’ or a ‘Thank You’ matters a lot.

    Thank you,

  2. Hi Paul,

    Just an idea…instead of replying to him directly, perhaps a blog post about it would be good.


  3. Hi Paul,
    I agree it is very rude to not say please and thank you particularly when you are asking someone for free advice. I think a question somewhere in the middle of the first and last attempt would have been appropriate, the final response was too sarcastic for my liking.

  4. I’ve often wondered if the general decline in civility we see is due in some part to the proliferation and popularity of reality tv shows, where confrontation and rudeness are de rigueur. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there are also just people who will take advantage of your goodwill. People like you and Kimberly, and the good folks and Brent Ozar PLF, and all the others in the SQL community give an awful lot of good, free advice. I think sometimes people forget you all have other jobs you have to do besides answer questions on the internet. It’s inevitable that some people will abuse that goodwill. For some, it’s easier to send an email than to do a web search.

    I remember the first time I emailed you a question. It was about 2 years ago and I put real effort into composing that email. I wanted to write a very clear question, keep it short so that I would take a minimal amount of your time, and be polite. And you responded quickly with an answer and actually complimented me on the nice summary and description of my problem. (I don’t even remember what it was any more.) But that was awesome. I made a concerted effort to treat you with professional respect and you noticed. Sadly, the reason you noticed was probably because emails like that are so rare. Hopefully, this post will urge more people to think twice about the ways they ask for help.

  5. I like this guy. He didn’t say thank you or please, but his first response did show that he put some thought into what he sent. That is better than none at all and puts him in the top 70% of our population automatically. Except for the "great Paul Randal" jab, I thought his final reply was pretty good, though a bit longish.

    Paul, I know how it is when a straw break the camel’s back. That straw gets way more of the blame than is deserved. He was rude. You were rude and aggressive about it. A professional response like "Provide more information, please. Also, notice how I said "please."" would have been better. I like having the advantage of hindsight. :)

    Finally, I want to admit that I’m in need of this advice as I’ve often been on both sides of this topic. I fail to be polite and sometimes reply harshly. I appreciate the opportunity to examine my own issues that this post has presented. It’s a positive for the community. Thanks.

  6. Well. I’m gobsmacked. Mainly that Curtis believes you, Paul, were rude and agressive – of course, I respect Curtis’s right to an opinion, so hopefully, this will be accepted as ‘my’ opinion. I think the person was in-luck in that you responeded at all. I’m sure most people would have instantly hit the delete key upon reading it. At least the person has learnt something, both in simple manners and in possibly getting a useful answer to their question – tho I am in agreement that there is still a tinge of sarcasm.

    I second Shaun Stuart’s comment about the work many of you guys share with the SQL community as a whole and very much appreciate it.

  7. Hi Paul,
    This thread was well worth adding – thank you for sharing it.
    There is a sweet spot between technical proficiency and raw enthusisam. Too much technical proficiency – it’s a bit dry. Too much enthusiasm – it’s not technical enough.
    The area where things happen (I think) is where they overlap.
    The interaction in the post really comes to life, and is most helpful. I have often wondered about the certification where the questions sometimes seem to require you to remember the official way of doing something, which may be debatable.
    So, thank you and best wishes
    Justin Abbott

  8. I agree that proper manners appear to be a thing of the past, especially when asking for comments or assistance.

    Personally I like Casey’s thoughts on a possible blog post about the topic. I feel as though I am in a similar point in my career and looking for advice from experts like yourself on taking that next step to be a great DBA. My colleagues and I had a discussion at lunch today about the importance of a strong mentor type relationship on helping develop those next level skills. I would be interested to hear your point of view on the topic.

  9. Maybe the best outcome is for the original person asking the question writing a blog about it? I would doubt he/she only asked Paul about advice. So instead of being a sink hole of information a nice litte write up of all these small pearls of wisdom how different people think about advancing your career.

    Personally I don’t mind if people are straight to the point. But the people communicating with me this way were "trained" over time and thus a personal relationship already exists with the context of knowing that missing "Please" and "Thanks" are not out of courtesy but just fluff that both parties try to avoid in all conversation.
    However with strangers or people who don’t know me that much I still add a little greeting to my emails and Please will appear at least once. Working in a few international companies also raises the dangers of coming across as unpolite despite best efforts. For example it is curteously to add "Thanks in advance" in Germany if the question is short, the answer is expected to be short and the answer to conclude the conversation. The same is considered rude in England.

  10. I agree totally that please and thank you are basic courtesy and should be used even when one is aiming for maximum brevity.

    I think that Paul’s post is an excellent example of the double edged sword that is electronic communication. Whilst it is essential, fast and convenient, it is so open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation due to the lack of facial expressions (smileys not withstanding) and body language.

    It is so easy to take one person’s idea of brevity as rudeness, when it may not have been intended that way. It is also very easy to come over as a pompous prat in an e-mail without realising one is doing so. I know, I have done it many times.

    Anyway, a huge ‘thank you’ to all at SQL Skills for the time and effort that you put into sharing your skills, knowledge and insights with the SQL Server community. It’s much appreciated.

  11. I have to agree with the topic of how it’s impossible to convey or interpret tone in an e-mail message. Something that may read sarcastic may also be genuine, and vice-versa. Just the word OK could be read multiple ways.

    OK. – I understand.
    OK. – I have no idea why you said what you said, and I’ll just move on.
    OK. – I don’t agree with you! And in fact think you’re an idiot.

    And in my mind I am saying these each with a different tone. And trust me, I’ve heard all 3 from my kids!

    But I also believe whether in person or over other media, you should always be cordial with someone you’re not on a first name basis with. Hello, thanks, please, etc. You don’t walk up to a complete strange and ask for directions without at least saying excuse me. And then thank you, even if they don’t know how to get you there.

    And if you’ve ever watched The Middle, you know that when you make a mistake or offend someone, you say "I’m sorry." And the proper response is "That’s OK."

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