On Free Advice and the Email Etiquette of Strangers

Thanks to this site (and despite the cheeky disclaimer on the Contact page), I probably get three to five unsolicited email questions from strangers a week. A few years ago, I used to ignore 60% of these emails.

Over time, I’ve observed how people I admire like Tim Bray and Seth Godin work hard to answer each email they receive. And they probably get ten or fifty times the email I do, so now I endeavour (though I don’t always succeed) to do the same.

To take a slight diversion, Derek pointed to this article about professionals getting constantly solicited for free advice:

Las Vegas poker champion Scott Fischman, who writes about online poker, says that when he’s invited to social gatherings, he has to decide: “Do I want to spend four hours answering questions [about card-playing] or should I just stay home?” If he does venture out, he strives to remain helpful, briefly explaining how winning at poker comes from “learning how to learn” the game.

Most of the questions that I receive can be answered by some judicious Google searching, so I often send people links to Google results pages. You know, teach a man to fish and all that.

But here’s the thing: at least half the people to whom I reply never respond to say thank you. I hate to sound like some fuddy-duddy, but a little courtesy goes a long way, especially in the anonymous, nearly context-free world of the Web.

Some subset of questions probably thinks its more courteous to choose not to send an otherwise meaningless thank-you email, but I don’t. I’d rather hear whether I’d helped them, and tkae the extra seven seconds to read and delete that email.

Don’t believe me? Go ask Curtis E. Bear.


  1. I look at direct emails as great inspiration for blog posts. I figure more than one person probably would be interested in an answer to the question, so throw it out on the blog. However, there are exceptions such as people who are looking for specific help with their business. In those cases, I ask them if they’re interested in a consulting relationship.

  2. I’ve never asked you anything but I’m intellectually lazy and prefer to ask experts questions than do an actual research.

    I would thus like to thank you in advance for any advice you might give me in the future.

  3. Gill: Er, whoops, quite right. Indeed, I should be your last port of call for spelling, grammar and home improvement (among many, many other topics).

  4. It’s amazing how many people never send a thank you email. Having been in a position to hire/recommend people before, a quick email (to thank me for taking the time to answer a question about my workplace, for example) has sometimes made the difference between the garbage pile and the interview pile for that person’s resume.

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