When you’re waiting to hear back from someone, it’s all you can think about: Did you get the job? Is your boss impressed with your ideas? Will your networking contact pass on your resume?
You can’t stop refreshing your inbox every other minute.
It’s hard to just sit there. Everything you’re taught about being a successful professional (“Be proactive!” “Be diligent!” “Be helpful!”) goes against doing nothing. But for some reason, in the case of following up repeatedly, it’s suddenly considered rude to check in.
So, with the best intentions, you hatch a plan: You’ll kick off your note with a reason to reach out, and that way everyone wins. You get to give the other person a reminder, and save face at the same time. And you know this is common practice, because you too get emails with these lines all the time.
But, as you also know from being on the other end, receiving a follow-up to a follow-up—no matter how legitimate the excuse is—rarely makes difference in how quickly you reply. If anything, you might even be annoyed at yet another email. It can feel more like pestering than anything else.
Unsure if your opening line reads as legitimately helpful or a (not-so-secret) secret strategy to compel someone to write back already?
Here’s how the four worst excuses to follow up translate:
You Write: “In Case My Email Went to SPAM…”
They Read: “Why Haven’t You Written Me Back Yet?”
First, to anyone who’s concerned about losing out on a job because their thank you note went to SPAM, I want you know that I’ve never heard of that. That’s because usually, by that point, you’ve emailed about interview times and take-home assignments and you can assume if your emails have been received all along, you’re good. (And if the hiring manager did install some overzealous system that started filtering messages from safe senders, they’d head straight for their Junk folder after missing those first few from their boss.)
But I’m guessing you knew that. I bet the reason you’re going with this line is because you’re seriously bummed out you haven’t heard back yet. And it’s nicer to imagine that the other person was literally prevented from seeing your email, rather than ignoring you.
However, since you know—and I know, and they know—that this probably didn’t happen, starting this way makes it seem like you’d rather make up a reason than let the other person take their time. It’ll still make you look impatient, and it’s best avoided.
You Write: “Just Checking You Didn’t Forget…”
They Read: “Temporary Amnesia Is the Only Legitimate Reason for Making Me Wait”
This opener often comes from a legitimate desire to help. Who hasn’t seen an email when they checked their phone in the morning and forgotten about it?
But this is generally the exception.
And when you suggest someone isn’t getting back to you because they forgot, you’re basically accusing him or her of being disorganized. Or, like the SPAM opener, you’re suggesting that only some less-than-likely reason could rationally explain why your contact didn’t reply ASAP. Even though your goal is to be helpful, you’re actually saying that you don’t think they do a good job managing their email.
You Write “…Because My Email Wasn’t Working”
They Read: “Pretty Sure Your Email Must Be Broken”
Ah, yes, the reverse psychology approach. To avoid suggesting the other person sucks at email, you pretend that yours weren’t sending correctly, and so you had to reach out again.
While we’ve all experienced technical difficulties, this is about as transparent as when someone you love makes up “a friend” going through your exact situation so they can give you unsolicited advice (and you know how much you enjoy that!).
Retire this excuse if for no other reason than if it ever really does happen, you want to be able to say so and not have people think that’s just your go-to way to nudge them.
You Write: “I Know You’ve Been Really Busy…”
They Read: “Prioritize Me!”
You know those people who say, “No disrespect…” and then go on to say something disrespectful? Unfortunately, this comes off the same way. Usually, after writing, “I know you’ve been really busy,” people follow up with “but” and then an ask. As in “I know you’ve been really busy, but I’d love it if you could send your thoughts on whatever I sent you.”
Truth talk: There’s no way to simultaneously push someone—and seem understanding of their crazy schedule. And ironically, even though your goal is to be thoughtful, acknowledging their lack of time and then forging right ahead with what you need actually makes you seem even more dismissive.
The moral here is that no one likes to be manipulated. Yes, your goal of being diplomatic is coming from the right place. But if it causes you to make up fake excuses, you’re going to look worse than if you were just honest.
That’s right: The surprisingly simple solution is to tell the truth. If you’re waiting on a reply because you’re entertaining other job offers or need to hear back before you submit a final version of something—say so.
And if you look at that honest draft and realize there are no external factors (you just desperately want to hear already), trust your instincts that it’s not a worthwhile email to send.
I know being patient is always easier said than done, but more often than not it’s in your best interest.