How to Recognize and Avoid Passive-Aggressive Email

A colleague pointed us to a recent episode from the BBC Business Matters podcast. The subject: Has email made us more passive-aggressive at work? Here’s the excerpt:

Passive aggression, defined, is behavior characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others, and an avoidance of direct confrontation. Both of which are much more easily done via email than through other forms of communication. Got an email from a boss or peer that rubs you the wrong way? You can delay response, or ignore the email altogether. Or you can always type back a terse, snarky reply, which, if ever called out on it, can be defended with a simple, “Oh, I’m sorry, you must have misunderstood.”

Of course, we don’t recommend these communication tactics. “Hostility without getting caught,” as they refer to it in the podcast, is no way to strengthen interoffice relations. It causes an unspoken undercurrent of dissension among colleagues, which can often leach into relationships with clients and customers, which is far more detrimental to the organization.

Email is a very easy, convenient way to communicate. Email is also a very easy way to veil animosity toward a colleague (see the “over-politeness” example in the audio). It’s also very easy for an email with no intended animosity to be taken the wrong way. So, we do walk a fine line every time we hit “Send.” If you are ever in doubt over whether your email’s meaning may be misconstrued, consider turning that email into a phone call or a quick face-to-face.

Are we getting more passive aggressive through so much email use? Yes, but it’s an easy fix. If we check ourselves before writing the knee-jerk reply, mind our tone, and use clarity in our communication, it opens the door for much more amicable relationships at work.

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