Today, we live in a world where business, degrees and even entire relationships are conducted behind a screen. As a result, employee frustration and miscommunication is at an all-time high, with tone alone being misinterpreted almost half of the time in email, leading to endless wasted hours and heightened anxiety.
For better or worse, digital communication, whether it's through email or direct messages on platforms like Slack, don't let us see each other's immediate reactions — which is why we look for ways to "politely" express irritation. The key word is "politely," but it isn't always interpreted that way.
So let's take a look at the five most common phrases employees use that actually make them passive aggressive and petty:
1. "Per my last email..."
What it actually means: "You didn't really read what I wrote. Pay attention this time!"
2. "For future reference..."
What it actually means: "Let me correct your blatant 'mistake' that you already knew was wrong."
3. "Bumping this to the top of your inbox..."
What it actually means: "You're my boss [or employee]. This is the third time I've asked you. I need you to get this s*** done."
4. "Just to be sure we're on the same page..."
What this actually means: "I'm going to cover my a** here and make sure that everyone who refers to this email in the future knows that I was right all along."
5. "Going forward..."
What it actually means: "Do not ever do that again."
It's likely that you've used one of these phrases before without even realizing that it could be perceived as passive aggressive. Or, you may have been on the receiving end, which can also be frustrating.
(Even as a digital body language researcher, whenever I see "Thanks for your patience" in an email, I can't decide if they're brushing me off with an undefined future date, or if they really only need a few days longer than expected to get back to me. In most cases, though, I know they're just saying "Sorry I'm late with this; it's taking longer than I thought." That's all.)
The right way to express what you mean
So how should we frame our own "Just following up on this" without engaging in any passive aggressiveness? When is it okay to loop in our boss without seeming like a jerk? When do we use the phone to call and clarify something?
Here are four things successful communicators do:
1. Don't respond to messages or emails when you're angry or frustrated.
This prevents miscommunication, wasted time and regret. If you feel emotionally hijacked, save your email message as a draft and revise and send it when you're in a better mood.
2. Assume good intent.
Instead of calling someone out for screwing up, step into their shoes and ask yourself, "What are some reasons why they might have made this mistake?"
It's better to people exactly what they need to take action. Sometimes just adding a quick brief so that they don't have to go back and read through previous emails and writing "Here's what I need from you" or "Here are the open dates again" is helpful.
3. Show empathy and encouragement.
Replace imperative words like "Do this" with conditional phrases like "Could you do this?" When delivering feedback, begin your message by expressing appreciation using words like "Thank you for [X]" or "Excellent job on [X]."
If your boss, or even a client, sends you a passive aggressive email, fight that urge to send an even more petty reply. Lowering your actions down to their level will only escalate the tension and increase anxiety.
4. Avoid digital ghosting.
Need to get back to someone? Here's a quick guide to remember:
- If you can answer in 60 seconds or less: Respond immediately.
- If it's urgent: Respond immediately or let the sender know you are working on it. Make an appointment with yourself on your calendar if you need to.
- If it's a matter lacking urgency: Don't stress; block out time to follow up after at your convenience.
- If you're the one waiting for a response: Unless it's critical that you get a reply ASAP, remember that people may have a lot on their plates. If you follow up twice and don't get a reply, switch to a different medium (e.g. a phone call).
Erica Dhawan is a leadership expert, keynote speaker and author of "Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance." She is also the founder and CEO of Cotential, a company that has helped leaders and teams leverage collaboration skills globally. Her writing has appeared in publications, including Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter @ericadhawan.
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