9 Passive-Aggressive Email Phrases You Are Probably Using

Annoyed.woman at computerYou might have noticed some of your bosses and colleagues and friends getting somewhat, well, downright testy during this Coronavirus time. No wonder! Huge changes, disruption of business and home life, financial woes, uncertainty about the future, little or no social contact and that stay-at-home confinement we are all getting tired of.

What I noticed is the effect this crazy upside-down time is having on our emails. Yes, our emails. I noticed that more and more, emails are getting somewhat, if not totally, passive-aggressive. Based upon what I recently found out, I am willing to bet $.25 (I never go more than $.25) that all of us have been at least a little PA at some point.

Expressing anger in the office today is taboo and practically a crime. Yet, anger is a natural emotion and is bound to eventually come out somewhere.  More times than we want to have happen, we find plenty of angry emails in our inbox.  According to a 2018 survey by Adobe, there are 9 extremely annoying email phrases all of us have most likely used. Adobe surveyed 1,928 workers asking for their most annoying email phrases.  Truthfully, I was not aware that any of these phrases were considered annoying, let alone passive-aggressive.

While the Adobe survey calls theses phrases, “annoying”, Psychology Today magazine labels them passive-aggressive. To be truthful, I can’t tell you how many emails I have sent over the years containing practically all of these phrases. Who knew?

Over 75% of the respondents said that email was the preferred way to communicate around the office. Most said they spend anywhere from one to two hours to a half day reading and responding to emails.

Top 9 email phrases considered passive-aggressive:

1, Not sure if you saw my last email... Really? Come on. Are you sure you’re not sure? 99% of the time, (not based on any evidence) this is simply a lie. What this actually means is: “I know you saw my last email. I know you ignored it. So, I’m sending it again. I demand a response RIGHT NOW”.

2. Per my last email... Does anyone use the word “per” except to sound superior and official?  Would you use it in a conversation? I doubt it. “Per my last email” roughly translates to “I notice you haven’t responded to my previous email and want to point it out to everyone in this email chain with my legal-sounding speak”.

3. Per our conversation… Similar to the above but with an added twist. “Per our conversation” is used when you’ve had a chat about something contentious or you want to lock something important in and ensure it’s documented just in case, of course, it all goes wrong. It’s generally called a CYA. (If you don’t know what that means, just email me.)

4. Any updates on this?… Here we go with: “I still haven’t heard from you about this important matter, so I’m going to chase you down until you give me what I want”.

5. Sorry for the double email … Here’s the classic: “sorry but not really sorry” mentality. This phrase can mean either “I’m going to send you two similar emails to really hit hard that I need a response”, or “I was so busy writing a tome in my first email that I neglected to add additional information”.

6. Please advise…. This is the epitome of passive-aggression. “Please advise” is usually shorthand for “I’ve done my part, now you do yours”.

7. As previously stated... Wait, wait! Maybe this phrase is the core of passive-aggression. Why not write: “I’m having to repeat myself because it’s obvious you are ignoring me”.

8. As discussed... This phrase loosely translates to “I’m putting our conversation in writing so you can’t misinterpret what’s expected of you. Be sure to get this right.”

9. Re-attaching for convenience… I rarely see this. However, it is a nice way of saying: “I’m reattaching a file you say that you never received (when I know you did) because it’s easier than having to sort through my sent emails to prove that I did, indeed, send it.”

Interestingly, the phrases “Per my last email” and “Per our conversation” came in second and third in the survey with "Not sure you saw my email" as number one.

Do not send an email starting like this:

Whether you’re speaking with your supervisor or contacting a client, 37% of respondents said starting an email with “To whom it may concern”as a terrible greeting. “Hey” (28%) and the corny “Happy [insert day]!” also ranking poorly.

The most annoying email cliches are:

    1. Just looping in… 37%
    2. As per my last email…33%
    3. Just checking in…19%
    4. Confirming receipt…16%
    5. Thanks in advance…7%
    6. Hope you’re well…6%  No, you don’t! Frankly, you are probably just trying to sound polite or have no original ideas for another opener.

The style you use can also be annoying:

  1. Using capital letters for whole words or sentences – 67%
  2. Using kisses or ‘x’ – 65%
  3. CC’ing people who don’t need to be involved – 63%
  4. Using slang, eg ‘OMG’ – 53%
  5. Using too many exclamation marks – 52%
  6. Sending an email without proofreading – 50%
  7. Sending very long emails – 29%
  8. Using emojis – 29%
  9. Not having an email signature – 23%
  10. Double emailing – 22%
  11. Using smiley faces – 22%
  12. Using colored fonts – 21%

Another recent study found that keeping emails on the pithy side can go a long way. Emails with a subject line containing just one word were found to be 87% more likely to receive a response.  It was also found that emails 50 words or less boosted reply rates by more than 40%.

What does work:

More than half of the respondents said receiving no greeting (53%) was absolutely the worst for a work email. Starting an email with a greeting such as “Hi” was received the most positively by respondents with nearly half agreeing it was the perfect greeting. “Kind regards” was found to be the best way to sign-off (69%). “Good morning” and “Good afternoon” also ranked highly as nice ways to address recipients.

A much better way to communicate:

All cattiness aside, each of these phrases have something in common: a need to get information quickly. Almost everyone finds these email expressions annoying, boring or trite, yet most of us frequently use them. This suggests that something needs to change to make information sharing more pleasant and responses more plentiful.

According to Psychology Today, here are three steps to handle passive-aggressive emails:

Step 1: Know what you are dealing with.

See beyond sugarcoated phrasing and recognize hostility. When you see the patterned wording as cited in the Adobe study (e.g., “As previously stated” or “Please advise”), red flags should go up and you need to ask yourself if the sender is harboring some hidden anger.

Step 2: Refuse to engage.

Resist urges to mirror the sender’s hostility. Any time covertly hostile email is responded to with overt hostility, the passive-aggressive person succeeds. Rather than mirroring passive-aggressive behavior and increasing the overall hostility, defuse the hostility with emotionally neutral, bland responses. For example:

Passive-aggressive phrase: “Not sure if you saw my last email...” Siphon off hostility by starting with, “Thanks for the reminder”.

Passive-aggressive phrase: “Re-attaching for your convenience...” “I appreciate that you re-sent the document.”

Passive-aggressive phrase: “As previously stated...” Don’t take the bait. A simple, “Thanks for the recap” will go a long way in keeping a friendly working relationship and rises above someone else’s covert anger.

Passive-aggressive phrase: “Any updates on this?” Offer a polite response such as, “I don’t have any updates yet,” or even better, “I don’t have any updates at this time but I will email you as soon as I do.”

Passive-aggressive phrase: “Please advise.” Offer the advice they are seeking. For example, “Yes, please proceed with your idea,” or “We have decided to move in a slightly different direction. Please hold off on making any decisions.”

Step 3: Acknowledge the anger.

If you feel like a co-worker is chronically hostile and consistently using passive-aggressive communication, respectfully acknowledge their anger. For example, “It sounds like you may be feeling angry,” or, “From your email, I’m wondering if you are frustrated about something.” 

Nine times out of ten, passive-aggressive people will automatically deny that they are angry — and that’s OK. Your respectful acknowledgement marks changing dynamics. The passive-aggressive person now knows that you will not run away from resolving conflict. Ultimately, you will suffer less and get better, more productive responses.

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Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a top national and international staffing organization and MediSums, medical records summarizing. She is the Co-Founding Member and Vice-President of the Organization of Legal Professionals. Chere has written 10 books on legal careers, hundreds of articles and has been written up in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Trib, Newsweek, Entrepreneur and others. Chere is a recipient of the Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Award and a finalist for the Inc. Magazine Entrepreneur of the Year award and a Los Angeles Paralegal Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient She is a former administrator at an AmLaw 100 firm and Sr. Vice President in a $5 billion company. She can be reached on Sundays from 3am-5am. Reach out at: chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.

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