Responding to Passive-Aggressive Emails

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—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

February 19, 2020 

Responding to Passive-Aggressive Emails

“Business is always logical, but people are always emotional.”

Fine.

Do whatever you want.

I’m not mad.

Do these comments sound like they come from a happy person? Our “spidey sense” tells us the commenter is being passive-aggressive, sugarcoating language to conceal negative feelings.

Passive-aggressive language is commonplace in business email. Emailers use indirect language to soften their message, but too much of it can backfire, creating animosity and confusion.

So, what’s the best way to respond to passive-aggressive emails? And how can we avoid passive-aggressiveness in our own writing?

To start, we need to recognize passive-aggressive language and consider its implied meaning.

What common email phrases are passive- aggressive?

Here are what some common email phrases really mean. Notice that the translations are too blunt for business communication. Instead, consider direct but tasteful alternatives. 

1. “Sorry if you found me unclear”

Translation: I’m not sorry at all. My message was very clear. You should have understood it the first time. (This phrasing places the blame on the reader [you].)

Alternative: I think we’re misunderstanding each other. Let’s set up a time to talk through this in person.

2. “Reattaching for your convenience”

Translation: You should have opened the attachment the first time.

Alternative: Please review the attachment.

3. “As no doubt you are aware”

Translation: This next statement is common knowledge. I shouldn’t have to explain it again, but I do.

Alternative: None. Delete the phrase. Is any meaning lost?

4. “Per my last email / Not sure if you saw my last email”

Translation: Hey, why haven’t you responded to my last message?

Alternative: I am reiterating this point because it’s crucial to the project.

5. “Correct me if I’m wrong”

Translation: I know I’m right. If you don’t agree, you’re wrong.

Alternative: I believe the correct way to handle [the situation] is to do [this action].

6. “As previously stated”

Translation: I can’t believe I have to repeat myself. You should know this already.

Alternative: None. Delete the phrase. Is any meaning lost?

7. “Any updates on this?”

Translation: You’ve taken too long to respond. Get on it.

Alternative: I know you’re tied up with [project], but please let me know the status of [your topic].

8. “Please advise”

Translation:  I can’t do this by myself.

Alternative: I need your guidance with this because . . .

9. “Thanks in advance”

Translation: I expect you to complete this task, even if you have not yet agreed
to it.

Alternative: Thank you / I would appreciate your help with . . .

10. Subject Line: Friendly Reminder

Translation: You didn’t do something you were supposed to do.

Alternative: Reminder: [Action] due by [date]

How should I respond to passive-aggressive emails?

In most cases, a short, polite response is the best way to defuse passive-aggressive situations—especially if you think the emailer's frustration is warranted:

  • Thank you for the reminder.
  • Thanks for resending the document.
  • I don’t have any updates at this time, but I will notify you when I do.

That said, if an emailer is routinely passive-aggressive with you, try directly acknowledging the person's feelings in your response.

I get the sense that you feel frustrated. You can be straightforward with me. What steps can I take to better the situation?

Further, if an emailer is intentionally rude, respond honestly and directly. Avoid engaging in a passive-aggressive battle.

I do not appreciate the sarcastic tone of your email. I'd rather you be direct with me and let me know how I can improve.

Is passive-aggressive language always a bad thing?

Excessive negative emotion is inappropriate in business communication. Occasional indirect language, therefore, can nudge responders in the right direction without hurting feelings.

However, don’t overdo it.

Some readers will find too much sugarcoating rude or annoying. Other readers might not pick up on the seriousness of your message. For these reasons, when the subject of your writing is serious or urgent, always be direct.

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Play the Editor!

Copy this email into a blank document. Revise the passive-aggressive language to make the message direct but agreeable. Scroll down to compare your revision to our recommendation. 

Hi Connor,

Did you get my last email? Any updates about scheduling a conference call regarding the expanded sales territories?

As no doubt you are aware, we must assign agents to the new locations by the end of March if we are to see any improvement in our second-quarter sales. 

Correct me if I'm wrong, but we must talk soon to get the process moving. I'm open all day Thursday. When might you be available?

Thanks in advance, 
Benjamin

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Get More Support

Check out the Write for Business Guide and Courses for more tips and strategies for writing effective emails.

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Editor’s Recommendation

Hi Connor,

I know you have many priorities right now, but we need to schedule a conference call to discuss how to manage the expanded sales territories.  

We must assign agents to the new locations by the end of March if we are to see any improvement in our second-quarter sales. 

Let's talk this week to get the process moving. I'm open all day Thursday. When might you be available? 

Thank you, 
Benjamin