Passive aggression in the workplace

Writing and receiving emails is a major part of modern working life and the situation is no different for those learning English for professional purposes. But along with knowing how to start, structure and successfully sign off an email, getting comfortable with the nuances of this type of language is important to truly master it.

Hiding behind emails

If we compare writing someone an email to speaking to them on the phone, or even, in person, we’ll soon realise a major difference. How do we tell if that person is sad, happy or even, at worst, angry? When speaking, we know this by the tone of their voice, which we often register without realising. When writing, however, tone is often less obvious. We must pay attention to sentence length, punctuation use and even specific phrasings or word choice.

Applying this to a work context, how can we make sure therefore to recognise if someone is actually angry with us but doing so in a “professional” way? Continue reading to see which phrases can indicate this so-called ‘passive aggression’, as we call it, while emailing in English.  

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A friendly reminder that…

Sadly, this phrase is not as well-intentioned as it may seem. In reality this means that someone has told you to do something multiple times and the deadline has well and truly passed.

The reality is that they intend to continue sending you emails until you reply or resolve the issue, so take it as a warning.

As per my last email

This one, along with, “as I have already told you”, means the sender feels you haven’t quite read their previous email carefully enough and feel no desire to repeat themselves.

Either you have misunderstood their point or are asking for information that they have already given to you, so be wary of asking for further clarifications if you see this one!

passive-aggressive-woman

As stated above

When sending emails it’s common for information to get lost or meanings to become unclear, such as in the previous example. This phrase specifically means you haven’t read something mentioned previously in the “conversation”, or more accurately, the thread of emails. A thread refers to a chain of emails that are all linked together by the same subject.

Just to clarify

Just is a word native speakers of English often overuse, to the point where it actually adds no significant meaning to a sentence. More often than not, it is used to “cushion” an incoming blow, and by this I mean, to lower the strength or severity of the information that follows it. When used with the verb, “to clarify”, here the person you are communicating with is providing you with an explanation that they don’t consider particularly warranted.  

frustrated-woman-passive-aggressive

It has come to my attention that

If we imagine the email equivalent of a fire alarm, this phrase is the glass box that someone breaks to activate it. The basic meaning you should take from reading this one is that you’ve completely messed up and the executioner is currently sharpening his axe ready for your execution. You can also interpret this one to mean someone has given some sensitive information to your boss or a superior. So be wary, there could be an office snake among you!

Thank you in advance

This phrase is perhaps my favourite of the five. On the surface it appears quite innocent and polite, as, after all, the person is thanking you. Well, not exactly. The use of “in advance” is a polite way of giving an order. The writer is subtly asserting that they don’t in fact need something doing now, but in fact that it should have been done yesterday!

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Over to you

So there you have my guide to spotting passive aggression in emails. As stated at the beginning, be mindful of the importance of tone when writing professional communications. If in doubt, even have a colleague read over your message before hitting send. Keep an eye out in particular for the phrases I have mentioned. If you see them, take care to respond accordingly to ensure your workplace communications remain clear and, more importantly, that your work-space remains conflict free.

Still not sure? Try out one of our Lingoda classes about writing emails and letters and practise your passive aggressive responses! Happy writing!