How to Deal with the Passive Aggressive Work Email


With workplaces becoming more virtual, the rise of conflict through email is a common occurrence. Through the high volume of email correspondence in the office, I’ve learned that knowing how to be diplomatic and communicating effectively via email is a skill that young professionals must pick up.

Sometimes when people directly state their feelings, their anger is clear in the email, it can be easier to handle, because you can deal with the issue head-on. While passive aggressiveness contains vague vexation. What do you do when a person is clearly angry but has their email littered with smiley faces?

If you can—pick up the phone/walk over to them: The option to have a verbal or face-to-face conversation with the other person can eliminate any misunderstandings. Underhanded smiley faces could be perfectly innocent or a result of mistaking someone’s tone. Call them out kindly. “It sounds like you’re upset. Let’s talk about it.”

Don’t assume:  Since my company is national, I will undoubtedly come across offices who have differing politics and culture, people with different personalities and beliefs. In a moment of anger, it helps to think of the greater good. I definitely don’t want to burn bridges with a colleague, even if I don’t work with them on a daily basis. You may need one another. And it really is a small world, your reputation can precede you. You don’t want to cultivate a combative persona.

Keep the bigger picture in mind: even though the person is being a jerk (even if it’s thinly veiled rudeness), you have to think of what’s best in terms of preserving the peace. If you need to frame it in slightly selfish, pragmatic perspective: you may need their help in the future.

Don’t respond to the tone, reply to the message: Giving into your base instincts when someone gets buck over email can be tempting when you feel disrespected. Ignore snide digs or the subtle derision and aim for resolution. Going back and forth is ultimately a time-waster in terms of productivity and an unnecessary stressor at work.

Filter the sass out: I have someone who can edit the tone of my emails. Sometimes I speak too brusquely or am not straightforward enough, so having someone I trust to have discretion and an objective eye can help word my email in a way that both resolves and preserves the professional relationship.

Know when to let it go (and when to stand firm): Someone sends an email where the snark is strong. You can’t believe that a person would react in such a way. Passive aggressive interactions can escalate when you go back and forth, so just move on and try not to get involved.

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