As online communication becomes increasingly prevalent through email to social media, we lose the benefit of social cues such as body language and tone of voice. This also creates a greater chance of miscommunication and frustration. It is easy to misconstrue the meaning of an email, or the tone intended, making it one of the challenging areas of online communication. 

Business emails are a commonplace for passive-aggressive language. It is a way of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. Passive aggressive behavior can be expressed in many ways including sarcasm, the silent treatment, bad attitude etc.  

Emailers use indirect language to soften their message, but it can also backfire, creating animosity and confusion. There is an underlying fear and avoidance of direct conflict.  

The following examples are some common passive aggressive email phrases, translated to what it may come across as:  

  1. “Sorry if you found me unclear”  Translation: My message was very clear, and you should have understood it.  

  1. “Per my last email”  Translation: You did not properly read what I wrote.   

  1. “Not sure if you saw me last email”  Translation: You have not responded to my last message yet.  

  1. “Just to be sure we’re on the same page” Translation: I’m covering my butt in effort to maintain clarity.  

  1. “Going forward”  Translation: Do not do this again.   

  1. “As previously stated,” Translation: I must repeat myself again.   

  1. “Correct me if I’m wrong”  Translation: If you don’t agree, you’re wrong because I know I am right.  

  1. “Please advise”  Translation: I cannot do this by myself. 

It is important to recognize behaviors, check your perceptions and overall create a safe space to communicate in more assertive ways. To avoid any misinterpretation, take the time to re-read your email to focus on clear and concise word choice and the nuances of what you are saying. 

In general, avoid firing back to passive-aggressive behavior and do not respond to messages or emails when you are angry or frustrated. Save emails as a draft, revise and send it when you are in a better mood. This avoids miscommunication, wasted time and regret.  

In return, to defuse passive-aggressive situations received, a short and polite response is the best way to reply:  

  • “Thank you for the reminder.” 

  • “Thanks for resending the document.” 

  • “I do not have any updates at this time, but I will let you know when I do.” 

If an emailer is consistently passive-aggressive with you, respond by directly acknowledging the person’s feelings with “I get the sense that you are frustrated. You can be straightforward with me. What steps can I take to better the situation?”  

In any case, it might be best to suggest an alternative to better communicate with each other, “I think we are misunderstanding each other, so let’s schedule a time to talk through this in person.”  

In any workplace, it is important to encourage two-way communication and to contribute to making a psychologically safe space where healthy and constructive problem-solving is valued and can thrive.