You actually might sound passive-aggressive over email

If someone’s emails are bugging you, pick up the phone and call them, one HR manager advises.
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· 3 min read

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Before Slack and Microsoft Teams smashed through office walls like the Kool-Aid man, email was the bedrock of modern corporate communication. And just as a thumbs-up emoji over text or DM can smack of passive aggression to some, the same unspoken anxiety can be prompted by bad email habits, according to a new survey by the e-learning company Preply.

The survey queried 1,005 Americans between the ages of 18–76 about their personal email habits and their opinions about other people’s email habits. According to the survey, 91% of respondents claim the people they work with are occasionally passive-aggressive over email.

It was a familiar sentiment to Jon Thurmond, an HR manager at a construction company with over 20 years in the profession. He told HR Brew that passive-aggressive emails are nothing new. “Early on in my career, [the problem] was that email does not convey tone. And people really struggled with how to write something that didn’t come across either as too brusque or abrupt, or flowery,” he explained.

Hellos and goodbyes. Email greetings and sign-offs are a sticking point, according to respondents, 46% of whom said they can decipher a colleague’s mood based on how they begin or end a message.

There was some variance among the many greetings respondents have used, with 67% having opted to open a message with “hi,” and 54% having used the more formal “good morning, good afternoon, [or] good evening.” When it comes to goodbyes, using “thank you,” was the most popular, with 80% using it over email at some point. “Take care” and “kind regards” were the least commonly used, coming in at 20% and 16%, respectively.

According to Thurmond, sign-offs tend to ruffle feathers the easiest. “‘Thank you,’ [or] ‘regards’...I’m hearing that people get offended by that. It comes across as you’re talking down to me,” he said.

What’s all the fuss about? Citing an experience at a former position, where a manager received myriad complaints for being too brusque over email, Thurmond recalled: “Nine times out of 10, he…wasn’t cognizant of the way he portrayed himself.”

Much of this disconnect can persist because people are wary of picking up the phone, Thurmond said. But being direct can alleviate much of the uncertainty. When it came to the person complaining about the abrasive emailer at the former job, Thurmond advised the employee: “Pick up the phone and call him and talk to him. And tell him that this made you feel this way.”—SB

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

News built to help HR pros grow their impact & improve the future of work.