Passive aggressive comments in the office (and what you can say instead)

Passive aggressive comments in the office and what you should say

While mental health has become more of a focus at offices across the U.S. in recent years, passive aggressive behavior nevertheless remains an issue in the workplace. Being “passive aggressive” means, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.” People act this way when they opt to indirectly express negative feelings rather than openly discussing them.

Passive aggressive remarks made in passing by co-workers or written in an email by a supervisor can add untold stress to your working life. So what can we say instead to avoid causing drama or hurting a colleague’s feelings? We’ve taken a handful of passive-aggressive comments or situations common in American workplaces and suggested alternatives. In the end, it’s always best to treat co-workers with kindness and respect.

“Per my last email…”

If you’ve worked in an office, you’ve most likely received or sent something that began with “Per my last email.” The phrase is simple and serves as a way to remind someone that their question has already been answered. But there’s more to it than that—it’s impolite and can even come off as sarcastic. “Per my last email” can sound more like, “Wow, you clearly didn’t see what I wrote last time, I can’t believe I have to give you this information again.” Receiving something that says “Per my last email” doesn’t feel good; it can make the recipient embarrassed (while the sender will be smug and righteous). You never know what a colleague might be going through in their personal life, so it’s always a good call to strive for kindness in the workplace. Instead of saying “Per my last email,” perhaps say, “Just a reminder that this information is in a previous email if you need it.”

Instead of saying “Per my last email,” perhaps say, “Just a reminder that this information is in a previous email if you need it.”

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CCing the boss without warning

One of the most passive-aggressive things an office worker can do is reply to a peer’s email with their boss in CC—without warning. It can certainly catch you off guard to see your boss’s email address added to what had been a private exchange. It almost seems like a mild threat. If someone really thinks they need to bring the boss into the conversation, they should talk to their co-worker first, or perhaps say something like, “Perhaps we can bring our boss into this to help clear things up?”

Say something like, “Perhaps we can bring our boss into this to help clear things up?”

Replying to a long email with one word

A sure way to make a colleague feel silly is to reply to their long, carefully written email with a single word or phrase, such as “K” or “Got it.” Instead, look for any questions the sender may have asked and see if you should be providing more of a response, or if feedback is required. Perhaps try to offer at least a one-sentence response to your co-workers detailed message so as to not come across as rude. If you don’t have much to say, consider at least thanking them for taking the time to construct the email and provide you with the information they shared.

Perhaps try to offer at least a one-sentence response to your co-workers detailed message so as to not come across as rude.

“Thank you in advance”

Using the phrase “Thank you in advance” in an email can come off as rude. It implies that the sender is assuming their colleague will get the job done, no questions asked. If you use this phrase, you’re simply not taking into account any other responsibilities the recipient may have on their plate. If something is needed, you should first ask your colleague if they have the time or capacity to complete whatever needs to be done. “Can you take some time today to…” can be a good way to start off the inquiry.

“Can you take some time today to…” can be a good way to start off the inquiry.

Emailing on vacation

Maybe this is more just aggressive than passive-aggressive. If someone is using paid time off to take a vacation, flooding their inbox with emails isn’t exactly pleasant. If you have questions for a colleague who is out on vacation, perhaps keep a running log of things to ask them (or email to them) upon their return to the office. If something urgent is needed, it might be best to ask your boss what to do before attempting to contact your vacationing colleague.

If something urgent is needed, it might be best to ask your boss what to do before attempting to contact your vacationing colleague.

Commenting on a co-worker’s long lunch or restroom break

When you’re in the actual office, one of the rudest things you can comment on is a co-worker’s restroom or lunch break. Advice on what to say if you notice a peer taking an abnormally long break? Don’t say anything at all! Maybe they had a doctor’s appointment, or maybe they are dealing with a personal situation. Whatever the case, don’t be too nosy about co-workers’ personal lives. Respect their privacy rather than asking intimate questions or making passing remarks that might cause them to become uncomfortable.

Don’t say anything at all!

“Sorry to pester you”

If a worker is including this phrase in an email to their peer, they already know that they are pestering them. Chances are, this email only arrives after multiple other entreaties from a colleague. The reason it comes off as passive-aggressive is because it seemingly demands attention. “Sorry to pester you” can easily be heard as “Haven’t you seen all the emails I’ve been sending you?” If you think you’re pestering a co-worker, the best thing to do is stop pestering them and simply to wait until they respond.

The best thing to do is stop pestering them and simply to wait until they respond.

“I look forward to hearing from you”

Depending on how this phrase is used, it can generally be translated as “I expect an answer right away.” It assumes that the recipient will immediately respond, disregarding any other priorities they might be juggling that day. Despite the attitude that is tied to this phrase, “I look forward to hearing from you” has become a standard way to finish up an email. Instead, one might want to simply tie up an email briefly, saying “Thanks” or “Best” or “Talk soon.”

Instead, one might want to simply tie up an email briefly, saying “Thanks” or “Best” or “Talk soon.”

Emailing on Friday and following up on Monday

You’ll often see this in an office. Typically, Fridays are hectic as workers attempt to tie up loose ends from the week and prepare for the next one. And Mondays are quieter, with everyone catching up and planning the days ahead. If you email a colleague about something on a Friday afternoon, don’t expect a response by Monday just because several days have passed—it’s technically only a few working hours (don’t assume colleagues are checking work emails over the weekend). Refrain from following up on Monday and try on Tuesday—or, if a response is immediately needed, say so in the subject line, or make a phone call instead.

Try on Tuesday—or, if a response is immediately needed, say so in the subject line

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Multimedia journalist living and working in New York City

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