Decoding passive aggressive work speak
25 Apr 2019 FINANCE
By Nomali Cele
You’ve seen it before: Like a car crash in slow motion, you open an email you are included in and begin to cringe. While the email reads cordial and professional, it has all the tell-tale signs of work passive aggressiveness. As with all communication, context matters when deciphering emails in the workplace. The kind of work environment you are in will determine how you see the communication with your colleagues and where you infer passive aggressiveness. In a healthy work environment, it’s not difficult to read an email and take it as being sent with the best intentions.
So how can you reread what you might interpret as passive aggressive work speak to make your communication in the workplace a little easier? These are ways you can process the communication you receive without adding your own underlying meaning to it:
Focus on the conversation at hand
There’s a saying in Nguni languages which translates to the fact that the doer forgets while the person who’s been done wrong doesn’t. This is true even in workplace communication, it’s much too easy to bring past feelings into new situations. Don’t bring past confrontation into the new communication you are in.
Because of whatever past misunderstanding or falling out you may have had with this colleague, you are likely to read into things and project above and beyond what they are saying to you.
This move can be viewed as one of the most passive aggressive. Why is this person who’s just helped you see an error you made in your job, cc-ing the entire company, including the board, on this email? Okay, maybe they’ve only copied your immediate supervisor but it feels just as bad!
Consider for a moment that your colleague is only following protocol by keeping everyone relevant in the loop. Yes, the sender may also want to cover themselves by making sure that everyone who’s involved or who needs to know about a particular situation or exchange is copied.
Your mistake wasn’t going to remain anonymous forever so why are you viewing this communication as being passive aggressive work speak?
Yes, but that tone!
The biggest pitfall of communication in the digital world, you always have to guess the tone of communication. Your colleague might think they’re being helpful by double-emailing you to remind you about a due date or following up on a previous email or conversation and it could come across as something wholly different to you the reader.
The tone you are picking up, good or bad, is informed by your working relationship with that particular colleague. When the relationship isn’t good, something as simple as “Hey! Just following up.” Can be construed as “Hey! I don’t think you can do your job so I have decided to micromanage you.”
According to an article on Psychology Today, most people read communication and project onto it. David F. Swink writes, “When we read an email, we attempt to read intention and tone into the words. If the message is ambiguous, many people will automatically read the most negative emotions and intentions into it.”
How can you change the way you communicate in the workplace so that your every move isn’t read as passive aggressive work speak? Now that you’re on the sending end of things, what can you do to make sure you are not misinterpreted or accused of passive aggression?
In his article, David F. Swink shares a number of tips, chief among them being to, “Assess your relationship with the receiver.” Text-based communication norms apply, even in work communication. So if you used too much of a punctuation mark or use all caps, how is your message likely to be interpreted?
Go back to the last work email you thought was passive aggressive, look at it again, what can be learnt from the communication. Look at the last work email you sent, do you think it has been decoded as you intended?
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