I have a different accusation to level at email — it has made us all passive aggressive. Ithas encouraged us to sulk, to be falsely polite, sneaky and obstructive. It has stifled debateand made office life more stultifying and aggravating than it has ever been.
Last week I sent a longish, careful message to someone who had come up with a proposal Ididn’t agree with. All day I heard nothing, and then when I was at home making supper thatevening, my phone bleeped.
The reply consisted of one word: Noted. This was the perfect passive aggressive response.It was just about polite enough for me to have no legitimate grounds for complaint. It shutdown the discussion, and left me with only one sensible course of action — to pour myself alarge glass of wine and seethe.
Email alone didn’t make the office passive aggressive — we were going that way anyway. Itall started a couple of decades ago, when the four great forces of modern office life — politicalcorrectness, HR, PR and litigiousness — ruled that it was no longer acceptable to lose yourrag. As working life remained at least as enraging as it always was, all anger, resentment andhostility were pushed underground, re-emerging in the even nastier form of passiveaggression.
At around the same time, we were introduced to email. At first, we saw it as a way of ventingthe rage that we could no longer show in person, and sent each other furious rants in blockcapitals. After a bit, people realised there was a problem with this. Anger doesn’t usually lastbut an angry email lasts forever. Now anyone who shows even the slightest ill humour in anemail is deemed to have done something far less socially acceptable than breaking wind inpublic. They are likely to be punished by having their rage exposed and shared by everyonewith an internet connection.
While email is ill-suited to overt rage, it is perfect for communicating hostility passively,without getting caught. The first trick is silence. This is the easiest, most deniable and mosteffective passive aggressive ploy there is. All unwelcome emails can be simply ignored.Someone wants you to do something? Don’t reply. An email that is hard to write? Don’t write it.
The upshot of so much silence is devastating. Far from speeding work up, it slows it down. Itmeans that the most comforting axiom for office workers — “no news is good news” — doesnot apply any more. Now no news could be very bad news indeed. Maybe you are about to befired. Or maybe the person is just busy. You will never know, so you will always worry.
Failing silence, the next best passive aggressive trick is extreme brevity, of the sort I wassubjected to last week. Noted. OK. Fine. Thanks. Again the hostility can always be denied.Maybe the person genuinely thought your message fine. Or maybe they hate you. Not knowingis not pleasant.
Copying bosses into emails is a gift for passive aggressive workers everywhere. In the olddays you had to go out of your way to grass someone up, but now all it takes is two innocuouslittle letters: cc.
Passive aggressive email is also perfect for passing the buck. It is no longer acceptable tosay “do so and so” to a colleague — as we all have to pretend everyone is equal — whichmeans power is exerted passively by ending emails with “thanks in advance” or “I’ll leave itwith you”.
Even more annoying are emails that end, “Happy to discuss”. This almost certainly means: “there is no point in discussing as the decision has been taken”. Worse, is “Let me know if thatmakes sense”, which might be straight or might mean “You’re an idiot. I have no interest inwhat you think.”
Although all passive aggressive messages are by nature deniable, a good trick for spottingthem is when they come with unnecessary politeness. The more someone admits to being “alittle surprised” the more incandescent they probably are. When a sender who usually signs offwith the uncharming “rgds”, types out “with my very best regards”, you are almost certainly introuble.
Sometimes it is possible to respond to passive aggression in kind. I have recently beenignoring a request to do something, which prompted first “a gentle reminder” and then thegloriously passive aggressive question: “Is your internet down?”.
In case the sender is reading my column, let me assure her that it’s not down. I just don’twant to reply. Fortunately, in newspaper columns you can still say what you think. In email it isno longer possible.