Ahh, the art of the email. I've always found it to be a terrible medium for communicating--so much can be misconstrued from an unintentionally curt sentence, a light-hearted capitalization--heck, even an emoji that doesn't convey your mojo the way you meant.

These are the three biggest problems we create for ourselves with email:

  1. We don't communicate enough to get the point across (the biggest problem with communication in general is the illusion that it has actually taken place)
  2. We're not clear enough with the communication
  3. Our communication is taken the wrong way (with irritation or offense)

This last one most often happens when we use terms in email that are, in reality, seen as passive-aggressive by the recipient. A recent 1,000-person study by the email platform GetResponse revealed the top 6 phrases perceived as the most passive-aggressive by the receiver.

I'll reveal them from the least offensive to the most offensive. You can decide to use this information to help you avoid coming across as passively aggressive, or the opposite, depending on your mood.

6. "Going forward I'd prefer..."

Guess what? Going forward the person who reads this line would prefer you not use it again. The "going forward" part is super passive aggressive because it assumes that what happened in the past didn't work. The reader reads, "Look, what happened in the past is the past, but you can, and will, correct it in the future." It's assumptive and dismissive. Even the "I'd prefer" part is weak; it's language someone uses when they're beating around the bush on something.

An alternative (and, again, all alternatives that follow are based on the assumption you actually don't want to come across passive-aggressive, but if that really is your intent, fire away): The alternative here is a good ol' fashioned face-to-face conversation. When it comes to behavior changes that need to happen, don't do it over email. Asking change of someone involves emotions, which are always better handled in person.

5. "According to my records..."

Ugh--so formal and uptight sounding. Is this a cross-examination or an email?

An alternative: "I honestly could have this wrong, but from what I think I know...," or, "The way I see it is..." Fellow columnist Carmine Gallo wrote a great piece on how Tim Cook uses the power of these 5 words, "The way I see it..."

4. "Any updates on this?"

When I read this, I can't help but picture the sender standing there by my cubicle, peering over the top of it with arms crossed, feet tapping, and a resting jerk face painted on. Try this test: Say "Any updates on this?" out loud to yourself without sounding snippy. Impossible.

An alternative: "I'm guessing you're swamped--so, sorry to bug you, but what's the latest on... It would help to know because..." Being brief in email is key so I'm not preaching verbosity here, but this one requires a bit more couching.

3. "Please let me know if I've misunderstood."

What you're really saying here is "We both know you've got this wrong." This one is the most disingenuous of the lot because the recipient knows that you do not think you have it wrong in any way, shape, or form.

An alternative: If you actually do suspect you got something wrong, pick up the phone for this one. Misunderstandings tend to get more tangled when not ironed out in person. But if you do use email, consider, "I honestly could have this wrong, but..."

2. "Just a friendly reminder..."

It's not friendly. You know it and I know it.

An alternative: "I honestly hate when people bug me about something, but I'm forced to be 'that guy/girl' here in reminding you that... because..."

1. "As per my last email..."

You may as well say, "You obviously didn't read my last email, so let me try again, dummy." This one is just plain rude and smacks of the assumption that the recipient has nothing better to do than to sit around waiting for your email to flow into their inbox like gorgeous salmon swimming upstream.

An alternative: "If you don't mind my reinforcing a point I made before, only because it's so important..."

We all get enough emails. No one wants more than they need, nor do they want them peppered with what more or less amounts to sass. You can still get your point across by using alternatives.

So, before you hit send, think of the message you're sending.

Published on: Aug 29, 2019
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