How passive aggressive are you being online?

Imagine my surprise when I was informed that a text message with a full stop at the end was rude, and not just correct punctuation. To many younger people, using proper punctuation in a casual context like texting creates a formality that borders on rudeness. Apparently, the mid-text full stop is still ok and won’t be viewed with the same ire.

One of the biggest challenges we have with remote work is that the lack of face-to-face interactions can lead to much mis-communication, angst and often anger over email, text, and all these other technology tools purported to improve communication. We also now have five generations in the workplace, who all have their own digital dialects. In the book Digital Body Language Erica Dhawan writes expertly about how trust is a huge determining factor in how you digitally communicate.

For instance: How do you feel if you send a note to a colleague and receive a curt reply. The answer generally depends on your level of trust with the other person. If trust is high, you are likely to interpret a very short message as a sign that they are busy, but if trust is low, you might interpret brevity as a sign of anger.

Just like we often become a different version of ourselves behind the steering wheel of a car, this could also be said of us when replying to online messages. It’s called the online disinhibition effect, where we can change personas when behind a screen. Much of this can be down to us replying too quickly, often on the go, e.g. standing at the side of a pitch, waiting in a coffee shop. You would rarely say to someone “get this done now!” if you were face to face, but this type of comment will happen frequently online, especially from a boss to a subordinate.

It is hard to underestimate how much it can affect someone’s day when they are having a bad email exchange, but we are part of the problem. Many hide behind politeness when they are actually furious that the other person has failed to reply. Emailing with a “gentle reminder” or by starting “I’m sure you are really busy but…” may not have the effect you think. With a little research, I found that there are a few email messages that are the gold standard in eliciting a negative reaction from the other person. Read on to see whether you might have sent one of these and what it might actually convey:

  • I’ll take it from here (… you are incompetent)
  • Gentle reminder (… you have forgotten you idiot)
  • Please let me know if I have mis-understood (… we both know that you mis-understood)
  • As per my last mail (… you obviously missed my last mail so I will send it again, you can’t ignore me!)
  • Thanks in advance (… you have no choice; I expect this to be done)

I’m sure many of you have your own favourite and I personally have been guilty of “thanks in advance” without thinking of what it might convey.

What can we do to help ourselves navigate these choppy digital waters?

  • Clarity trumps politeness – stop with the faux polite comments, just be clear on what you want and why, it does not have to come across as rude.
  • Meet people more – you can’t build a trusting relationship over the fibre optic cables alone, the more you trust someone, the more you will let the odd cryptic message slide
  • Assume positive intent – many digital first companies have this policy, at least if this is your initial thought process, you might give the other person a break
  • Put your emails on one-minute delays – email was never meant to be urgent, you will be amazed how many emails that you end up editing/ deleting within that one minute.
  • Try to have team rules about digital communication: email, text, Whatsapp, Slack etc and in what context they should be used. We all know who the Whatsapp offenders are out there, and no one is telling them!

Obviously, we have not even got into other pet peeves like somebody sending an email to you marked urgent, which you reply to straight away only to get an out of office on their side! We will leave that for another time. I am sure many of you have your own favourite digital crimes.

Finally, let me unilaterally apologise to anyone I have been “full stopping” on text messages, but also apologies to all my English teachers who will weep at the way language is becoming 🤮🤬🤪🙈.

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