By Minda Zetlin
Ah, email. Everyone hates it, yet most of us use it for the majority of our communications with acquaintances, sales prospects, and pretty much everyone we do business with. We use email to brainstorm ideas, close deals, make pitches, and form new friendships and alliances. But it can also be a subtle tool that some people deploy with such precision that, like a razor-sharp rapier, you might be wounded before you even know what happened.
Some of the most effective email parries and thrusts are delivered in the form of passive-aggressive phrases–the kind that can impose an obligation, express ire, or even deliver an insult in such a nice and nonchalant way you won’t even know what hit you.
To put you on your guard, here’s a list of passive-aggressive email phrases and what they’re really saying. I’ve received almost every one of these. I bet you have too. I’ve used almost all of them as well. Because–unfortunately–they usually work.
1. “Thanks in advance.”
Translation: I’m already thanking you for doing me this favor, even though you haven’t yet agreed to it. Therefore, you must do it.
2. ” … I’d be most grateful.”
As in, “If you could respond to this inquiry any time within the next 24 hours, I’d be so grateful.” Another form of thanking someone in advance, with the same expected result.
3. “Can I send you some information?”
This is a classic sales technique that, as someone who gets lots of pitches, can drive me straight up the wall. If you’re going to mail me a book, it makes sense to ask my permission first. For anything else, the investment on your end is exactly the same whether you send me an email asking to send information or just go ahead and email the information. The only purpose of asking first is to create some sort of commitment that I’ll pay attention to that information. And to waste everyone’s time with two emails instead of one.
4. “Any interest in … ?”
Usually this is used to try to create what we in publishing call a “curiosity gap.” It’s followed by insufficient information–just enough to try to get a rise out of the recipient. As in, “Any interest in learning about a brilliant new innovation that will change the way you do business forever?” Say yes and you may feel obligated to buy. Say no and you may feel like you’re missing the boat.
5. “Looking forward to … “
” … hearing from you soon,” ” … working with you,” ” … learning more about your needs,” etc., etc. It’s the same idea as “Thanks in advance.” I’m already looking forward to your positive response. If I don’t get it, I’ll be disappointed. (Of course, this phrase is perfectly fine if it refers to something the recipient has already agreed to, for instance if you have a meeting scheduled the following day.)
6. “I hope you don’t mind … “
Translation: I’ve done something or am planning to do something when I should have obtained your permission first. This phrase should be a red flag every time it’s used.
7. “Just wondering … “
This is often used when making what you know is an unreasonable request. “Just wondering if you might have any free time tomorrow when I’m going to be in your city?” Translation: I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but I am anyway
8. “Checking in.”
As in, “I’m just checking in to see whether you’ve had a moment to review my latest proposal.” Translation: I’m going to keep sending you emails about this until you respond.
9. “Circling back.”
This is a relatively new and more aggressive version of “checking in.” As in, “Just circling back to see if you’ve reviewed my proposal.” The meaning of the word circle in this context is clear: I will keep coming around and around like a merry-go-round until you give me an answer.
10. “I don’t mean to be a pest.”
This statement is always a lie.
This, of course, can be perfectly innocuous. But often it’s used when forwarding a message that a recipient might be unhappy about. Like the email I once got “just letting me know” about the harsh criticisms being lobbed at a project of mine that I might not have heard.
12. “See below.”
See above. This too can be used as a different form of “just letting you know.”
13. “Let me clarify.”
Often used as a lead-in to a more detailed or more explicit explanation of something the sender has said before. Translation: You completely misunderstood my last message, you idiot!
14. “Sorry for being unclear.”
I’ll admit to using this one sometimes myself. Sometimes I really was unclear and I am apologizing. Other times it means, “You didn’t really read what I wrote. Pay more attention this time!”
15. “Your thoughts?”
This could be a perfectly innocuous phrase, as in “We could go to the beach tomorrow. Or maybe we should go to the ballgame. Your thoughts?” But more often than not, it’s used to ask someone to comment on, or maybe even solve, a challenging problem or weigh in on a pernicious conflict.
And sometimes it’s a semi-subtle way of telling someone you think he or she has screwed up. As in, “It seems to me your latest actions could lead some investors and customers to believe you’ve completely given up on this company. Your thoughts?”
16. “All the best.”
This phrase, along with “Take care,” subtly or not so subtly indicates that the sender intends to end the conversation with this message. If it’s a continuing discussion, one might sign off with “Best,” “Sincerely,” or something equally neutral. “All the best” translates to: I wish you well in your future endeavors and I don’t expect to hear from you again. You definitely shouldn’t expect to hear from me again.
In other words, goodbye.