As discussed: it’s time to break the hateful passive-aggressive email chain | André Spicer | Opinion

Remember the last time you were scrolling through an email and saw phrases like “Reattached for your convenience”, “sorry for the double email” or “please advise”? You’re not alone if you felt enraged by reading them. According to a recent survey by the software company Adobe, 25% of us loathe the phrase “not sure if you saw my last email”. The No 2 most hated phrase was “as per my email”. In fact, the nine most loathed phrases in emails all had one thing in common: passive aggression.

Passive aggressive behaviour is a frequent complaint in the workplace. It was coined by William Menninger, a colonel in the US army in 1945. Writing in a technical bulletin, he described soldiers as passive aggressive when they would wilfully shirk duties by not carrying them out competently. They expressed their hatred of assigned tasks by “passive measures such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism”. Menninger thought such behaviour was a sign of immaturity and a reaction to “routine military stress”.

The phrase struck a chord. By 1952, it was included as a personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the most important reference book for psychologists. In 1966, 3% of admissions to mental institutions were for passive aggressive personality disorder, with 9% of those visiting outpatient clinics diagnosed as passive aggressive. In the second edition of the DSM, passive aggression was described as reflecting “hostility which the individual feels he dare not express openly” and that “often the behaviour is one expression of the patient’s resentment at failing to find gratification in a relationship with an individual or institution which he is overdependent”.

The next edition of the DSM, issued in 1980, described passive aggressive people as “ineffective both socially and occupationally”, and because of their “intentional inefficiency job promotions are not offered to them”. Since 1980, we have seen an explosion of interest in passive aggression. There are dozens of columns that give advice about how to deal with a passive aggressive subordinates, co-workers, friends, spouses or children. By 2005, three management consultants writing in the Harvard Business Review claimed that 27% of organisations were passive aggressive.

When Menninger first coined the term, passive aggression was a behaviour of the underling. The soldier, the factory worker, the office clerk, the failing salesman, the housewife (or hen-pecked husband) were described as passive aggressive. Each one of these passive aggressives was in a less-powerful position. Today, we seem to be witnessing a strange reversal whereby passive aggression is frequently used to describe people in positions of power. Think about the Adobe survey. The emails we hate the most are likely to come from our boss.

In the past, passive aggressives were characters like Menninger’s soldiers who were resentful about carrying out orders. Now we seem to be seeing a new kind of passive aggressive: a person in a position of power who is resentful about giving orders. These passive-aggressive bosses seem to loathe the thought that they should ask someone to do something – presumably because their subordinate should have already anticipated their wishes in advance.

What people loathe so much about a passive-aggressive boss is the duplicity. They present themselves as giving a kindly nudge in the right direction. But they also make it clear that underneath it lurks a real threat. But what is often more disquieting about a passive-aggressive boss is they have a knack for implying we are incompetent idiots who are not able to keep on top of our lives. Think about an email asking you to look back at past correspondence. Usually this implies your intelligence is so limited that you were not able to take in this precious information.

Stopping this kind of passive aggression might seem tough. But there are a few simple steps. First, if you are about to passively ask someone to do something, think again. What’s of deep importance to you at this very second is likely to be a minor irritant to the person who receives it. They have their own priorities and worries, and adding to their inbox is unlikely to make them happy. However, if you do have to ask someone to do something, then just come out with it. Be polite, but be clear. This will get rid of passivity that enrages people. It will also likely to dispel the aggression that can fester in any relationship.

André Spicer, a professor at the Cass Business School in London, is the author of Business Bullshit

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