Picking up on passive aggressiveness, annoyance, or sarcasm is easy enough in person. But put your words into text, and anything can be taken the wrong way if you’re not careful.
Whether you’re chatting with your team using your company’s messaging app, leaving a piece of feedback on someone’s shared diagram, or assigning a task in your project management software, it’s important to think about the ways what, how, and where you’re saying something can get misconstrued.
Without seeing someone’s body language or hearing the tone of their voice, it’s easy for people to get offended. Some things are okay to write in a group chat or comment on a shared doc, while other things should be left to direct messaging or not said at all.
Don’t get caught accidentally being a jerk because you didn’t think through the differences between verbal and written communication.
Here are three common pitfalls to avoid:
1. The period can be mightier than the sword.
One of the most common ways people interpret curtness or passive-aggression in written form is with the use of periods. Periods can come across angry, disinterested, or even disrespectful.
Person A: Have you had a chance to look at that doc yet?
Person B: No.
Person C: What did you get for lunch today?
Person D: A sandwich.
Person E: How are you today?
Person F: Fine.
It’s not just the brevity of these answers that makes them seem harsh; it’s also the punctuation itself.
When it comes to written communication between one or more person’s, linguists have noticed a new trend: people aren’t using periods anymore.
Professor Crystal, whose books include “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” the period is being deployed as a weapon to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression
If the love of your life just canceled the candlelit, six-course, home-cooked dinner you have prepared, you are best advised to include a period when you respond “Fine.” to show annoyance
“Fine” or “Fine!,” in contrast, could denote acquiescence or blithe acceptance
“The period now has an emotional charge and has become an emoticon of sorts,” Professor Crystal said
– From the NY Times piece Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style
Does every person who simply answers “No.” to a question mean to be a jerk? Absolutely not. And it would be great if we lived in a world where we mostly looked past these minor slights and gave each other the benefit of the doubt. But, whether you share this opinion of periods or not, it exists as a real phenomenon, and it’s not going anywhere.
2. Real-time communication can be a blessing and a curse.
11:15 AM Hey, can you review the copy I just sent over for the next email newsletter?
11:18 AM Let me know when you can review it.
11:30 AM I’d like to get this done asap.
Following up too often won’t get you your answers any more quickly, it’ll just annoy your teammate.
We’ve all felt the sting of anticipation when we need an answer to a question/request, especially if we can see that our colleague is online, and maybe even have a read receipt of the message we sent.
Real-time messaging does not ensure that your question will take real-time priority over anyone else’s work. Your teammate will get to it when they see fit. If you feel that their level of urgency isn’t appropriate or might compromise a major deadline, get up and walk over to them (or call them if they’re remote.) Just keep in mind, if they were too busy to respond a few seconds ago, chances are, your interrupted them now.
3. What doesn’t kill you does not always makes you stronger.
Public chat topics and comment sections are great for collaboration, but you need to be aware of your audience, especially, when you’re providing criticism or negative feedback.
Person A: I’ve completed the entire report at this point. I’m just waiting for the client to send back there final approval.
Person B: Their*
We all know that delivering criticism, negative feedback, or corrections to someone’s work can easily go over poorly. Doing so in public is even trickier.
You may feel like you’re just trying to be helpful (or even playful!), but if the person’s mistake is relatively harmless or easily correctable, it’s best not to address it in a group setting.
Notice something off in someone’s report or see a few grammatical errors your coworker may have missed? Send them a direct message about it. They’re much more likely to take the feedback as genuinely helpful, and you’ll have spared them any embarrassment they may have felt had this been brought to the attention of their entire team, or even higher-up executives.
If it turns out the mistake eventually does need to be addressed in public, this tactic also allows the team member who made the mistake the chance to take own up to the error and take responsibility for correcting it.
In the end, you won’t just avoid looking like a jerk, you’ll likely end up with an incredibly thankful coworker.
As a last resort, when there’s no time for DM’s and covert fixes, you can correct someone in a public thread, but be polite and frame your feedback in a way that gives your colleague the benefit of the doubt.
We all communicate differently, but learning common online etiquette can go a long way in making sure misunderstandings happen as infrequently and innocuously as possible.
What tips do you have for staying polite and respectful over written communication? Share them with us on Twitter!