Best Way to Annoy Your Co-Workers? E-mail

More than 10 years later, passive-aggressive e-mails are alive and well.


July 17, 2008 — -- At a Chicago-area market research firm, an overzealous office manager has become an office joke to Dan, a 33-year-old analyst, and his co-workers.

"She sends e-mails out with 'Clean out the fridge,' or 'The dishwasher is broken,'" Dan says.

The problem is every one of the e-mails is flagged as urgent, has 40-point bold, red font and is in all caps.

"A lot of people just have them automatically go to [their] trash can," Dan says. "They're more annoying than they are helpful. … If the [office] complex is having a barbecue or anything, it's marked red and urgent."

Office e-mail offenders. Everyone has them, from people who excessively "reply all" (annoying) to colleagues who copy your boss when criticizing you (rude). Experts identified the most offensive e-mail moves and how to avoid making them yourself.

As e-mail has become the predominant language of corporate culture, political minefields have developed about things seemingly as arcane as who you copy on an e-mail.

And don't deny you haven't done it yourself: You want to make sure your colleague pays attention to your request, so you copy their boss.

It may feel satisfying at the time, but etiquette experts say it could come back to bite you.

"'CC-ing' is a very tricky area. If you cc someone's boss on a criticism, it takes it from Def Con 3 to Def Con 1," says Will Schwalbe, the co-author of "Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home." "It's an incredibly hostile act."

Although it sounds simple, Schwalbe suggests asking the person you're communicating with before copying anyone.

"Ask permission before including someone in on a conversation if there's a chance that it will cause unhappiness," he advises. "You have to be especially careful when there's a thread when you cc someone because now there's an entire thread that's available."

Rachel, a 27-year-old analyst in Washington, D.C., says the "cc-ing" behavior of her bosses left her feeling micromanaged.

"I hate that. Actually, that type of behavior is the reason I quit my [former] job," she says. "Every time I sent a correspondence to any one in the firm, my manager made me cc her on it. … I feel like I'm being judged."

E-mailers who will not stop hitting the "reply all" plague people from every walk of life — even etiquette experts.

"My favorite was once seeing a group e-mail with about 60 e-mails talking about how the group needs to have less replies, less 'thanks' and 'great,'" says Anna Post, an author and etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute.

The e-mail continued "with tons of replies of 'thanks' and 'great.' 'You're right.' I was laughing so hard," she says.

This is especially irksome to Peter Martin, an associate editor at Esquire magazine.

"I hate when people reply all, especially when they don't know everyone on the e-mail list," he says. "You're not that funny. This is the more aggressive version of writing 'hilarious' RSVPs for E-vites."

Post advises to never reply all — unless of course it's really needed.

"If you're adding something substantial to the conversation, then a reply all is worth it or if you need to confirm the information to everyone. Cool, neat-o, thanks — those are not necessary," Post says. "Invariably, it's someone who writes something they shouldn't who hits reply all and that's a whole other mess."

That "mess" happened in one Maryland office when a co-worker hit reply all and made a racial slur and sexual comments. She was moved to another position.

For Post, and many others, one e-mail faux pas trumps them all: writing missives in ALL CAPS.

"All caps is the No. 1 worst offense. It's the e-mail equivalent of shouting," Post says. "It's makes me cringe when I get an e-mail in all caps, no matter how nicely it's written."

For Pamela Eyring, the owner and director of the Protocol School of Washington, correct grammar and punctuation — whether it's avoiding the all caps curse or using spell check — is essential.

"When you're doing e-mails, the first thing you have to remember is that your e-mails reflect you," Eyring says. "So that e-mail courtesy is just like writing someone a letter: [You need] correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Eyring says that's all part of knowing the audience. For some younger students that she teaches, that means stressing avoidance of shorthand like OMG or btw.

"Not everyone gets it unless you're in that same culture," she says.

All of these things contribute to one major pitfall of e-mail, according to Schwalbe: It is unable to communicate tone.

"Balance is something that people forget in e-mail: Close as they close. Address people as they address you," he says. "If you signed something 'love' and they wrote back and closed with 'sincerely' clearly you have different ideas about your relationship."

But for all the talk of rules and etiquette, accidents happen.

When I started working on this story, I even broke one of my own personal e-mail rules: Honor thy friends' privacy. As I blasted out a message to my acquaintances wanting to hear their e-mail horror stories, I accidentally placed addresses in the CC box, instead of the BCC box. As soon as I sent the e-mail, I recoiled.

"For mass mailings always use the BCC line if it's something really large in your social life in terms of privacy," Post says. "No one wants the reply all button on that one."

Indeed. I feared receiving a response that said, "My e-mail pet peeve is you!"

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