How to deal with passive aggressive messages when remote working

When working from home, we lose face-to-face time, and with that, tone of voice.

If your default modes of communicating with fellow staff are largely made up of emails, Slack and other forms of written conversation, friendliness can go amiss in place of functional chat.

You might then be facing more passive aggression than you used to.

After all, tone is harder to prove or challenge in a work environment – especially when read through a screen.

It can takes its toll and make opening messages from particular colleagues or a manager needlessly stressful and irritating, especially if you’re always anticipating a comment that feels off.

Caroline Plumer, founder of therapy clinic CPPC London, tells ‘Passive aggressive communication can leave us not only feeling attacked, but also confused and doubting ourselves.

‘In some way, while the initial shock of direct feedback or aggression may seem more destabilising, at least with this we know where we stand and there’s little room for misinterpretation.

‘Passive aggression on the other hand, can be confusing and stressful as we try to establish whether there’s really an issue at all. 

‘Tone can be very hard to read over email or instant message, and we may question whether the slight is real or imaginary.

‘We may also question whether we should raise it with the sender, or anyone else, for fear we’ve misunderstood or that even if we haven’t, they’ll successfully claim we have.’

This can all impact upon your wellbeing in the workplace, making you doubt how this person directing the passive-aggression feels about your work and you as a person.

It can be difficult to tell if you are overthinking it too, as Caroline adds: ‘There’s no entirely foolproof way of knowing whether you’re right or wrong.

‘In these cases, it is probably worth first of all considering what stresses and strains you’re under, and if you might be feeling especially sensitive.’

This might help you separate what you’re reading and what you’re feeling – if you conclude external stresses are affecting how you’re taking the message, that is.

Oftentimes though, your instincts will be right if a message feels off.

How to handle passive aggressive messages

While raising the issue directly might feel unsafe – due to the easy ability for the passive aggressor to deny your feelings – there are some subtler courses of action to take.

Caroline says: ‘Given that part of this kind of issue is caused by attempting to interpret written tone, it makes sense to take the conversation off email and speak either face to face or on a video call.

‘As with most delicate situations, it can help to try and use “I” language, such as talking about how you feel, and why it’s a concern rather than the wrongs you perceive the other person as having done.

‘Don’t respond in a passive aggressive manner back, this will just lead to an ongoing tit for tat causing you even more stress.

‘Take the high ground instead. Not only can you end your day knowing you’ve behaved impeccably, but it will likely also be difficult for the sender to keep up their negative tone if you are being nothing but pleasant.’

Laura Kingston, a career coach and director of Leap Career Coaching, says it’s best to handle this in some form – whether that’s with the person in question or by yourself.

‘Being on the receiving end of passive aggressive communication can be difficult, especially when working remotely as you can feel alone, disconnected and distant from your team and colleagues,’ she says.

‘It can have an impact on your wellbeing leading you to overthink, doubt yourself and feel stressed and anxious and experience disturbed sleep.

‘It’s also worth remembering, when people are passive aggressive, they actually have their own insecurities and project them externally.

‘It could be the culture of the organisation where it is a learnt behaviour from how they have been treated by their managers.’

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