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E-mail etiquette at work: Are you being passive-aggressive?

By Lee Cleveland - March 25, 2023

If you’re like me and send a lot of emails at work, a recent study might give you an idea of how your colleagues are receiving them.

Email can be its own language, full of buzzwords and formal terms like “circle back.” And because there are no fluctuations, it can be hard to decipher the underlying tone of a message behind of all that day-to-day work language.

Preply’s recent survey of 1,005 American adults revealed some interesting insights into how employees perceive the various types of greetings and sign-offs they get in their inboxes.

Be careful: Astonishingly, 46% of the respondents think the way their colleagues begin and end an email suggests their demeanor at the time or feelings about the situation or recipient.

And the majority of people, a whopping 91%, are of the belief that emails sent by coworkers are often passive-aggressive in nature.

The study also revealed that the best way to give your peers a piece of your mind is to omit a greeting or close in emails. And not responding at all is an effective way of expressing dissatisfaction without being confrontational. However, 47 percent prefer to cut it short and just sign off with their name. The sign-off “thanks in advance” comes in a close second as the least friendly end to an email.

Younger generations are more prone to express their frustration via passive aggression. A survey found that approximately 37% of people adjust the way they craft emails when angry, with Gen Z being more likely to do so.

The majority of people (76%) surveyed believe that how you say hello is more significant than how you say goodbye.

And it may surprise you, but two-thirds of participants don’t bother with saying hello or goodbye in emails.

Some think it should be ditched right away (32%) while others want a more gradual approach (27%) as the email thread continues.

Let’s say you have a colleague named Mark. On an average day at the office, the most-used e-greeting is “Hi Mark” (67%) followed by the slightly more decorated “Good morning/afternoon/evening Mark” (54%). 

“Thank you” often ends the majority of Americans’ emails (80%). The more informal “thanks” was second (71%) tied with those who sometimes use exclamations to sign off, while 29% never do.

Outdated and uptight vs modern and casual
The modern email scape has evolved from old norms like “Dear Jennifer” “Respectfully” and “Kind regards.” Those formalities are now viewed as uptight. On the other hand, the most casual include “hiya,” “hey,” “thanks,” “cheers,” and “talk soon.”

On December 9, 2022, Preply surveyed 1,005 Americans about their habits and thoughts on greetings and sign-offs in an email. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 76 years old and were 49% female, 49% male, and 2% non-binary.