Avoid sounding bossy or passive-aggressive when needing stuff at work?
April 20, 2015 5:32 PM   Subscribe

I have run into a communication quirk that I have had pop up over written communication that is confusing for me. I often try to suggest my ideas rather than ask someone to do it because I do not want to put anyone on the spot or sound like I think I am in charge. But I find sometimes people take it entirely the wrong way and think I am telling them what to do or being passive-aggressive. Examples inside.

All my work communication is through email or online chat, so there is potential for these miscommunications to keep happening. (Also, I always thank people in my emails. I literally end every email that way, so it's not that I am not appreciative.)

One example:

A- It would be helpful if you could confirm when my requests are added to the queue in the future.
B- Going forward, can you please confirm when my requests are added to the queue?

To me, B sounds like I am trying to boss someone around and tell them what to do. It feels too direct. So I wrote A, but I was accused by a co-worker of implying that he wasn't being helpful. He also said I need to stop telling him how to do his work and try asking instead. I feel like B could offend him just as much as A though because he reacted so irrationally about it. Should I say something like, "Would it be possible" in asking? How do you ask someone to do something just because it would be helpful for you and because it's the way you do things with everyone else in your office, but not because you have the authority to make them do it?

Another couple of examples:

A- My draft is ready now if someone wants to post it.
B- My draft is ready now - can someone post it?

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

Again, for examples kind of similar to the ones above, someone told me I was being passive-aggressive in the A examples. But to me it sounds like I am telling someone what to do more in the B examples. I am not these people's boss. I can only suggest that things be done a certain way because I have put together the piece that I need them to take the next step on. I need their help in executing it properly because I can't/don't do the execution piece myself.

What is the correct language for being collaborative and making suggestions or requests? I tend to think the two people who have complained about this are oversensitive and prone to taking things way too personally -- they both have flown off the handle over what seems like very minor shit to me. But I am also wondering if I am coming across in a way I don't intend? I often try to say "we" and not "you" because it feels more collaborative when I am suggesting my ideas.


A- I think we should be sure to mention ___.
B- Can you make sure to mention ___?

Is the A somehow more dickish than B? Because A sounds more gentle to me and less bossy. Maybe there is a C option- "Would it make sense to mention ____?" Should I just phrase every request in all the examples above that way? Is there a magic phrase that says "Here is my idea of what we can do, but I am not bossing you around?" Many times, I am working with other people who have other areas of expertise, I am simply making suggestions relevant to my own area of expertise. My suggestions matter specifically because I am weighing in on the thing that is part of my job or expertise.

Like I said, I tend to think these two people are oversensitive. One of them, I know, hates me and I am pretty sure anything I say will annoy him. But still, am I coming across in a way I don't mean to? Would these requests coming from a co-worker of yours bother you? How should I phrase them?

Thank you, Wall of Green!
posted by AspirinPill to Human Relations (85 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
All of your As would bug me. All of your Bs are great. Being direct is helpful, not bossy, especially in the workplace.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:35 PM on April 20, 2015 [101 favorites]

Huh. I understand what you are trying to do, but in nearly every case you have given, A would annoy me. I prefer direct requests which I can respond to (or not). And I hate it when people say "we" when they mean me.
posted by frumiousb at 5:36 PM on April 20, 2015 [22 favorites]

State what you think should happen and why, then ask "What do you think?"

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

C- It would be best if you sent this out first thing tomorrow morning, because it needs to get there by Thursday and you have the FedEx account info. What do you think?
posted by Etrigan at 5:38 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

(I think there might be a cultural component. My boss finds it rude and odd that I use I/you in emails-- he also uses "we" all the time. He's Swedish, with British English schooling. Back in Amsterdam, direct requests are also rude in the workplace because they reinforce hierarchy. Instead of "clean your desk" a Dutch boss might say "it would be good if this desk could become clean." Drove me nuts. Do you have a cultural difference with your colleagues?)
posted by frumiousb at 5:39 PM on April 20, 2015 [13 favorites]

Ergh, sorry, meant to add "I think that..." to the front of my "C" response there. So you're not expressing it as The Thing That Must Be Done, but your opinion, backed up by your reasons.
posted by Etrigan at 5:40 PM on April 20, 2015

someone told me I was being passive-aggressive in the A examples. But to me it sounds like I am telling someone what to do more in the B examples.

Yes, this is true - you are being passive-aggressive in the A examples and you are telling people what you want them to do in the B examples. The latter is not a bad thing, by the way. You should do more of B.
posted by joan_holloway at 5:40 PM on April 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

So if someone isn't your boss, and they say "Hey, can you do this?" that is less annoying to you than them saying "Hey, we should do this."

I am American. They are American. No cultural differences or ESL issues. I have also worked here a long time and haven't had issues with the vast majority of people in this regard.
posted by AspirinPill at 5:41 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is there any chance you could communicate a bit by phone while you are establishing relationships with people?
posted by amtho at 5:41 PM on April 20, 2015

Yeah if you are regularly using the style you employ in your A examples, you are being passive aggressive and I can understand why your coworkers are peeved. B is better, hands down. Be direct. Being direct is professional, admirable, and better for you as a person and an employee.
posted by Hermione Granger at 5:42 PM on April 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

I think when you are requesting a specific action from somebody, it's better to phrase it as a question. All of your B examples are good because it's clear to the reader what exactly is being asked, and that they specifically are the one being asked to do it.

People get so much email, they don't want to have to read between the lines. If you are trying to make a suggestion, then phrasing it as "I suggest X" is good, but if you want feedback, state that: "What do you think?"

It's a bit much if people are flying off the handle because of the phrasings you've used here. I mean, I might be annoyed if I had to try to figure out what it is you want, but I wouldn't freak out about it.
posted by number9dream at 5:43 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

B is better, and A would annoy me (very slightly). If you want someone to do something ask them to do it IMO.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:43 PM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

So if someone isn't your boss, and they say "Hey, can you do this?" that is less annoying to you than them saying "Hey, we should do this."

Very much less annoying. For two reasons:
A) "Hey, can you do this?" is inviting my feedback, if you actually listen to my response and don't just continue with "Great, have it done by noon," while I'm thinking of whether I can.
B) "We should do this" often means "You should do this while I take the credit for it."
posted by Etrigan at 5:43 PM on April 20, 2015 [23 favorites]

I think that with email communication, more direct and more succinct is better. When people add too much fluff it's both slightly harder to parse, and somehow that extra gentleness feels a little patronizing? I certainly bristle at "gentle reminders".

In all the instances you list I think the more direct option is better. You can include a "I really appreciate your input" or a "please let me know if you would rather proceed differently" or something, if you want to emphasize that you aren't bossing.

Email is weird because it's devoid of social cues, and in that vacuum I would rather just be talked to like a grownup than deal with bullshit fluff. (Clearly not your intent, but it's what my brain sees)

Also things addressed to a group with "if someone wants to" are unlikely to ever get done. ;)
posted by telepanda at 5:43 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

...On second thought, maybe that wouldn't be a great idea. I'm wondering if this is a male/female communication style issue. If you were, for example, female, you might be used to phrasing things as in your 'A' examples. Or it could also be a Southern/Northern communication style issue.

In any case, talking _about_ your communication style at the beginning of a relationship could be helpful.
posted by amtho at 5:44 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the AskMe classic in which tangerine explains ask vs. guess culture; I'm guessing this might be part of the difference in how things sound to you and your co-workers.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:47 PM on April 20, 2015 [12 favorites]

All of your A examples remind me of frustrating conversations I have with my mom or grandma where they start talking about things that "we" should do, where it's always implied that "we" means me.

Be direct.* Avoid fluff words. If there's any ambiguity or questiony feel to the sentence, rewrite.

*Direct doesn't mean rude! Please, thank you, and peppering appreciative language throughout will go over well.

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

C- Please send this out first thing tomorrow morning. Thanks!
posted by phunniemee at 5:48 PM on April 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

A couple of your As don't just sound passive-aggressive, they sound downright pissy. Like your first example is how I might phrase that if I was super made at someone for not doing something they know they're supposed to do, but I'm trying (and slightly failing) to maintain a basic level of professionalism instead of yelling at them. It's tempting when you're writing to use more words and really sugar things up to make them sound nicer, because text can read coldly, but they can end up sounding insincere and sarcastic instead.

If you need someone to do something it is their job to do, even if it is not their job to do things for you specifically, just ask them to do it quite plainly.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:48 PM on April 20, 2015 [28 favorites]

Oh man, B all the way.

I've thought about your phrasing as a boss, a subordinate, and a colleague, and B works every time. A does sound passive-aggressive or so vague that I'm not sure what you actually want me to do. One additional hidden danger of your A is that it may actually come across as condescending. Like, oh, it would be nice and helpful if you actually knew what to do.

I understand. I had trouble being direct when I was starting out in the workplace. To this day, I see it as a mark of someone who isn't sure of themselves/kind of green.

Your new rules: 1. Say what you mean. 2. Please and thank you go a long way if you feel direct=rude.

The fact that people have spoken up about it to you, plus the near unanimity here, should make the transition easier for you. Try it, you'll love it.
posted by kapers at 5:48 PM on April 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

So if someone isn't your boss, and they say "Hey, can you do this?" that is less annoying to you than them saying "Hey, we should do this."

Yes. Much.

I would write. "Jane-- can you please post the draft for me? Let me know if this is an issue, thanks."I would use this constuction if I was clear Jane had the authority to post the draft and it was within a well understood role.


If I didn't know whether Jane had the authority to act, I would write: "Jane-- are you able to post this draft for me? And if you are, can you please do so? Let me know if I should contact someone else. Thanks."
posted by frumiousb at 5:49 PM on April 20, 2015 [18 favorites]

It's really, really hard to convey tone through text when you haven't met someone or at least spoken on the phone. For your last example, I'd phrase it more like this:

"How about mentioning X? What do you think?"
[Coworker agrees.]
"Okay, do you mind including that in the [thing]? Thanks!"

The ship may have sailed a bit with these two coworkers. I would acknowledge to them that you've become aware that some of your requests have come across as passive aggressive and tell them that you are working on being more direct. Hopefully you have not actually accused them of being oversensitive.
posted by desjardins at 5:49 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you do sound passive aggressive. You do sound like you're trying to tell people what to do but in the form of a question or something. There are LOTS of different ways to frame things. I have taken a stab at some alternatives (granted, I don't have context, so these might seriously suck for your specific situation):

A- It would be helpful if you could confirm when my requests are added to the queue in the future.
B- Going forward, can you please confirm when my requests are added to the queue?

C) I cannot tell when my requests are being added to the queue. Could you possibly confirm them for me in the future?

A- My draft is ready now if someone wants to post it.
B- My draft is ready now - can someone post it?

C) My draft is ready to be posted.

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

C) This really needs to be done first thing in the morning. Is that something you can take care of?
posted by Michele in California at 5:49 PM on April 20, 2015 [17 favorites]

I prefer your B's and Michele's C's. The A's are vague and passive and leave me with way more questions about who is going to do what than necessary. Be direct. If you feel like that comes off as rude, just add a "thank you" or "TY".
posted by quince at 6:00 PM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you are asking people to do their job, just ask them to do their job. That respects them and affirms that what they do is important and is integral to the group. I don't like either your As or your Bs. I would prefer to see something like: "Here's my draft. Please post it to the whatsis in the morning." or "Thanks for the confirmation. Going forward, please send me confirmation that my request is in the queue so I can track it". I mean if you're giving something to someone whose job it is to send it, then don't ask them to send it. Tell them to do their job without being demanding to them or demeaning to yourself: "Please send this in the morning. Thanks."

It took me a long time to learn to do this properly and the thing that finally kicked me in the ass was working with someone (a man) (who was a partner in a law firm where I was an associate) who used the "funny" voice whenever he wanted to assign work. That got so old so fast. In my next firm, there was the woman who used the "baby" voice when she needed something done. There was the woman who would say "do me a favor?" and I'd be like man, if this is a favor, what's my job? Does my job not count for anything? Does my facility and expertise mean nothing but a non-essential "favor"?

It has worked really well for a long time for me to afford people the respect that their experience and abilities demand. You're a team. You do one thing, they do another, but you both contribute, maybe in different ways. But if you were able to do what you are asking them to do, you wouldn't be asking them. Therefore, I think I'm right in assuming that you're not imposing on them -- you're simply lining up their work for them. And in today's economy, it is GREAT to be needed at your job.
posted by janey47 at 6:06 PM on April 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

A makes it sound like you could handle the issue, but you're asking a coworker to take it off your plate, if they have the availability.

You should be making requests of coworkers because it's part of their duties. You're either handing off your work for the next step, or making a request so that you can complete something.

If you are asking someone to step up and take work off your plate, that request should be in person. That way you can explain why you can't handle the work yourself (have to prioritize Project X, whatever) and convey that you're grateful they're stepping up. Even if they maybe should have volunteered. Then use B to write it up and send in an email.

The email is evidence that you've made the request and given them the necessary information to handle their piece. It shouldn't have wiggle room. It's both to cover your ass and give them a reference if they don't remember where they're supposed to post the attached report.

Be sure to have in person/phone conversations to grease the wheels. If you're only talking to someone through email, their mood will color their interpretation, and you'll always sound mean when they're in a bad mood.
posted by politikitty at 6:08 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is how I used to do my emails:

Hi All,

This needs to be done by noon on April 21. Please get your reports to me by then.

If there is any problem, please let me know ASAP.

(and then some pithy quote by Mae West or Oscar Wilde, which people loved, YMMV)

If it is a question of ONE person not including me, I would pick up the phone and call them, or shoot them a direct email, saying:

Hi Oscar,

Guess what? My boss wants me included on the XYZ report. Go figure. Can you add me to the list?



In no case did I say, well, could you do this? Or going forward.... etc. Just be direct and friendly, but don't waver. If you have to put a comma in there, delete everything before the comma.

If that person complained, I would have picked up the phone and called them up right away and cleared it up. There are SO many things that can be cleared up via phone that can't via email. If you want to make friends and network, you have to talk to people on the phone or face to face, email doesn't cut it, in my experience.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:09 PM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I generally like phunnimee's C, but would slightly ammend.

Please send this out first thing tomorrow morning. If for some reason you can't meet that deadline, let me know what's the preferable alternative. Thanks!

I also agree, that in American office culture direct and respectful is the better approach. I think words like "if" and "hopefully" sort of imply that you don't think the other person is capable of meeting basic requests and deadlines.

I would also consider using tools like Google Hangout or other video chat, which skips the phone, but let the other person see facial expressions and hear intonation, which contributes a lot to our understanding.
posted by brookeb at 6:13 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Email is weird because it's devoid of social cues

Yes, exactly this. If anyone thought my previous requests were patronizing or bossy, they never told me that and therefore there was no way for me to ever know. Obviously, the exception is the two people who flew off the handle and made it about a bunch of other things other than simple word phrasing. If I said something to someone's face that they thought was rude, I would immediately be able to see that in their face and re-frame the request.

One additional hidden danger of your A is that it may actually come across as condescending.

The word condescending was actually used by the guy who said I was implying he wasn't being helpful. I frankly had no idea how he could've gotten condescension from me saying something would be helpful and explaining why it would be helpful -- I thought a bit before I sent that email and tried to avoid being demanding. That's interesting that you used that word. I do think there are some issues not related to the phrasing (like this guy hates me for reasons beyond my control, and I also never have had to request things from him before) but that's helpful to know in a situation where the person doesn't know me or like me, it could come off that way.

The Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture is very interesting, so thank you to the commenter who mentioned that. I think the word "culture" is slightly inaccurate because I believe this is a personal quirk of how I interact with people -- for instance, I'm not sure my family all operates the same way as I do (although now I will certainly pay attention!). I googled it and I actually do think the example in the opening paragraph here sounds kind of aggressive and rude. This is all very educational.

The overwhelming response here is illuminating. It's a bit of a bummer to realize my whole life I've sounded like an asshole unintentionally, but better late than never. My plea to fellow AskMefiers: If someone is an Asker and they've turned into a Guesser, maybe they are being a dick to you. But if someone has always been a Guesser, they may just not know any better! :)

Any additional thoughts on phrasing or the examples is super helpful. (Was that sentence ok? Haha.) I'll stop chiming in now. Thanks again all.
posted by AspirinPill at 6:19 PM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Bs are mostly what I want to hear and what I say, except I do not ask a question unless I am uncertain on the details.

If it's someone's job to post your draft, don't suggest they only do it if they feel like it or if they want to. Tell them it's ready. Don't hope, don't wish, don't wonder.

For the most part, you ARE telling people what to do or that it is time to do something they do, otherwise you'd be doing it yourself.

Really the only exception is in the case like "can you let me know going forward?" because maybe you don't know if they can. Maybe they can't, aren't allowed, or it's too much manual work to give you notifications. In that case, ask for clarification on what will be possible.

Even when making suggestions, reconsider every question mark. You can say "I think" or "this might" if you feel like you need to hedge, but stop and ask yourself if you're hedging to be polite or if you're hedging because you're insecure.

Every question mark is potentially self-defeating, and all those extra unnecessary words are turning basic functional phrases into things that need to be parsed and translated. Be concise, stop hedging, say thanks a lot and mean it. Ask questions when you need clarification only.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:21 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Agreed that the B's are better and good on you for welcoming feedback! Email tone is so tricky. Another thing that sometimes helps me is trying to remove "my" or "you" when it makes sense:

C- Please confirm when delivered requests are added to the queue [so the calendar can be updated or whatever]. Thank you!

C- Attaching the final draft - please post, thank you!

My own pet theory is that reiterating ownership over items in an email "my draft" "my request" can sometimes set up a me vs. you system. As long as the request is still clear, those ownership words can be removed.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 6:38 PM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I agree with kapers that your A's sound like someone who isn't sure of themselves or is kind of green. "A" was me a couple years ago and "A" is how I wrote emails, because I thought it sounded less demanding and more team-oriented--and because I didn't "want to put anyone on the spot." However, I also agree that "A" can sound condescending. My last team had a few people who would write "A" e-mails, but I would read them in their voice and knew they were being snotbags about what they were asking and how they were asking it.

Anyway, I wrote "A" e-mails, until I needed my firm's clients (Big Insurance) to do things for me, so I relied on "would you be able to [send me the correct policy]/[forward me color photographs of the scene]. Thanks!" Formal and polite, but clear without being demanding. I never used question marks; learned that from my boss. And then I had the wonderful experience of my last team, which was a lot like herding somewhat feral cats, and where my boss wouldn't give a clear direction or set a clear expectation until he was ready to blow through the roof because stuff wasn't getting done, so I learned to go with B all the way, all the time, and I've never looked back.

In the grand scheme of things, though? Life's bigger than how you precisely word e-mails. :-)
posted by coast99 at 6:47 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Are you female? Because this all sounds like a tone argument to me. In which case: stick to the job that needs done, and don't let someone derail or dominate you with tone policing.
posted by Dashy at 6:58 PM on April 20, 2015 [8 favorites]

On the receiving end, I am fine with either of these.

I can relate, though- at different times I do both. I find B more easy/natural when I am confident that we are all aligned on completing a specific goal.

One thing I notice that I sometimes do when I am asking (the B's):

Can you get this draft posted for tomorrow morning?
Let me know- if not I will handle it at lunch.

This gives the other person a way out without putting them in the potentially uncomfortable position where they have to say "no"-- which is really what you're doing by couching your requests as suggestions.
posted by ista at 7:02 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your As read passive aggressive. If youre part of a team team members ask for things. As for what needs to be done dont suggest. Lean in etc
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:03 PM on April 20, 2015

FWIW, I certainly wouldn't extrapolate that you're an asshole from your A examples, so anyone who has gone that far probably has other problems with you.

[And yes, if you happen to be a woman in a male-dominated office, watch them have a problem with your tone no matter how you say things.]
posted by kapers at 7:04 PM on April 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

I actually think you should be even more direct than A or B. Try, "please post this" or "please send this in the morning."
posted by J. Wilson at 7:18 PM on April 20, 2015

I used to send emails like your A ones, and it was because I *was* uncomfortable asking people to do things. So I would hedge and suggest and sort of 'soft ask', like you.

What helped me was when I got clearer in my own head about roles. It was indeed my job to make sure X thing got done, and I would in fact be pissed (or blocked, or fail to meet some obligation) if the other person didn't do their part. Framing things as suggestions or possibilities wasn't actually fair to the other person, because if they back-burnered the thing or failed to do it, I'd be mad. So I learned to just own it. "Please do x" was way clearer, and left the door open for them to say "oh I can't" or whatever, if there was some reason they couldn't. It also didn't imply that what I was asking was a huge big deal, which when it's not true is (as folks have said above) sort of insulting.

I also think being direct is more respectful of people's time. People are busy, yo. Don't make them wade through a bunch of hedging to try to figure out what you need -- just tell them :)

And on preview -- yes, for sure there is a gender component here. As a woman, you're expected to be super-pleasant, and you're conditioned to behave in a low-status way. If you are direct, yes you'll be called bossy, or a bitch. But that doesn't make it true, and you shouldn't let fear of it hold you back.
posted by Susan PG at 7:23 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I actually think you should be even more direct than A or B. Try, "please post this" or "please send this in the morning."

That is a lingering question I have. (Sorry to post again.) Should I say Can you do this? or Please do this. -- or is that dependent on the job duties vs. preferences thing. i.e. Please do this thing that is your job. Thanks! and Could you do this thing that helps me but is not required? Thanks! Work email now seems harder to navigate than I ever thought it was.

I am a woman, and that could have been a contributing factor with one of the guys, purely as a possibility because I know how sexist he is, but I really don't think gender is an issue with the second guy, and also, this thread pretty clearly paints me in the wrong. So, for this discussion, I don't necessarily think gender is germane (although there is obviously conditioning and expectations that could be part of why I became a "Guesser").
posted by AspirinPill at 7:23 PM on April 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

If I needed something to be done, that was supposed to be done, and I was informing/reminding, I would say:

"Hi X,

Please add me to the report-- I need to be able to keep up with Y.


If I was requesting something that wasn't strictly necessary, or wasn't preexisting protocol, I would say,

"Hi X,

Could you add me to the report? It would be great to have access for Y reasons.


Be direct. If you really don't know, asking "Could you?" is fine. If you know, just say "please" and "thanks." And saying "Hi X," helps the email sound more friendly, if it's not a formal message. You're keeping it brief and not wasting time that way. If they can't, they can say "Hi Z, No, sorry, I checked with higher-ups and we can't add you to this report for confidentiality reasons. Maybe you can get A data by checking in with B?" It's just courtesy to be straightforward and somewhat utilitarian.

If someone emailed me, "Hi easter queen, Please send this email around to everyone so they can get the necessary info. Thanks!" I wouldn't be offended at all. If they were saying "would it be possible" and "could you because bla bla blaaa" I would think they were being odd but not be super upset about it-- sounds like your coworker should have chilled out. But you could probably prevent it by just being utilitarian in email.

Generally I do include a short explanation, so my requests don't seem out of left field, and just so everybody knows who is doing what job on project C. Then if information pops up that might be relevant to my role they'll know who to check with. (Sometimes it's not necessary, if it's something obviously trifling.)

People in my office tend to be a little extra polite when talking to our interns, for instance, "Could you please replace the printer paper? Thanks!" ... because it's obviously scutwork so we try to be cheery about it. But something like a report, that's business, no need to get touchy feely.

Is there someone in your office who seems to get along with people and also get straight to the point? You can watch their behavior and see how they behave in different work related situations. Everyone effs up at work on occasion, the social rules are weird.
posted by easter queen at 7:36 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

At least in your first example, A would put me on the defensive if I were the recipient. (Granted, I am a cranky person.) I'd sense a subtext of, "You really should've put me in the queue already, idiot, jeez" rather than believe that you are just asking me to start doing so moving forward. B conveys your request clearly and wouldn't bother me at all.

I also get why the other A's rub people the wrong way. The "can someone post my draft" sounds like you're too lazy to do it yourself; and the "hopefully we can get this out" is similar in that the "we" is deceptive--really, you're asking someone else to do something, no "we" about it.

I (a woman) actually think that even if your coworkers are giving you a tone argument, it would be better to break with the A options anyway. Women are conditioned to be placatory and not really ask for things they want; if it were me, I'd feel better being direct and assertive about what I need. A "please" doesn't hurt, I think, but not sure it's necessary. Definitely say thanks (which it sounds like you've got covered).
posted by ferret branca at 7:50 PM on April 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

OP, the third option I think you're searching for is to preface what you're saying with "I".

Instead of:

"Can you do this?"
"Please do this."

How about:

"I would like it if this happened"
"I need X by Y"
"I want this done--can you help me?"

Basically, I think it is rude to leave your own perspective out of any sentence that also includes a "you." It is passive, and it is co-dependent. Start with yourself. State your need and let others connect the dots. Most of the time, they will. People generally like to help others when they feel they have a choice about it.
posted by macinchik at 7:51 PM on April 20, 2015

Macinchik, my boss does that every day and it is the main reason his entire staff hates him. It's imperious, not polite or assertive.

I'd recommend something like this instead: "Hi, John! Tomorrow we need to complete X phase of our project. You're the most knowledgeable about Y; could you please take care of Z task and check in with me when you're done? Happy to provide further input if you need it. Thanks!"
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:02 PM on April 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

"Thank you for X. Do please go ahead and Y, unless you have questions/concerns/additional thoughts."

"Could you please do X for me? Let me know if instead..."

"Would you mind doing X before you leave? I could then do Y right when I come in tomorrow. It's ok if..."

I try to make a very clear, polite request but also leave them an opening to not do it. For me that's sort of the best of both worlds. I get to make a direct request, and I also acknowledge that I'm not the boss of them.
posted by zeek321 at 8:03 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh man. I've spent the last year+ figuring out how to perfect email tone -- my work is like 80% over email, both with coworkers in several other offices, and clients who are all over the country.

I try to avoid using too many exclamation marks, but they really do smooth the path, especially if you're a woman (and doubly so if you're a younger woman). I hate that that's true, but there it is. Contrary to some of the advice above, I also make sure to use question marks when I'm asking a question -- you want there to be NO DOUBT that you want a response.

Here are my takes:

A- It would be helpful if you could confirm when my requests are added to the queue in the future.
B- Going forward, can you please confirm when my requests are added to the queue?
C- Just checking -- was this request added to the queue already? Could you just give me a heads up when my request are added in the future? It'd help me keep track of the widget delivery. Thanks!

A- My draft is ready now if someone wants to post it.
B- My draft is ready now - can someone post it?
C- My draft is ready to be posted! Could someone take care of it and let me know when it's up?

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?
C- This needs to be in their inbox when they get in tomorrow. Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

A- I think we should be sure to mention ___.
B- Can you make sure to mention ___?
C- I think it'd be good if we gave them a warning that this project will be late. Can you make sure to mention that on the call?

The key here is providing enough context to your request that the recipient understands why you're asking (without giving them the entire page-long story!), and then just...ask the thing. If your explanation is friendly and appropriate to your relationship with the recipient, you can make the request really straightforward, and the chances of it being read as rude are low.

If you're not sure that you're emailing the right person for the job, then add a "And let me know if I should be checking in with someone else instead!" to the end.
posted by Ragini at 8:06 PM on April 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

People always appreciate knowing what the damn point of an email is. So asking for something to be done is great.

If you want to soften the request, add an exclamation mark.

"Would you be able to XX by YY? It would be super helpful, thanks!"
posted by Nevin at 8:11 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

In terms of being more direct, I think it's better to say "Can you X?" or "Could you Y?" than "Please do Z," because it's a request. Even if the recipient is fully aware that it's their job to do X, Y, or Z, it's more polite and never hurts to actually use the phrasing to ask. Otherwise, you're telling someone what to do, which could be interpreted variously, depending upon your coworker's disposition and your relationship to them.

Also, couching most requests in less urgent, softer language leaves you more range to escalate the language when something really is super important or urgent or someone screwed up.

2 p.m.: "As we discussed in the meeting earlier, could you make sure to send me a copy of the report so I can review it for tomorrow's meeting? Thanks!"

4 p.m.: "Hey, just a reminder, I'll need a little time to review the report before tomorrow's meeting. Please send it along once it's ready."

9 a.m.: "I hope all is well, and that you got some rest and were able to finish up the last details of the report. Please send it over ASAP—I need to be able to review it before we meet."

10:15 a.m.: "Our meeting is scheduled for 15 minutes from now, but I have not yet received your report or heard back to confirm any details. Please let me know how you would like to proceed. Can we reschedule this meeting for later today? It is crucial that I have adequate time to go over the report in detail before discussing it further."

12 p.m.: "Given that I was unable to review the report before it was presented in our meeting, I will need more time to compile specific feedback. Can you send over a copy of what we walked through in the meeting?"

9 a.m.: "I have requested this document multiple times, and at this point, without having the full contents of the report, I'm unable to provide an accurate estimate for next steps. Given our previously scheduled obligations today, we'll likely need to rethink our timeline for completing this. Please let us know your thoughts when you can."

Ideally you'd be able to ask for and get what you want—but you're not always going to be on equal footing with everyone you're dealing with, and even if you are, it's not always wise to cut straight to a curt "Please do X ASAP. Thanks." Phrasing every email that way is a recipe for resentment.
posted by limeonaire at 8:26 PM on April 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

My general stance is if someone wants/needs something from me the best thing they can do for for themselves (and me) is tell me at outset what exactly what they want/need. Don't make me take time and brain cells to read between the lines, translate, ask for clarification, etc. I'm super busy at work, I don't want to take the scenic route and work once to figure out what someone wants/needs and then again doing the thing itself. Your A examples would require additional effort and that would make me cranky.

Obviously, the exception is the two people who flew off the handle and made it about a bunch of other things other than simple word phrasing.

People at work should not fly off the handle. I'd find your A's a bit grating, but I would not have a melt-down over them. When people loose their shit at work it means something is off with them, the workplace or both. These are not your problems to solve.

That said, the more specific and direct you are about what you want the less room there is to "make it about other things." It would be helpful if implies lots of things you may not intend. It comes off as something optional and not essential to your/their job. It sounds like a suggestion or something that doesn't directly impact outcomes. Some may take it as a swipe that they're not Team Players. Heaven Forbid. In my organization "helpful" is often code for please take time out of your busy schedule doing your Essential Things to do this Non-Essential thing that would make my job easier. So yeah, "helpful" is fraught, I'd avoid it.

It's not bossy to ask people to do their job in the course of doing your job. Just keep it short, be polite, say please and thank you constantly.
posted by space_cookie at 8:34 PM on April 20, 2015

Yeah, I hate all your A's. They kind of have a "oh my! I've dropped my handkerchief, whatever will I do?" feel to them. And I'm supposed to heroically say with a puffed out chest, "I'll take care of that!" Gag. It's really hard to put my finger on exactly why, but that's what they feel like, and I'm not really that sensitive or defensive in email.

Well, the first one is ok if followed by the actual question: so is there a way you could let me know when that happens? Or if there's a way I could check that myself without pestering you, that would be even better. Thanks!

A- My draft is ready now if someone wants to post it.
B- My draft is ready now - can someone post it?

Pick someone you think can, and ask them individually: can you post it for me? Thanks. -Me

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning? It's time-sensitive. Thanks. -Me
(not to be overused if it really isn't time sensitive.)

A- I think we should be sure to mention ___.
B- Can you make sure to mention ___?

Actually A is fine there if it's really just a suggestion and not a veiled request. Also, say why.
If it is really a request, then B, but without "make sure to." Can you mention ____ for me? Thanks.
posted by ctmf at 8:45 PM on April 20, 2015

I generally use the formula of "I've done [task X]. [Next person in workflow], can you do [next task]? Let me know if you need any additional information. Thanks!"

Don't make a statement if you're actually asking a question ("It would be great if..." or "My task is ready if someone wants to do the next step"). That is something that both polite people and passive-aggressive people do, and it's extremely easy to read it as passive-aggressive.
posted by jaguar at 8:47 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that your A's would grate in a way your B's wouldn't, but it's also not a flipping out thing.

An angle I haven't seen mentioned yet: think of your email as being for reference, in some sense. That is, don't write it with your audience's first reading in mind, write it for when they're looking back to check whether it was X or X' needed doing, or if you needed Y by Wednesday or Thursday. This specifically means making it clear what the purpose of the email is and not, in some sense, hiding the meat among quasi apologetic fluff.
posted by PMdixon at 8:51 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing directness.

I like to end with "Thanks so much!" Direct request + appreciation = happy coworkers, at least in my experience.
posted by gaspode at 8:59 PM on April 20, 2015

Not that you asked, but please make your subject of the email relevant to the task you need done. I'd rather get an email that is short, to the point, says please and thanks and gives me the most information in as few words as possible.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:59 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Something that's also helped me streamline my emails is the realization that most people just skim and many people have really bad reading comprehension. I read a lot for pleasure, I majored in English, and I find that I have to constantly re-adjust my expectations for how much effort people actually put into reading emails. So just hit the highlights, as clearly and cleanly as possible.
posted by jaguar at 9:16 PM on April 20, 2015 [8 favorites]

Every A is annoying. "It would be helpful if..." Is a real hackle-raiser; whooeee. The B's sound fine.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:36 PM on April 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

You're not bossing people around, you're not even telling people to do their job. You're reminding them of what they already know: this is their job, not yours. It doesn't feel great to them, but not working always feels better than working, so let's just say that feelings aren't the best guide here.

Things I've learned:

1) When emailing numerous people, identify, in the first 3 lines of the email, the names of the people who have to read it. Everyone at my company gets more email than they read, and it's not that we're slackers; we just have bad distribution policies. People need to know it's for them. Get in the habit of re-jiggering the To: and Cc: fields in case people have filters in place.

2) Never send an email to more than one person suggesting that a job ought to get done by someone. This isn't passive aggression, this is just passivity. Not only does passive voice get under people's skin, as you've read, but it completely acquits anyone who doesn't want to be responsible. Well, someone has to be responsible, and even though it doesn't feel like it, it's not always you.

I can't stress this enough-- telling people it's their move is not aggression, this is assertion. You are staking your claim as to who's responsible for the job. People can object, or disagree, and hey, you might be wrong, but suggesting that someone out there might be responsible is a message to everyone that it's someone else's job/problem.

3) If you receive an email that passively suggests action, make the effort to kick it into active voice. "Yes, it would be nice if someone posted this. Dan, please post it and send us the link." Don't sweat Dan's feelings if it's his job to post things; they call it work for a reason. Dan can stand up for himself (hopefully, I get that not everyone can) if it's Elsie's job, or whatnot.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:09 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Holy crap. I've been doing email wrong for my first year as a manager.

Thanks for the wake up call, everyone.
posted by samthemander at 11:29 PM on April 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Ask the questions you want answers to.

If you want to know whether they can do X, ask "Can you do X?" If you want to know whether they will do X, ask that. If you merely need them to do it, and being an adult you know it's polite to ask rather than tell, do that.

As others have said: direct. Polite.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:37 PM on April 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think the reason why your As come across as condescending is because they imply some doubt in their capabilities: "'It would be helpful" = "you are not aware this is helpful even though it is your job". "Hopefully" = "I am already imagining scenarios where this doesn't get done".
Some wording also makes it seem like you had an expectation that they already haven't fulfilled. If you are direct (like many of the examples above), you're letting them know you recognize that they know how to do their job and are asking them because you believe in those abilities!

Still not cool that that dude flipped out, though.
posted by thebots at 12:04 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have a big problem with any kind of "we" phrasing. In a group setting it invites everybody to take responsibility, which means nobody takes responsibility. "We" kicks it into the room and everybody thinks someone else will take care of it. And if you're talking just to me and you say "we" then, yeah, I'll think you're an asshole: you're asking me without asking me, and not offering a dialog about the task.

This is true in any situation where the "we" clearly refers to one person. You're not going to do anything, they are. Being direct respects the reality of who is going to do the work.

If you ask me to do something I can say "sure, but I can't do it by tomorrow because I have these other important priorities" or "actually no I'm not the one who does those things" or "heck yes! now that you're communicating so well I'm super happy to help you out!" Now we're having a clear dialog about how this task will get done.

If you merely intimate that it would be nice if something got done, I have to do more work to get to that place. "By 'we' do you mean me?" "You said 'hopefully we can get this out', do you mean that I should send it or that you will? Does it need to get out by that time or is it okay if it's not?"
posted by wemayfreeze at 1:27 AM on April 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

I would say to a subordinate "Please post the draft"
I would say to a colleague "Could you please post the draft?"
I would NEVER say "Does someone want to post the draft?"

I'm from a family who all say "do you want to make a cup of tea?" which is basically an order. No I don't!
posted by superfish at 2:10 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't take the "passive-aggressive" criticism too seriously - it seems to be the current term that's applied to any assertive phrase when that phrase is something the listener doesn't want to hear. Seriously. There is a world of good advice out there about how to phrase requests/orders appropriately when one is in charge of a project or in a position to direct others and if you're running into this type of problem, it would be a good idea to study up on the proper way to manage - but expect to be called passive-aggressive anyway by those who don't welcome your direction - or those who are waiting for something to get defensive or angry about.

Please and thank-you make all the difference, and I think the most important thing is to be clear about what you want done. When I used to work for 8 or 10 professors at once, I didn't have time nor inclination to juggle personalities and hints so I really appreciated a clear, direct request or order.
posted by aryma at 2:42 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

But to me it sounds like I am telling someone what to do more in the B examples.

B- Going forward, can you please confirm when my requests are added to the queue?
B- My draft is ready now - can someone post it?
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

Your B examples are literally asking people to do things, not telling them. I get that if you're used to Guess style, a grammatical question can actually be a command, but where Ask style predominates (including most US workplaces), a grammatical question is just a request. Your Bs are generally fine, although for the second one I'd ask a specific person to post it rather than "someone."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:06 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your As aren't really dickish, and solidly within the realm of acceptable, normal work correspondence, but they can get annoying, especially when someone phrases everything like that. Your Bs are better. I understand the impulse to try to cushion requests to avoid acting "bossy" or confrontational, but don't obfuscate. Don't say "we" or "someone" when you mean "you" (you can sometimes do this when you're trying to avoid throwing coworkers under the bus, but not when asking for things). Use a cushion at the end ("thanks!" Or a standalone "I appreciate it.") instead of gumming up the language at the beginning. If you're not comfortable abruptly switching styles, try gradually working more Bs in and slowly phasing out the As.


was accused by a co-worker of implying that he wasn't being helpful. He also said I need to stop telling him how to do his work and try asking instead.

Going forward, it'd be helpful if this guy could fuck off and do his work instead of getting all poopy-diapered about your tone. Everyone who uses email for work communication receives requests written in ways they don't like. All the time. Too direct, too passive-aggressive, too many exclamation points, no exclamation points. Unless the writer is obviously out of line - which you aren't - it's on the reader to let writing like this not get to him. And unless he's your supervisor or somehow involved in your professional development, he has no more business telling you how to talk to him than you do telling him how to do his work. There may be a kernel of rightness to his complaint, but he's still being an ass about it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:22 AM on April 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

For most of your A sentences (except the first) I would have trouble understanding if you were asking me to do something, or if you were suggesting that an unspecified someone with spare time should do them. And then, because I'm a busy person, I'd ignore it and figure you'd do it yourself if it was important.

Actually, I'd ignore some of your Bs too because they're addressed to "someone" (i.e. maybe not me). Direct is always better in business. The way I see it, you are doing me a favor by assessing whether $thing needs to be done and getting a specific person to do it - and then all I have to do is execute the request, or (less likely within teams) send it to someone else if I don't have the time, knowledge or skills required for it.
posted by Xany at 4:38 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I once worked in a plant where the task assignment managers were often Eastern European, and job requests were pretty damn blunt (literally: "This-Task-Do-It."). Perhaps a bit on the brusque side for the more sensitive, but everyone was clear what was what. Which is better than the alternative.
posted by ovvl at 6:43 AM on April 21, 2015

So first off, getting tone right over email is really, really hard - don't beat yourself up too much about this.

Everyone else has made it clear that B is better than A, so I wanted to talk a little bit about why B is better than A. The reason is that when you say something like "My draft is ready now if someone wants to post it," you actually do expect someone to post your draft. If nobody did it, you'd be annoyed, and you'd wonder why. This is what people are complaining about when they complain about passive aggression - the dissonance between being told to do something, and having the phrasing suggest that it's up to them whether or not it happens.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:23 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing that helped me be more direct in emails was to write a short "tl;dr" at the end of an email...and then delete everything that came before. But my indirectness stemmed more from being too long-winded rather than using too much qualitative language, so that was a good fix.

That said:
I do think there are some issues not related to the phrasing (like this guy hates me for reasons beyond my control

I think this is a case of what the internet calls "bitch eating crackers." Definitely implement the awesome advice people gave above...but there's a chance you can't win this guy over regardless of phrasing.
posted by neda at 7:25 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I believe that requests for action should include or begin with "Please". Such as, "Please post my data file, and let me know that the transmission has been accepted." And, "Please ensure that this draft is distributed by the end of the day." Including the phrase, "Thanks for your help" makes these requests a bit more palatable, I believe.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:25 AM on April 21, 2015

Something that will help is to be very clear on roles and responsibilities on your team. Who is responsible for posting drafts? Sending out information? Adding requests to the queue? Does everyone know this clearly? If so, then your email-writing task becomes:

"The draft is ready for posting. [Person who is responsible for posting drafts], could you please post it in the next batch, and let me know when it's live? Thanks!"

If I am writing to someone I supervise, I am more likely to use "Please [do task X], [appropriate expression of thanks]!"

This is (a) polite, (b) informal, and (c) direct and clear.

Although above posters are correct that, while all your As are mildly annoying, the people blowing up at you are far more in the wrong.

A few more tips-
-exclamation points make the tone more casual
-as far as possible, send requests to ONE PERSON
-if you aren't sure if it's okay to ask, say so ("I'm not sure if you are still in charge of posting drafts - if not, could you let me know who is doing that now? Thanks!")
posted by oblique red at 8:58 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

My immediate response to your A examples was that these are typical wordings I would expect to hear from a superior, manager, boss, etc. When I got to the part where you said you aren't the bosses of these people, I thought, "Oh. That's why." I don't think you sound passive aggressive, but I would describe your wording as being overly managerial. Even the phrase "Going forward" raises the hackles of some people.

If you are asking people to go above and beyond their own job to make your life a little easier, try asking them first if they would be okay with doing whatever thing you'd like them to do. It's not so much "Asking vs Guessing" as it is "Requesting vs Suggesting." Without getting too flowery, you can briefly explain why you are asking them to do the thing. Try to leave out phrases like "It would be helpful if..."

The other thing is, if you're simply reminding people of what they already know - like, yeah, they know they need to post your draft, you don't need to tell them to post it - that could come across like you think they're stupid and that they need their hands held through every process.

All that said, don't be surprised if these two people still have problems with you even after you change the wording of your email requests.
posted by wondermouse at 8:59 AM on April 21, 2015

Thank you again for all the responses! It seems like I struck a nerve. Email is one of those things that ostensibly makes our lives easier at work, and still comes with its own set of problems! And thank you for letting me know my (two) co-workers are still overreacting and being jerks -- I agree!

I only asked about dealing with my co-workers who I do not manage. I am also a manager, but I do think using "we" language is best because I am asking my subordinate to do something, but it implies shared responsibility. (I always tell my team that my job as manager is basically to take responsibility in case anything ever goes wrong, haha.) "Let's add this to the document." "We should check and see if this is worth including in the document." It's never not clear I am asking him to do something, but I feel like seeing a direct and curt request from one's boss may get the nerves to kick in. As a subordinate I would prefer "let's look into this" over "Look into this" but I'm sure folks will let me know if I am wrong!

Anyway, thanks all again.
posted by AspirinPill at 9:47 AM on April 21, 2015

I must disagree again, with the caveat that I still don't think it's a big deal, and that I know office cultures differ. Also, this all depends on your personality in-person; people who know you personally will add that knowledge to your communication style for a complete picture.

As a subordinate, I'd prefer a "Please look into this" to "Look into this." But I'd prefer either one of those to "Let's look into this."

"Let's" implies you're going to be doing the task with me. If it's a solo task, I do think "let's" is confusing-- should I wait for you to come to my desk to do the task with me? Do you not trust me to do it myself? And if I didn't know any better, it would sound like you were not recognizing my effort. I agree that as a manager your responsibility should be shared but I feel you should give credit where it's due.
posted by kapers at 10:52 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

It seems like I struck a nerve.

Yes. We are all very socialized to have strong opinions about the exactly proper way for a woman to express words (hint: you will never get it right). People will go on and on about the use of "please" from a woman. It's much less likely that a man would have equivocated about his messaging, or that it would have garnered 70+ responses.

I think finding differences between your questions was splitting hairs, and the hair-splitting (and putting the burden of finding a solution on you) IS the real problem.
posted by Dashy at 11:07 AM on April 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I do think using "we" language is best because I am asking my subordinate to do something, but it implies shared responsibility.

You might think it implies that, but it really doesn't come across that way to people who are on the receiving end of it when they know very well they will be the ones responsible for carrying out the request. It does come across as patronizing. Don't say "we" or "let's" unless you actually mean you would be completing the task with the other person. And this goes for whether you are a woman or a man. I think of the boss in Office Space when I hear stuff like that.
posted by wondermouse at 11:07 AM on April 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

The boss in Office Space actually would say, "Uh, I'm gonna need you to go ahead and..." and I think part of what made him a dick was him saying "I need you to do this" as if everything was about his own needs. Also, the fact that he made his employees come in on Saturday and Sunday didn't help.

"Let's" is a term I use when there is no question about who is doing the task -- it is not confusing as some are implying -- but I am directing the person to to do it and I am taking responsibility for the course of action I am directing. I guess I can see how "Could you add this" feels.
posted by AspirinPill at 11:17 AM on April 21, 2015

Watch this clip and then read your examples in the style of the boss. It's much easier to do it with the "A" examples than the "B" examples or some other people's "C" examples. And since you're doing this all over email and online chat, that very well might be what they're hearing in their minds.

It doesn't excuse your coworkers from flying off the handle at you, but there's a near consensus about this here because that is how stuff worded like that generally comes across.
posted by wondermouse at 11:43 AM on April 21, 2015

What made him a dick was that his requests never seemed like they were necessary. It was just whimsical red tape to make his department look busy.

We language has it's place. When talking about your accomplishments made possible by your team, and company initiatives. It doesn't have a place when you're clearly defining work responsibilities and roles. And that's what your emails are doing.

You're trying to fix a culture problem in the wrong place. You make them feel like part of a team working together for a common goal elsewhere.
posted by politikitty at 11:58 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm typically terrified of bothering someone, putting someone to any trouble, things along those lines. However, I've learned over the years that if you ask things the right way, people are ok with telling you yes or no, depending on their needs. I'm also a big believer that words have meanings - if you ask me if I can do something, the answer is almost certainly yes. I can do, i.e. I am capable of doing, a whole heck of a lot. What you really want to know isn't if they can, but if they will.

A- It would be helpful if you could confirm when my requests are added to the queue in the future.
B- Going forward, can you please confirm when my requests are added to the queue?

C- Going forward, would you please confirm when my requests are added to the queue?

A- My draft is ready now if someone wants to post it.
B- My draft is ready now - can someone post it?

C- My draft is ready now - will you please post it?

A- Hopefully we can get this out first thing tomorrow morning.
B- Can you send it first thing tomorrow morning?

C- Would you please send it first thing tomorrow morning?
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 12:55 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Any additional thoughts on phrasing or the examples is super helpful.

I think your phrasing in your A examples comes across as passive-aggressive because it communicates that you want THIS specific person to do this but you don't feel like you can TELL them to do it and you are trying to massage the situation and find a way to "make" this specific person do it when you don't have any authority to "make" them do anything.

The alternate phrasing examples I give do two things that your examples don't seem to do:

1) I state the facts ("x has been finished" or "y need to happen by z time").
2) I then leave it open as to who is going to do the next step.

If that second assumption does not apply -- if the person you are talking to is the one and only person who can complete this task because they are the one and only person with the skills or permissions or whatever -- then do not do that. Even if it is your boss or someone you have no authority over, if they are the ONLY person who can do this, then you don't leave it open and imply that someone else might (but you also don't have to approach it passive-aggressively). So I will suggest you try this approach:

1) State the facts (x has happened or y must be done a certain way/by a certain time)
2) a) If there are several people who could potentially complete this, ASK if this specific person will handle it in a way that genuinely leaves open the possibility that they will say "no" and you will ask someone else.
2) b) If there is one and only one person who can do it, ADVISE them that the next step is (thing that only they can do).

I am also a woman. I worked at a Fortune 500 company for over 5 years. I had an entry level job. The last few months I was there, I was on a newly created team for expediting "problem" files. I had the latest shift on that team, so, on Friday afternoons, it was often the case that my boss was not there and a lot of other supervisors and managers and what not were also not available (lots of people took Friday off to get a three day weekend).

Resolving problem files very frequently required me to get information and/or permissions from someone above me. I routinely buttonholed people higher up than me late on Friday that I didn't much know, some of them very high up within the department. The above approach was extremely effective in getting other people to do the piece I simply could not do and that had to happen if the file was to be resolved in a timely fashion.

So it would go something like this "Hi Mr/Ms Big Wig. My boss has left for the day and I need Thing done (that requires a higher up, and they already know that). X has already happened and (reason this is a big, urgent deal that really should not wait until Monday if at all humanly possible). I have looked around and cannot find another supervisor. Can you help me with this or tell me who I might go to?"

It was rare that I did not get the file resolved that day with that approach. These higher ups did not want problem files to turn into bigger problems because it was over my pay grade and it was late on a Friday and there wasn't anyone else around who could handle it, leaving them as one of very few people or possibly the only person available who could resolve it in a timely fashion.

It does require you to have clear boundaries and to couch it in terms of Facts, not what you "want." And part of those facts are that Thing needs to be done and only certain people can do it and also there are time constraints if you aren't going to be sued/lose customers/whatever-negative-consequences, which means, realistically, that Person You Are Speaking To needs to go ahead and get this done if at all possible. That's the logical answer, unless, of course, they can give you another option ("Oh, Bob is the person you want to talk to and he hasn't left yet. Let me give him a ring and tell him you are coming over with that file.").

So it is possible to spell out nicely that Bad Things Will Happen and YOU Will Look Bad Because Of It if you don't do x thing without trying to massage them and manipulate them and so on. You just need to make it super clear what all the pertinent facts are and accept that you can't actually control them, they could drop the ball and then bad things will happen. If you have communicated everything effectively, then it should be clear that you did all you could do and if bad things happened it was because someone else failed to adequately do their job. If that happens enough times, people will either get with the program and start doing their job or eventually get fired. And que sera sera, not really your problem. (I spent months cleaning up the mess after one of my coworkers was fired, which bothered me a lot less than getting his fucked up files very time he took a day off.)

I suspect one of your issues is that you do not want bad things to happen and so you are trying your damnedest to make sure bad things do not happen and that has you trying to control other people that you have no control over. Make sure you did YOUR part of it properly and make sure you then very clearly communicated the facts to the next person in the chain who has to do the next step. And then let it go. If they drop the ball, too bad, so fucking sad. If they drop it repeatedly and wind up fired over it, then you don't need to put up with their shit anymore. Yay!

You will sleep better at night if you can master that attitude. You will also probably become a lot more effective at your job.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:20 PM on April 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

> I am also a manager, but I do think using "we" language is best because I am asking my subordinate to do something, but it implies shared responsibility.

If you're my manager, I think that one of your responsibilities is deciding which of your subordinates is best suited for a given task, based on skills, availability, etc. I also think that this responsibility is unique to you, and, unless there's some past history or specific re-assignment, I wouldn't think of deciding who should do a task. I'd guess that this would irritate you, as stepping on your toes, and other team members, as reaching beyond my authority.

> "Let's add this to the document." "We should check and see if this is worth including in the document."

Hearing the first sentence would be okay, assuming it's pretty clear who's going to open the .doc file and actually type it in. The second sentence would leave me thinking "Who's supposed to do the checking? Is it me? I don't know.", feeling a bit unsatisfied.

I should probably note that I come from an IT background, where clarity and not being ambiguous are highly valued, and social considerations aren't always handled the best ways possible.

As for "we" language, when I was in charge of a team I used "we" language almost religiously to describe achievements and give praise, especially when talking outside the team, i.e. credit was something that was shared. Responsibility, however, I thought of as something that was handed to me, and I was in charge of parceling it out. I guess in my mind they were two different types of sharing. I never got any feedback from my subordinates on that. I wonder how others in this thread feel about it.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:46 PM on April 21, 2015

I just found out that this guy complained to his supervisor about the fact that I said it would be helpful if he notified me when my requests are received instead of just doing them without acknowledging them to me. (Again, I apparently was implying he wasn't being helpful, trying to tell him how to do his job, and being condescending.) Oh my. This is all a great learning experience for me on how to phrase things, but I think this guy looks (and is) crazy. Thank you all again for clarifying where my communication style was letting me down and giving me the know-how to navigate this complete and utter bullshit. "The Green" is the best.
posted by AspirinPill at 1:51 PM on April 21, 2015

Oy. Yeah, I think you understand that most of us are telling you how to get from 80% good to 95% good, and aren't supporting over-reactions like this guy is doing.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:58 PM on April 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

your a examples all come across as manipulative...As in you want someone to do something but instead of giving them the courtesy of asking them so they can respond you just drop hints. It is totally passive aggressive.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 5:40 PM on April 21, 2015

And a final update: This guy reported himself into being reprimanded for the way he flew off the handle at me and I was told my request was perfectly reasonable. Now he's the one scheduled to meet with HR to discuss proper ways of communicating with co-workers. I guess as much as everyone here agreed my wording was (unintentionally) annoying, it's not something you can complain to your boss about without looking like a freak.

A final sincere thank you again from me, and a vow to use a more decisive and assertive voice in work emails! Thread marked resolved!
posted by AspirinPill at 6:51 PM on April 21, 2015 [11 favorites]

I think you're overly sensitive to what you *think* is your perceived image.

There's a decent sized gap between being direct, and being rude. You're so over-compensating you're starting to sound like you're wishy washy.
posted by kschang at 7:03 AM on April 22, 2015

We are all very socialized to have strong opinions about the exactly proper way for a woman to express words (hint: you will never get it right). People will go on and on about the use of "please" from a woman. It's much less likely that a man would have equivocated about his messaging, or that it would have garnered 70+ responses.

Quoting for truth! This is an awesome comment from Dashy. It's true: there is no "right way" for a woman to behave in the workplace (by which I mean you can't win), and it's super-insightful to point out how piling-on we're all being here.
posted by Susan PG at 3:34 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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