Responding to crummy « professional » texts
September 15, 2022 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I’ve lately gotten quite a few Teams or text messages or quick emails at work that are just plain crummy, with tone, attitude, and content that I wouldn’t put up with from my spouse or a friend, but I find myself at a loss about what to do in the professional setting.

For the setting, I’m pretty senior in the workplace and the messages I’m concerned about are coming from peers (not from my boss and if anything comes from a more junior person, I’m usually ok with ignoring a one off and potentially following up with their supervisor if it becomes a pattern). I may be moving on soon so I don’t need to fix the big picture but just come up with better strategies in the short term. I am remote 80% of the time so that’s why I need messaging strategies and don’t have to figure out in person stuff.

I started listing some anonymized quotes here but I realized there’s often nothing exorbitantly wrong with individual messages, but I can tell from the exchange that the person is very angry with me and/or thinks I’m totally wrong [about something where I have seniority and more expertise so even if i were wrong, it’s appropriate for them to provide what I’m asking for]. Phrases like « what do you want me to do about that? «  «I’ve told you over and over » « this is something I shouldn’t need to do » « that is information you shouldn’t need to have » as well as asking me to defend the same statements over and over and over, when I shouldn’t need to defend them in the first place (I know that sounds pompous but imagine having to repeatedly defend the statement that « speeding is illegal ». I am happy to pull absolutely all the law and details on enforcement once, but after having that same discussion 3 times, it seems like maybe my professional judgment that speeding is illegal may be in question ….)

I typically don’t engage and stay matter of fact but i always end up feeling really crummy as a result of these convos and having to convince myself that I’m not in the wrong (outside these periods of irrational insecurity, I can objectively see that I am right but it doesn’t help in those moments). I’d love to acquiesce totally but that would mean not completing my responsibilities. So I usually just put up with it and try to ease out what I need. The tasks I eventually complete are valued by no one (my boss appreciates and rewards me but doesn’t understand what I do day to day - that’s what he hired me for - and he understands that I am my department get a lot of flack but considers it part of the role) - the kind of thing that’s invisible until you get in trouble for not doing it.

I considered in these very heated exchanges, telling the person that we could return to it when they are a bit less… less what? I imagine I’ll get a response that it’s me that is assuming things from the exchange. Also part of their resentment is that I need things now- I’d be able to be less demanding if most things weren’t on a deadline and they had provided stuff the first time I asked. And even if I could put things on pause, I don’t know that I’d feel better.

I’m to the point of not wanting to talk to anyone but my team anymore and I’m realizing that this issue is just burning me out, so I’m looking for strategies for dealing with these text exchanges and occasional crummy emails in the moment so I can survive the next few months.
posted by Tandem Affinity to Work & Money (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You could have a jerk bingo card to count strikes and reward yourself - turning their petty aggro into a cynical game. Venting to a team mate helps too if you can trust they won’t repeat what you say. And delaying or batching those replies to a time when you feel good like after lunch, coffee break, helps because it’s just one time of your day.

I swapped two portfolios with a colleague of teams I don’t like working with, and I do customer service for other people in return. My friend who provides advice the clients don’t want to hear and are rude about is icily polite to them and puts them on a lower priority than the pleasant ones. There are lots of ways to cope with jerks.

But it reads to me like you feel isolated and under appreciated for your expertise more than just jerks. Do you have peers in the company or outside who can validate your skill?
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:01 PM on September 15 [3 favorites]

My concern would be about blatant disrespect, and I'd probably work on that, thought it's non-trivial, to understate things.
posted by theora55 at 10:19 PM on September 15 [4 favorites]

I feel like, if you're relatively senior and a peer, some another senior person, is treating you as an ignoramus, that's actionable. Phrases like "I've told you over and over" and "what do you want me to do about that?" are not constructive ways to solve problems! You should have the benefit of the doubt regarding your professional experience.

I think my suggestion would be to make these kind of exchanges explicitly transactional. If they're unwilling to be constructive, lay out specifically what you need from them so that you don't have to talk to them until your part's done, and then leave it there. This works particularly well if your team is in a service position in the company - having a clear process will also help your team after you're gone, because they can just adopt that process. If you're in more of a collaborative kind of position, where you work with people to solve problems, this will be trickier but probably still worth doing because it'll be more clear that the informal process has broken down.
posted by Merus at 10:24 PM on September 15 [4 favorites]

That does sound pretty crummy. Insofar as you're negotiating for them to provide something and you still believe there's a path to talking it over, summaries of getting to yes / getting past no may help. Where they're really coming from probably matters: like, they could have contrary goals they're not talking about or just terrible attitudes that aren't going to cool down. But if these are basically small fights over ambiguities of ownership and accountability, lack of routine process, etc., maybe the negotiation stuff could help.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:33 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]

If the root cause of this is being female in a workplace of men who aren't handling that very well, it's pretty hard to dig your way out of it (you didn't say that was the case, but the kind of comments you mention sound a lot like men sound when they're reflexively trying to put women in their place). The men have been socialised this way since birth and you on your own are unlikely to change their ways.

In my experience it's a lot easier to just quit and get a job somewhere that already has multiple women in senior positions. Sounds like you're on with that already!

A sneaky trick (if this is indeed the situation you're in) is to turn their own biases against them and suggest that they're being overly emotional, while being extremely clear and direct yourself about what you need. But that's playing dirty and doesn't make any friends in the long term.
posted by quacks like a duck at 11:25 PM on September 15 [29 favorites]

This could be potentially serious. The person who sends these messages could be trying to provoke you To respond in an angry and unprofessional way in order to later accuse you of unprofessional behaviour. I would have a file where I would collect all the instances of Communication that you consider unprofessional. At some point it might be worth speaking to your boss about it.
posted by slimeline at 12:07 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

Do they just not respect or value your role? If you're relatively new to the team, it can help sometimes to politely but firmly remind them that it's your job to know and make decisions about (topic), and while you're happy to answer specific questions they do need to trust your expertise in this area. "I understand it's frustrating when I ask you questions about how you do X, but you have to understand it's my job to know what's going on and help make sure X is being done in ways that won't cause us trouble later on."

If the whole org doesn't value what you do, you may need to find a place where your role is more valued. (I'm getting compliance/regulatory vibes, for example, and have known several folks who seemed to think the ideal role of compliance officers was to simply rubber stamp all their ideas and never push back on anything.)
posted by Lady Li at 12:41 AM on September 16 [16 favorites]

Have a person with a different level of authority do a reply, someone who can have a direct influence on their future with the company.
Shame the jerk into better behavior. This is not a one-off piece of micro aggression that they can get away with behind 'closed doors." Remind them that written communication is on their permanent record.
There are consequences.

Tolerance only makes bullies bolder.
Check with your supervisor (if this is advisable) since the next person with your position will get the same treatment.

On the cosmic level, it seems like people have left their best behavior at the front door during plague times. Remote communications have made things impersonal, in a negative way. No nuance, no immediate feedback, the subtle pauses and gestures are lost.
All that is left is the frustrated rambling of tired, stressed out workers tapping their needs into the void.
posted by TrishaU at 12:46 AM on September 16 [5 favorites]

Ugh I'm so sorry. Can you just keep repeating a broken record phrase like "I will gladly discuss this further in person [or via videochat]"? If they follow through, you can say "Let's record this so we both have a good record to refer to in the future." I realize this isn't a great long term strategy but may temporarily interrupt the never ending cycle of disrespect via text or email.
posted by smorgasbord at 3:15 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

I was treated exactly this way by a man and his little crew of minions a few years ago- he was the lead of a technical team and I was brought in as a sort of strategist/project manager to observe the team, identify new tools and workflow for their task management with their help and input (lol), and then to project manage the implementation of that system when it was approved. He didn't think a new system was needed, he didn't think I was needed, he seemed to dislike me on a personal level, and was obstructive in every possible way. Even going so far to say "my name is Dave" when I would call him David and then "My name is David" when I would call him Dave. His team would literally giggle behind him.

I finally realised that I had been brought in SPECIFICALLY to be the fall guy for the failure of this project that had been decreed from the highest level, which everyone outside of the c-suite (including the person who hired me) was completely opposed to. When I tried to get the person who hired me to help, he told me that dealing with difficult personalities was part of the job and that he hoped I hadn't misrepresented my skills in the interview.

Anyway, having said all that, how did I survive the four months until I finally accepted the obvious and left? I stopped calling him by his name at all- emails started with hello or hi, if I needed to speak to him I would just get in his eyeline and say excuse me. If he said "what do you want me to do about that" (I got that one a lot, too) I would just answer the question as if it were a real question and not him trying to be a dick. Example: "I would very specifically like you to send me the link to the system and create access credentials for me with the permissions I need by 2pm today, so that I can create the report that our mutual boss (in copy) has asked for. Will that be possible or not?". Honestly, I just ignored every attempt to bait me and if his behaviour was going to make it impossible for me to complete work I needed to complete, I exposed that behaviour to the person who was asking for the work while reiterating my request. Every time.

Like I said I was doomed to fail from the beginning, but just making it less fun for him to fuck with me turned his behaviour from active bullying to mildly antagonistic by the time I left.
posted by cilantro at 3:38 AM on September 16 [36 favorites]

You could try phoning him immediately and saying “Hi Jirk, Your email sounded emotional, so I wanted to check in. Are things ok? Is there anything you’d like to discuss? Ok great so I’ll look forward to your report.”
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:18 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

This is a common issue with text; I think it's the hardest because there's basically no context.

Gitlab has some tips for effective text communication from their experience as an all-remote company. They have a much longer chapter on communication in their collaboratively edited handbook. Obviously better if the whole organization buys into the philosophy. I've been sharing these links occasionally at my (remote) work, not sure how many have read it.
posted by nicolaitanes at 5:33 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

Don’t respond. Pick up the phone and call, or set up a Teams meeting.
posted by haptic_avenger at 6:14 AM on September 16 [7 favorites]

Usually like haptic-avenger, I'm all for meeting in person/having a call when someone is confused. It doesn't seem like this person(s) is, though. It seems like they are willfully not understanding what they don't want to hear and I'd be concerned that they would misrepresent the meeting.

Having said that, treating this like they genuinely are having a hard time understanding the topic may be your best bet, so a live discussion could be helpful, but I think you'll want to make sure to document what you said during the call, and send a follow up written message reviewing the meeting.

Since sharing this information is a part of your job, I think you can edge into the realm of politely but firmly re-iterating that this is a conversation or information you've had/shared before, and then specifically refer to those messages. If those previous messages included some resolution where they acknowledge you are correct and are from different projects, you can soften it a bit by saying "This is actually like the situation we discussed on X date. Here's the information if you want to review if that's helpful. I know it's not what we want, but that's the way the law/regulation/physics works."

If it's literally the same thing, they just keep reasking the same question on the same project and not acknowledging your information, I'd loop in the next level up. "Joe wants the widgets to be red. Unfortunately (cite relevant code) says widgets must be blue, and he has repeatedly inquired about this without acknowledging the information I've provided. If production of blue widgets happens, we will face a penalty of X."

If you were staying here, I'd probably do an intermediate step of telling Joe, "Blue widgets will get us fined per (citation). Why do we want blue widgets? Maybe we should have a team meeting to figure out how your needs can be addressed within the legal parameters." That way it's more about finding a solution together while also getting other eyes on the possible issue.

But if you're checking out and don't want to expend the energy, just focus on documenting that you've done your job to the best of your abilities. Maybe anytime they send a snarky inquiry send a response: "Per our emails on X date, I thought you understood widgets must be red. Here are the messages for your review. If you have a new question, let me know." Or just copy and paste your messages from before.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:14 AM on September 16 [4 favorites]

My strategy for these is to respond as if they had sent you the message a nice person would have sent, and in some cases pull in your boss. I’m usually as chipper as possible when I send these, and I never apologize.

“What do you want me to do about that?” —> “Hi! Your next step is to do XYZ by Friday afternoon. Can you let me know when you’ve done XYZ? Thanks!”

“This isn’t information you should need to have.” —> “Hi! I need the XYZ report to complete the ABC project for Boss. You can reach out to her if you have any further questions. Can you send the report by Friday afternoon? Thanks again!”
posted by capricorn at 7:22 AM on September 16 [27 favorites]

I'm getting compliance/regulatory vibes

Ha, when I read this, my first thought was, "This is why, as a woman, I would never work in compliance."

You're not going to train men to act right, especially if your boss isn't 100% behind you. And if you're leaving soon, the need to change them, rather than push back just enough to soothe yourself and maintain your self-respect, is minimal. I would go with "Noted. [If needed, repeat your request/statement/whatever]." It's counter-dismissive but technically professional. I once heard it used to devastating effect in a deposition by a junior woman associate to a man partner blustering on in an extremely obnoxious manner.
posted by praemunire at 7:25 AM on September 16 [20 favorites]

I have a friend who will literally call people up “what is with your tone on that email?” She wants to know why they’re irritated (gives a clue to the underlying issue) but also the action communicates to them they can’t do these “hide behind technology” rude jabs and get away with it.

It’s the polite office version of “say that to my face next time”.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:51 AM on September 16 [15 favorites]

I have been through this myself. It was way, way worse with remote communication. What helped me was giving myself lots of space to acknowledge that I felt really bad after those communications, and to think about what bothered me. I would write it down, write it out in my journal, just to give myself some validation and support.

If you're like me, the thing leaving you feeling crummy after these interactions is the way in which you have been disrespected as a human being with feelings, and the way in which it seems you can't stand up for yourself. It's really bad for you.

Once I allowed myself to really sit with those hurt feelings (because that's what they are and that's very much ok), it became a lot easier for me to call the behaviors out for what they are. Dimunitive and hurtful.

So in your example above:

"Hi Fred, it really bothers me when you talk to me like this. I don't appreciate you minimizing my role or experience."

In other words, you say you wouldn't accept this behavior from a partner or friend. So.. how would you tell your friend, respectfully, that you won't accept it?

I never expected things to change when I did call those things out. But I did it for myself anyway. It definitely hastened the beginning of the end of my professional relationship with the company, but I found it much easier to sleep at night.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:43 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

My strategy for these is to respond as if they had sent you the message a nice person would have sent, and in some cases pull in your boss. I’m usually as chipper as possible when I send these, and I never apologize.

Strong second this. Don't get sucked in, stop explaining yourself, focus on the end goal, and cc your/their boss if necessary. Because this--the kind of thing that’s invisible until you get in trouble for not doing it--is where your authority comes from and why the powers that be should care that people are wasting your time like this.

Those messages are rude as hell. I'm sorry you're having to deal with that.
posted by Mavri at 9:44 AM on September 16 [6 favorites]

Like a few other responders above, I too would call. I find it effective to use "conversational judo," i.e., to call up and say something like, 'Your message sounds like you're frustrated but it's always hard to tell via text. So I just wanted to check to see if you're pissed off at me and if so if there's something I can do about it?" Even if they were completely in the wrong, that soft approach can go a long way to forging a better relationship.
posted by mono blanco at 10:03 AM on September 16 [3 favorites]

A few people have guessed that there might be gendered components to these interactions. If that's the case, it might be helpful if you clarified. But, I also want to say: the lines you quoted are just rude and unprofessional. The person is taking shots at you, over and over again. They definitely don't sound fine in any context. They are challenging you repeatedly.

Here's what I think you should do regardless of anything else: put every email you get from that person with a snarky or rude line in a folder so you have a record. You can then refer back to it if anything explodes or gets weirder, for HR or your boss or whatever.

Next, here's a little therapy tip I'm trying to use: if you do need to somehow describe the person's emails, don't describe their emotions, because you don't know that they're angry, upset, pissed, etc. Tone is subjective too. If the person was talking, for example, instead of saying, "He spoke with anger," you could say, "He started speaking more quickly and rose his voice." I'm not sure how this works for text and email, but my point is that you want to be literal in the description and not attribute what you can't know, like emotions.

I agree that sometimes talking on the phone can diffuse this stuff, so maybe give that a try. But they are being pretty rude, too, so I don't know if that will do anything.

I do think folks above have good suggestions, especially capricorn. However, I also had some success once calling someone out directly, via email. This was a peer who had a pattern of behavior towards me (and a few others) in a few meetings, like interrupting me with a raised voice repeatedly when others weren't treated the same and making backhanded disparaging comments (it was noted upon by other peers). It really sucked and no one ever called it out in meetings, and I didn't necessarily want to do that, but I worried that not responding was in a way allowing it to happen and might suggest to my peers and junior colleagues that I thought the behavior was okay. So, what I finally did: I wrote an email. I did it over a few days and it was pretty short and direct. I don't want to look it up, but it basically said, "Your behavior towards me is unacceptable and I need you to treat me with more respect, for my sake and also for the environment it's creating for our coworkers."

There was no response to my email but the behavior stopped completely for a while, and then it's never been as bad since.

Right now this person is being nasty and rude to you. I do think the overly friendly response could work, because they are trying to get under your skin and they are--but if you pretend they aren't, it's a way of reclaiming power for yourself. But, I also think addressing garbage behavior like this directly might be another way to stop it. The key is to try to write something direct and without emotion. Do not acknowledge that your feelings are hurt. Speak to the behavior not emotions.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:47 AM on September 16 [2 favorites]

If you're leaving anyway, ok, that does mean you can't change the world before you go. But it also might mean it's not your problem if you leave it on fire. Treat them the way you would if it was NOT your job to talk to them. Bait them into losing their temper and rashly writing something clearly actionable.

Them: [snotty request]
You: Rude. No.

So many people who think they're so good at going right up to the line but not over it, can easily be provoked over it.
posted by ctmf at 12:19 PM on September 16 [3 favorites]

It's hard to make suggestions without knowing more about your situation, but are you sure you're actually showing empathy for their situation? I'm the recipient of a lot of compliance stuff at my work, and what I've noticed is that while the individual compliance requests are phrased politely and not especially pushily, in aggregate they come off as pretty rude and disrespectful of my time. I'm thinking about things like multiple people asking me for the same piece of information with seemingly no communication between them; or being asked for the same piece of information but in multiple different formats; or asking me to fill out a framework that they've designed without checking with me first to see if it fits my system; or assigning deadlines to things that are (from my perspective) arbitrary and short without reference to whatever other deadlines I might have in my other work; or taking a long time to reply to my questions and not coming back with the data I need but just "gosh, that's a good question."

In particular, you say someone is telling you "I've told you over and over" - are you actually thinking about what they mean when they say that? If someone else thinks they are being asked for something repeatedly then it seems like either they are not understanding the difference between different requests, which is on you to explain better, or you are not organizing multiple requests properly so they can handle them all at once.

It is certainly possible this person is just a prickly jerk and there's nothing you can do to make them not be one, but it also seems possible this is a person who is overworked and on a tight deadline, just like you are, and they're lashing out because they're frustrated you're piling on what seems like unnecessary work. Before you burn all the bridges by telling them they're having a tantrum, have you tried just having a sit-down meeting with them where you explain the high-level objectives you're working towards and the information you're trying to gather, and ask them what the best way is for them to get it to you?
posted by inkyz at 2:43 PM on September 16 [2 favorites]

Also let’s say you call them with the script above, they lean in and they’re like “ya I am mad!! you didn’t … (blame complain blame)”

Then your answer is: “first: don’t text me like that. I’m not your punching bag. Second: (wicked awesome solution to their issue)”

Don’t even breathe between points just put it to them straight.

If the idea of standing up for yourself makes you nervous consider this exposure therapy and if you’re thinking of leaving any way then it’s even better risk free practice. It’ll feel bad the first time but after that it’s a freedom you’ve never know.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:40 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]

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