We’ve all been there: Staring at an email inbox stacked with one irritating message after the next. The damage control can seem too overwhelming to tackle, especially at the end of the day when the only ones remaining are the ones you’ve worked hardest to avoid. Where to begin responding? And what’s with all these tone-deaf emailers?
The annoying email doesn’t come in just one flavor. Chances are you’ve encountered at least one of these types of emails in the course of your workday. Here’s how to knock them off your plate as gracefully as you can:
You leave your desk for a cup of coffee, come back, and find an email chain 20-deep with responses at the top of your inbox. There’s no turning back once the dunce who forgot to BCC a giant group of people hits “send.” “Once you’re in that nightmare, you just have to wait until the agony dies down,” says Peggy Duncan, founder of the Digital Breakthroughs Institute.
Still, there are things you can do to minimize the irritation. You can ask the person who first reached out to call a full-stop on the email by BCC-ing the group. Or you can simply find ways to keep the messages out of your inbox. Use the “mute” button in Gmail, found under the “More” tab to hide future messages in the chain. Microsoft Outlook has a similar feature under its “Home” tab called “ignore.”
Sadly, some reply-all chains just can’t be ignored, like the ones your boss sends to set up a meeting. Just when you think you’ve finally arrived at the perfect time when everyone can make it, Suzie comes back from lunch and announces she’s out of town that day and the whole deluge starts all over again.
Make a Doodle poll. It may seem too type-A for your taste, but embedding a poll that lets everyone in the email easily track when each person is available will make things easier for the group. Plus it’s free.
Finding yourself on the receiving end of an email you weren’t supposed to see is a tricky situation. Sometimes you can laugh it off, but when nasty words are flying, what do you do?
“I advise my clients to just ignore it,” says Duncan. “If it’s malicious, you can’t ignore it, but if it’s petty, it’s just not worth your time.”
Say the exchange is downright mean and you can’t find it in you to ignore. Don’t rattle off an angry email you might regret later. Pick up the phone. “People will craft their responses. With the phone they aren’t expecting it and you get a more organic answer from them,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of Etiquette Expert. If you’re upset about something, let the person you’re having a conversation with hear your voice. And if you’ve accidentally discovered that person is a major jerk, maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship.
There’s nothing like a short and sweet email that gets right to the point, but sometimes you get a short email that’s ignored what you asked altogether. “A lot of times people are on their smartphone, hitting ‘reply’ under the table during a meeting,” says Duncan. When you write back, be clear in your subject line that you need more info. Bullet-point your questions and give a specific timeframe for when you need a response. “You’re going to have to go back until you get what you need,” she says.
There are so many ways to be passive aggressive by email: simply ignoring a message, CC-ing the boss, adding smiley faces or exclamation marks as a way to mask anger. People writing a passive-aggressive email are working hard to hide the fact that they’re angry, even if their sour attitude comes across loud and clear.
Match someone’s passive-aggressive tone with your own and you’re asking for it. Passive-aggressive people don’t know how to appropriately express their anger, but that doesn’t mean you want to play their game. “Don’t give someone the power to turn you into the type of person you don’t like to be,” writes Preston Ni, author of the book How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People in Psychology Today.
Overall the best way to deal with annoying email is to be direct. You can’t change someone who has communication problems, but you can avoid getting mixed into their mess. Keep your emails direct and to the point. Don’t let emotions into the equation. And whatever you do, don’t take it personally. It’s just email.