In 1921, the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach invented the Rorschach test, also known as the inkblot test. This psychological test asks the subject to evaluate a series of inkblots and report what shapes or images they see. Then the subject’s perceptions are assessed to determine their thought processes, preoccupations, and personality. For example, when you look at one of the inkblots, do you see the wings of a bat or a butterfly? Two hands cupped in prayer? The answers say next to nothing about the inkblot, but they reveal a lot about how you function emotionally.
At work, we come up against the equivalent of inkblots every day. Here’s one in the form of an email:
From: Jane Robinson
To: Erica Dhawan
Why didn’t you finish this? -Jane
At first glance, this is a straightforward bit of communication, probably written in a hurry. But what does Jane’s email really mean? Is this just how she learned to send emails in business school, or is there something else going on, e.g., a digital power play?
I’ll throw it back to you, Rorschach style, as we explore two common types of anxiety-provoking digital body language.
An early experience I had working at a large consulting firm taught me a lot about how stressful short, to-the-point communications can be. At the time, I thought I understood signals and cues pretty well, but I wasn’t as good as I thought.
Living and working in New York, I was in almost daily communication with a British senior partner based in London. We’d never met in person, relying exclusively on email and phone conversation. As a younger associate, I was eager to prove myself, and the London partner seemed enthusiastic about working with me too. Unfortunately, 90 percent of the time, I had no idea what he wanted or even thought.
As the senior leader on the project we were working on, he naturally set the tone of our communication style. His emails were as terse as haikus. Is Send a brief on this client any different than Fog rolls into shore. The clanging of the red buoy? Mirroring his brevity, I’d answer, Details please. The most phone time I could get with him was 7–10 minutes in between his client meetings and airport travel, and the feedback I received during these snippets of conversation only confused me more. Work on this more, he would say, and a few days later, Let’s iterate, though the collaboration implicit in that phrase never occurred. And not once did he tell me what needed more work, or iteration.
As time went on, I felt that it was impossible for me to succeed. Worse, he was unhappy with my work—I knew that—but with no guidance or feedback longer than a few email lines, I couldn’t address what was wrong.
I couldn’t do the work I felt I was capable of since (a) I never got proper digital feedback, and (b) the power imbalance left me in no position to demand it. I was left with constant project-related anxiety that only ended when I left.
Brevity from the upper echelons of power isn’t exactly uncommon. At Morgan Stanley, there was a running joke that the more senior you were, the fewer characters you needed to express your gratitude in a text or email. You started your career with Thank you so much! and after a promotion or two, this was cut down to Thanks. Another promotion produced Thx or even TX. One senior leader just wrote T.
Senior leaders have a well-deserved reputation for sending sloppy texts and sloppier emails. Poor sentences, bad grammar, atrocious spelling—we don’t have time to care! Brevity can make a person appear important, but it can also hurt your business. Getting a slapdash email means that the recipient has to spend time deciphering what it means, which causes delays and potentially leads to costly mistakes.
Employee engagement expert Dr. Jaclyn Kostner has this to say to execs about sloppiness: “You have to find the time; otherwise, you’re not fit for the job and somebody else should be doing it. Or maybe you need to offload some responsibilities, because there’s no excuse for sending people cryptic emails.” Leaders don’t have to respond to every message, but when important work guidance is required, their communications should at least be clear. Imagine how much better my first draft of the work would have been if my haiku-speaking boss would’ve taken ten extra minutes to explain his goals?
We’ve all felt it. That moment when we’re called upon to interpret phrases that could be perfectly fine but tie our stomachs into knots anyway. What does she really mean in her text when she types, Per my last email, or, Just a gentle reminder . . .
She sounds as wise and gentle as a Norse goddess—but is she actually saying, “You didn’t read what I wrote. Pay more attention, goddammit!” or, “Get this done! It’s late! I’m waiting!”?
Sometimes we perceive coded language as a microaggression, one that fuels already bad feelings among co-workers. Other times, we tell ourselves it’s probably just a phrase our boss picked up in business school and doesn’t realize how patronizing and stuffy it looks in print.
For better or worse, digital communications don’t let us see each other’s immediate reactions—which is why we look for ways to “politely” express irritation. The key word is “politely.” While some of these phrases can be construed as passive-aggressive, the truth is that busy people often use them as legitimate follow-up requests, no passive-aggressiveness implied.
Passive-aggressive feelings behind common phrases
What’s written: “Per my last email.”
What’s meant: “You didn’t really read what I wrote. Pay attention this time!”
What’s written: “For future reference”
What’s meant: “Let me correct your blatant “mistake” that you already knew was wrong.”
What’s written: “Bumping this to the top of your inbox.”
What’s meant: “You’re my boss, this is the third time I’ve asked you. I need you to get this sh*t done.”
What’s written: “Just to be sure we’re on the same page.”
What’s meant: “I’m going to cover my ass here and make sure that everyone who refers to this email in the future knows that I was right all along.”
What’s written: “Going forward.”
What’s meant: “Do not ever do that again.”
So how should we frame our own just following up on this without engaging in any passive-aggressiveness ourselves? When is it considered okay to loop in our boss without seeming like a jerk? When do we text a response rather than emailing it? When do we use the phone to call and clarify something?
If you have a high level of trust, opt for the phone call, and don’t hesitate to respond quickly and informally. If you have less trust or a higher gap in power levels, be specific and polite in your responses and use formal channels.
From Digital Body Language by Erica Dhawan. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Erica Dhawan is a leading expert on 21st century collaboration and innovation. She is an award winning keynote speaker and the author of the new book Digital Body Language. Download her free guide to “End Digital Burnout.”