By Suzy Strutner, managing editor
⏰ 4-minute read
Most of us business folk are familiar with passive phrases in emails, like “If it’s not too much trouble …” and “I was wondering if …”.
Leadership experts recommend swapping this passive language for wording that more succinctly cuts to the point, or omitting it altogether.
If you tend to write passive-sounding emails, practice writing with a sense of authority and assuredness that you’ve got pure intentions.
“Hey there! Sorry to bug you. I was just wondering if you could [do this thing you already said you’d do]?”
Most of us business folk are familiar with emails that are extremely deferential in language, like the one above. While receiving such a note might irk the receiver, it’s often more annoying to the sender, who recognizes they’re using submissive wording but just can’t seem to stop. (I’m speaking from experience here. ♀️) This can come into play especially often when sending cold emails as a founder.
Some might say that using phrases like the above constitutes being polite -- to a venture capital partner, to a supplier you hope to work with or to a bigwig you want to bring onto your board. However, many of us who use these words sense that we’re being passive in a way that doesn’t allow us to flex our leadership muscles in their full range of motion.
An air of passivity is especially apparent when you see all of these phrases lined up together:
Every work email I send:— Emily Murnane (@emily_murnane) October 19, 2018
Sorry to bug you!
Was just wondering
(If it’s not too much trouble)
Would it be possible to do thing you said you’d do?
Totally fine if not!
Prob my fault anyway I’m an idiot :)
Sorry to bother you!
Sorry I exist!
Just let me know!
To help settle the “polite vs. passive” debate, we asked a handful of experts to weigh in. Their opinions were similar: Whether a phrase is “polite” or “passive” depends on the reason you’re using it.
“The intention behind a phrase is what determines whether it is ‘too passive’ or just ‘polite,’” said executive coach Eleni Kelakos. “… I believe we can discern the difference by noting the need to please at all costs that is at the core of phrases that are passive in nature. For example, wanting to be respectful of someone’s time is polite. Kissing up to them by being overly solicitous in order to impress them, please them or ingratiate yourself to them is passive.”
If you struggle with using passive language in your emails, you shouldn’t be afraid to start writing with a more direct tone, said Cynthia Pong, a career coach who works mostly with women of color. There’s no need to put yourself down, not even subtly through typed words.
“Carrying oneself with the same amount of power and dignity as another person is not the same as being rude or impolite,” she said. “… I would say the ‘litmus test’ of whether language is ‘too passive’ or simply polite is whether the language is part of a larger effort to minimize one’s presence, voice and power relative to [another’s].”
"I would say the ‘litmus test’ of whether language is ‘too passive’ or simply polite is whether the language is part of a larger effort to minimize one’s presence, voice and power relative to [another’s].”
Our trio of experts -- which also included women’s leadership coach Sally Helgeson -- universally agreed that the following phrases are usually passive when used in emails. They also recommended what to say instead:
Sorry to bug you!
Instead, try: “Thank you for your time / consideration / attention.” (Or simply omit this and get straight to your request.)
I was wondering if … ?
Instead, say: “What are your thoughts on…?” or “I’m writing to see if …?”
Does that make sense?
Instead, say: “Please let me know if you have any questions.”
If it’s not too much trouble … ?
Instead, say: “Could you please … ?”
Would it be possible to [do that thing you said you’d do]?
Instead, say: “When will [that thing] be done? Please let me know of any issues that could prevent you from meeting that deadline.”
Let me know!
Instead, say: “Please let me know by [deadline].”
The experts also noted that sounding less passive isn’t so much about what you do say as what you don’t say. In many cases, the easiest way to up your authority in emails is to avoid gratuitous language altogether.
“Rule number one: Get to the point,” Pong said. “Speak or write in declarative sentences. Be respectful of people’s valuable time, which means less is more -- less apologizing, less fluff, fewer words.”
Our experts agreed that lots of times, you can get rid of passive language altogether and still make perfect sense in your email.
Passive words and phrases that you can omit include:
♀️ I hope that’s OK!
♀️ Thank you so much [for doing your job].
♀️ Totally fine if not [possible for you to do this thing I’m asking]!
(... as in “just checking in,” “just let me know” and “just wondering if.” Anytime you want to use “just,” just cut it out and keep writing the rest of your sentence.)
The bottom line
Overall, reducing the passivity of your emails means being confident in your motivation for sending them, said Kelakos. Assure yourself that your goal in sending a note isn’t to unfairly assert dominance over someone; it’s to accomplish important work as a team.
When it comes to emails, “If your intention is to communicate clearly, effectively and respectfully, you can be polite and assertive at the same time,” she said.
That’s “just” what we needed to hear.