The Passive Aggressive Files: When Your Colleagues Can’t Quite Tell You the Truth

You can’t avoid speaking or writing unpleasant truths by using the passive voice. Here’s why.

A while back I wrote the first “Passive Aggressive” blog in what I had planned to be a regular series of posts. I wanted to share with you examples of this awful practice — requests, criticisms or even all-out attacks written or spoken in the passive voice — to reinforce for you just how counterproductive and even foolish this tactic is.

Just because you insult someone without using the word “you” doesn’t mean they don’t know you’re doing it. In fact, it makes you come off as both insulting and too cowardly to say or write what you mean. It can also make the other person think you view them as too stupid to realize what you’re doing.

Anyway, I had planned to write a lot more of these posts, both because I see examples of this passive-voice nonsense all the time, and also because they’re often hilarious. That was my plan… and then… things happened. Delays were necessary. Distractions occurred. Timelines were pushed.

But the other day I saw a passive-voice back and forth that was so over-the-top, it actually got me writing. So here goes. Enjoy!

Emailer #1: I have reviewed your draft of the attached white paper, and I think we need to try again. There is a fundamental lack of understanding about the subject matter in this document, and a total lack of ability to articulate a position clearly.

(You can’t write!)

Emailer #2: Issue could be taken with both the conclusion and the tone of this response. Perhaps there was a fundamental lack of care taken in review of my material.

(You can’t read!) 

My point, as always, is this: You can’t hide behind this type of language. Don’t try.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.