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I have a coworker that I have to correspond with once or twice a week for a particular task. In person, they are relatively normal and cheerful, both in and out of a professional context, and we get along fine.

The problem is that this person's emails are short, condescending, snippy and generally grating to be exposed to over and over again. The simplest question is answered with disdain for not knowing the answer, and any requests of me are nothing short of demands. There's no niceness at all, and any opportunity to include a 'clearly, 'of course' or 'you should be aware' is taken.

This person is not my superior in any way (in fact I suspect I am above them in the company hierarchy), so I'm plain confused as to why they would treat me so disrespectfully over email.

So far I have been ignoring it and replying as my usual cheery self, but the temptation to snip back at them is growing daily.

Is there a way i could gently and professionally demonstrate how offensive their emails are, or educate them on correct email etiquette?

Edit: some clarifications based on comments:

  • I am more technical than him, however the other party has been doing what they do for quite a while.
  • The condescending tone applies to all topics we discuss over email, including things that are my domain and know a lot about.
  • We work in entirely separate departments, with a long string of bosses in between us, hence the unknown exact superiority. Our relationship exists because we handle a bit of the same data for different reasons.

closed as off-topic by gnat, scaaahu, paparazzo, Mister Positive, JasonJ May 17 '17 at 13:07

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    Seeing you get along great in person. Have you considered asking your coworker? – Pieter B May 17 '17 at 7:19
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    You may need to clarify what is your qualification and his so we can provide a better answer. Specifically if you're on the "non technical side" while he is, this is perfectly normal that you don't know. IF he's a cheerfull person when you talk to him, then maybe its his way to point out things he thinks you should be aware and he has really no malicious intention at all. – Walfrat May 17 '17 at 7:26
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    Are you sure this person doesn't just dislike email and happens to have a rather terse style of writing? Text is notoriously bad at conveying emotions; if they're cheerful in person then maybe this is just how they write and they don't mean anything by it. – Erik May 17 '17 at 8:01
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    Are you sure it is condescending? it is often hard to convey tone in an email. – SaggingRufus May 17 '17 at 12:23
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    clearly, of course and you should be aware could well be their attempt to avoid giving offense when detailing stuff they suspect you possibly/probably don't need explaining. As stated above, "text is notoriously bad at conveying emotions". – Grimm The Opiner May 17 '17 at 12:59
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I think the danger for you to 'sink to his level' to quote you, is when he is wrong, and you are right.

You don't want to go this way, as you say yourself, as it would only make things more hostile.

There is a number of options i see, and the best one is the uncomfortable conversation. Just tell him/her that he sounds condescending, when you ask simple questions - maybe bring a few examples, and try to explain why it bothers you. - Trick: When you start a sentence with 'I feel' it doesn't sound judging - and it's a good way to engage the conversation, where he still feels like he is allowed to explain.

Another solution, which is worse in my opinion (depends on the level of condescending behavior. If it's really bad, this would probably be the way to go) is to go to the management with this. Maybe bring some of the really bad responses he has given you over the period, and tell them you can't work with this behavior. Obviously this is only if you can't take it anymore, and the other person is REALLY condescending.

Another way would be to point out when he is wrong, in a playful matter. if he tells you 'it's obviously best with option A' and you know it's not, play on that. But be careful not to be too passive aggressive.

I would recommend the first option before the others, I just provided those for some alternatives, if you can't engage in that conversation for some reason. Also I don't really have an idea of HOW bad this is, and therefore it's hard to tell which way to go.

  • I'm not sure telling someone "you sound condescending" is going to change anything, if it doesn't make it worst. And I really don't think you can go to your manager to say "that guy from an other department is condescending". – sh5164 May 17 '17 at 8:31
  • if you don't want to engage a conversation with your coworker or your manager - what options are left? – Jonas Praem May 17 '17 at 9:27
  • I didn't say talking with your coworker is not reasonable, it's going to see him and straight forward tell him "You're condescending and here is why" that makes me think he can't react well to that. And for the manager, it just that it's not in his field, since the other guy is not in his team. – sh5164 May 17 '17 at 9:30
  • Not exactly what I meant. And YES it's the manager's field. If the manager isn't on team with the condescending coworker - the manager should talk with that person's manager to find a solution. – Jonas Praem May 17 '17 at 9:37
  • I think I like this answer the best, especially the part about playing with the language a bit and at least having some fun with it. If its an ego thing, then it should go straight over their head, but if not they might start to realise how it sounds and stop doing it. – Ucinorn May 17 '17 at 23:59
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I recently had an incident similar to this where a normally cheerful colleague was condescending and (sometimes) rude with their choices of words in emails. When I realised she was using the same tone with customer emails, as her superior I had to step in. I discretely mentioned that her tone could be interpreted as aggressive or rude by those who don't know her well, and that a more positive, or at least neutral style, might be more suitable. In this case the negative style was unintentional.

Do you have colleagues who also communicate with the person you mentioned? If you have their confidence, you could ask them if they notice the same tone. It may transpire that - as Erik suggested - they simply have a terse writing style with no malicious intent. If it transpires that all this negativity is aimed at you, that could be a different matter.

The context of the emails is important too. If you are - for example - asking the same general questions each week when looking at an old email would answer the question, your colleague would rightfully get a bit annoyed by repeatedly replying. It might be worthwhile giving a more fleshed-out example (if you think it won't give you away!). If you are being rudely spoken down to for otherwise-normal queries, then it may be worth asking your manager if this is a problem worth pursuing.

If your colleague is being deliberately condescending or rude, you're doing the right thing by not stooping to his level. If your colleague is disciplined about it later, your emails will be right alongside his as evidence.

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    A lot of people don't realize their tone in email, either. – enderland May 17 '17 at 15:28
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I'd like to go to another point of view : is the tone of the answer preventing you from doing your job?

I mean, if at the end of the day, you did get all the information(and possible actions) you did need, the tone of the email is definitively not a big probem. You've got a real problem only if some things you need are actually not transmitted to you, and the tone of the answer goes with a withdrawal of information.

In the first case, well, just swallow your ego, as long as you can work. The expected benefit(having more polite emails) is not worth the risk(worsening the relations) - any action can always backfire. In the second case, OTOH, other's answers are the way to go. Diplomatically, of course.

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    Agree, we might need some clarification on the level of condescension to give a good answer. Because yes, if it's subtle, then the solution for this is to just wear your 'professional helmet' and deal with the interactions like you would with a client (deflect their attitude). – Jonas Praem May 17 '17 at 9:45

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