You can feel it boiling under the surface, hidden in the forced smiley at the end of that Slack message. It’s been included to take the edge off, but it still cuts through you like a knife.

It’s not a winky face. No, no, no. Definitely not a winky face. It’s more an angry, nervous & uncontrollable tick. The passive aggression inevitably emerges, like steam forcing its way through an air-vent. You can feel the anger, the veiled threat. All hidden in those cute, seemingly innocuous little emojis.

Maybe it’s a coping mechanism? Maybe they believe the smiley reflects how they think the world perceives them? Maybe they genuinely believe we will be deceived into thinking they are a chilled-out, nice, friendly person too. That they are ‘down with the little people’.


In our company, every crash or bug identified from our CEO holds a veiled threat. It may seem like nothing. An outsider would most probably assume he’s a nice guy, even. It doesn’t seem that offensive right? A simple smiley? What damage could that ever do?

But this requires knowing the person. It requires a certain skill of translation – or intepretation, if you will.

What he says:

Hey team, just thought you should know that I can’t sign up with my email address 🙂


What he actually means:

Hey people-I-have-to-pay-to-do-my-bidding-that-I-would-really-prefer-not-to-deal-with, I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on this really fucking basic problem. It is yet another sign of your incompetence &, as usual, I am the one that has to step in to resolve it.

P.S. I’ve included a nice, friendly little smiley so you can’t openly say I’m not nice to everyone! It’s there to sow a seed of doubt, but you know deep down that I’m pissed off. You know that underneath that smiley lies my anger, my threat.


And don’t think this is over-thinking it. Interpretation is required because we are not honest with each other. And that comes from the top. People don’t say what they think, out of fear, so they default to veiling their intent behind cute little rounded smileys.

That doesn’t mean we are dishonest people. It means that the culture is dishonest.

If you build a culture where everyone feels comfortable giving honest feedback to anyone else, regardless of position, then people say what they think.

Rather than veiling what they think, they say it as it is – undisguised.

A good company praises, encourages & nurtures honest feedback. A good company realises that people need to grow so that they company may grow. It realises that only through radical honesty can you discover truth & therefore make the best decisions possible.


It doesn’t matter through what medium it manifests itself, passive aggression is a sign of a culture of dishonesty & lack of respect. By identifying the symptom, you’ll identify the disease.

It may seem small, but it is the tip of the iceberg.

Therefore, you must ask yourself: are you willing to put up with that?


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