Mastering the Art of the Passive Aggressive Office Memo

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We've all seen them, and maybe some of us have posted them. The passive aggressive break room note like, "If this yogurt isn't yours, don't eat it." "Whoever keeps leaving his or her dirty dish in the sink, your mom isn't here to wash it for you." And of course, the age-old "If you sprinkle when you tinkle" missive, hung up in many a ladies' room, as well as the "our pipes are old, don't flush anything that's giant and obviously unflushable, you idiot." Passive aggressive and sometimes purely aggressive, these messages are an art form, having existed since the time of pen, paper, and people annoying one another in common spaces. Particularly in the office: "Please cover your mouth when you cough, because you didn't get a flu shot and your inconsiderate nature will infect us all, just like the time that you spilled a smoothie all over the floor and never cleaned it properly and my feet still stick to the linoleum YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE."

Leslie Kwoh writes in The Wall Street Journal of the latest trend in passive aggressive note-leaving around the office. The trend is that it's still happening. Yes, people are leaving passive aggressive notes around the office! In fact, this may be one form of communication that has not gone digital, perhaps because it's easier to be anonymous on a sign left in a bathroom than it is to be anonymous even in a subtweet. Kwoh writes, "You find them in every office: anonymous passive-aggressive messages festooning the office fridge, kitchen sink or bathroom stall, accusing fellow workers of crimes against collegiality–such as purloining a can of Sprite, leaving dirty mugs in the office sink or neglecting to flush the toilet."

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Passive aggressive notes don't just appear in the office, of course (we've seen them in apartment buildings, on the subway, maybe even in our own homes), and they've been documented widely on the Internet, land of aggressive-aggression as well as the passive sort. Kwoh notes that "Some workers observe these messages with an almost anthropological interest, collected on sites like, which catalogs the many styles of notes..." For reference, she includes a note she calls textbook: "Stop stealing my Hot Pockets, THIEF!"—Thief is underlined not once but twice—followed by a smiley-face punctuated "Have a nice day." Of course, if you're eating Hot Pockets in the office, you should know what you're up against.

Anyway, Kwoh talked to a psychotherapist, Linnda Durré, who says that "passive-aggression tends to spike when employees are unhappy." When people are annoyed, they send annoying notes! Also, people are likely to be annoyed because of the economy. The recession. Their jobs. That they're in an office where coworkers refuse to adhere to basic standards of neatness and decency. And so on. "Often, the employee is already dissatisfied in general, and small things just 'set them off,'" explains Durré. This is bad for company morale, generally, unless everyone uploads those notes to a website and they go viral and that can be a lot of fun.

So how best to deal with your passive aggression in the office?

If you must leave such a note, disguise your handwriting. Leave the note under cover of dark so that no one sees you do it. Don't also complain about the same issues online or verbally, or you'll be found out—instead, mock the note-leaver, who is actually you! No one will know. Study other passive aggressive notes for inspiration (see here, here, and here). This one is particularly remarkable. Type the note to cover your tracks, and also to strike fear in the heart of the note's recipient, and also because it's hard to hold a pen in one's hand when one spends all his or her time online. Don't type your note on paper that contains something you've written on the other side, even if it's just your grocery list. Don't sign your name. Try to avoid histrionics, as at right. Don't leave a passive aggressive note for yourself. Have a point, make it, and get the heck out of there.

But before you do, always do a second sweep for grammar, spelling, and syntax! Nothing undermines the authority of a good passive aggressive note like a typo or improper pronoun.

Try not to use cliches, either. It's not so hard.

If you're really, really good, you'll add a twist and go meta with your note. Don't try this at home, because whomever you've intended the note for will probably figure out quite easily it's you, especially if you live with just one other person.

Most important of all: Never admit any of this, no matter what sort of notes are left for you. Never.

Insets via Flickr/Lindsey Turner, Flickr/Steve Ganz, Flickr/Bryan Bowden, Flickr/William Clifford, Flickr/HeyGabe.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.