is it rude to respond to emails with just “ok”?

A reader writes:

This question has two parts:

1. In a professional setting, is it ever really okay to reply to an email or work related text with “ok”. I’m very new to the workforce so I don’t know if this single word, no punctuation beast is normal business or super obvious passive aggressive self important flippant jerky (and a bunch of other adjectives) behavior. It really bothers me, partly because it becomes one of those plausibly deniable gestures of irritation that are by their very nature asking not to be addressed.

Example: when texting to request a day off for a doctor’s appointment, but explaining that if I’m needed I can be flexible because it’s not super urgent, I get an “ok”. This isn’t helpful, and I read it as a professional TL;DR, whatever, eyeroll or something. My boss has actually mentioned with a chuckle sending a similar one word email to a creative director who was over editing some of her work. She’s also not swamped enough that she has no time to respond with more effort than “ok”.

2. My sister, to my great sadness and disappointment, has taken to responding to me often with single word “ok”s. For the last 5 years, she’s held a high-level position in a painfully political and subtext laden work environment where I imagine a lot of “ok”s have been shared bitterly. The terse responses from my sister match a general tendency toward treating many people in her life with the kind of “professionalism” that happens in the workplace — good and bad.This includes HR like meetings when anyone has offended her, bcc:ing me on heated emails with my mom, and just general clear workplace language and management tactics applied to personal relationships that feel alienating and condescending. And because I generally tend to hate jargon and all of the overwrought markings of being a Busy Professional, this grates on me in really bad way.

Is “ok” something that exists in every office, do I somehow elicit it from people, is it worth addressing at work, is it (plus other work spillover things) worth addressing at “home”?

Well, your workplace and your sister are two different issues. Let’s talk about the workplace issue first.

In that context, you are overreacting. Plenty of people do indeed send quick “ok” emails in the workplace. I’m not a fan of it myself, but enough people do it and don’t see anything wrong with it that you shouldn’t be reading it as passive-aggressive, self-important, or rude.

Of course, there are some contexts where it really wouldn’t be appropriate. If, for instance, your manager emailed you about a concern that she wanted you to correct and you simply responded “ok,” you’d likely come across as inappropriately flippant or curt. And in dealing with people you don’t know well, where professionalism and the impression you’re creating matters an extra amount — such as with clients or when talking to a prospective employer about a possible job — it would be inappropriate and come across as overly brusque.

But many, many people use the simple “ok” in response to routine emails at work. Whether or not it’s your style, it’s common and it’s not the loaded communique you’re taking it as.

With the example of your request to your boss for a day off, “ok” means exactly what it says — it means yes. And what’s more, you noted that you sent that request by text — when you’re texting rather than emailing, you should expect extremely short responses. That’s normal with texts. (Although even if this exchange had been by email, her response wouldn’t have been inappropriate.)

I’m just guessing here, but I’d bet that you have other issues with your boss that go well beyond this, and this is just a symptom of larger irritations or concerns.

Now, as for your sister … it sounds like the “ok” emails are the least of the issues here. The issue isn’t that she’s treating your family like she would colleagues; the issue is that she’s alienating and condescending to people. That’s not my purview, but what I can tell you is to avoid conflating the two — it will make you more annoyed about your sister and more annoyed about work, when they’re truly separate things.

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