FYI, see below

The email haze.
The email haze.
Image: The Atlantic/Ian Bogost
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Email is the worst, but some emails are worse than others. The worst emails are forwards. And the worst forwards? Not the jokes your uncle sends you from his AOL account, but the ones your boss or your coworkers send along from some obscure corner of Administrivistan.

Most work emails are purely defensive missives. They seek to shift effort, hide omissions, or provide cover against future blame. Emails simulate work: Rather than getting something done, you create a futures market for excuses and rationales for not getting them done. Thanks to precarity, the modern workplace demands the construction of layers of protective virtual ramparts to shield the worker from possible future reproach.

Email has become the primary brick out of which such fortresses are fashioned. An email is a one-sided agreement made in secret. Once sent, it takes on the air of accord. This is why “Didn’t you get my email?” is a workplace trump card. “Hey, I did my part. It’s not my fault if you dropped the ball.”

Somehow, this logic persists even despite the tragedy of the commons it produces. When everyone sends CYA emails in their own interest, nobody has time even to scan them all to separate the signal from the noise. And so email has become the Sisyphean drudgery we know so well: digging through the piles of chaff on the off chance that an edible seed might have been left behind.

Amidst this dour situation, a special type of email emerges: the corporate forward. Unlike the forwarded joke, which your uncle actually means for you to read and enjoy along with him, the corporate email forward is meant to transfer the obligation to act from one agent to another.

Some email forwards make specific requests and thereby consummate delegation. Your boss forwards a request and asks you to deal with it. A colleague doesn’t know the answer to a question or a problem and sends it on to a specialist who might be able to help. A traffic manager in finance or procurement sends on a form or an inquiry in need of completion. These are the workhorses of the forward, and for all the irritation they cause, they do so in earnest.

But a special variety of email forward always acts malignantly, as passive-aggressive labor. There are two versions of this email, best identified by the one-line, one-phrase message bodies that precede the forward itself: FYI, and See below.

one line email
(Ian Bogost)

The gentler and more ambiguous of the two is the FYI. A forward preceded by FYI might, in fact, be passed along “for your information.” A heads up about an upcoming event or deadline, or a new insight into the status of a deal in the works. FYI almost means it.

It doesn’t really matter what the forward actually includes. It could be a request from a customer or client or boss or co-worker. It could be an invitation to a meeting or an event or a conference call or a webinar. It could be a notice of a policy or a change in procedure.

The purpose of the forward is not to share the information contained below the fold—what linguists and philosophers call a locution, that is, the actual meaning of the phrase uttered—at least not primarily. Instead, the forward works as aperlocution, an utterance that hopes to get an interlocutor to do something without explicitly asking for it.

This is what the corporate forward does. FYI says “for your information,” but it means something else. The possibilities are endless, but might include unspoken messages like “I told you so and hereby demand your contrition” or “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I might blame you if you do it wrong later.”

The granddaddy of perlocutionary email forwards is See below. When a forward comes with this prefix, it carries all the weight of FYI with the additional baggage of clear but unspecified obligation. FYI might or might not make an implicit request or demand, but See below always does.

The thing is, the best See belows never quite reveal what they are after, even if it’s clear they are after something. This is why it’s so infuriating to receive a See below. What does this email want from me? Sometimes it’s clear—a specific request in the forward itself, for example. But more often, the See below email purposely refuses to make such a request or demand clear.

Why? Ultimately, the power of the corporate email forward comes from the fact that its contents go unprocessed. Rather than make direct requests, we obfuscate. We prevaricate. As with driving, the best way to work today is defensively: Insure you can never be put in a position where your words, deeds, or ideas can be traced back and used against you. See below offers the ultimate version of precarity-induced prevarication: It forces the recipient to make a move rather than the sender.

So, what to do with emails like FYI and See below? You can’t ignore them; sending an email always trumps letting one go unanswered (or even unseen). Unfortunately, the only move left is to respond, but play dumb, asking your interlocutor to clarify what, precisely, is the relevance of the enclosed “information” in the FYI, or which aspect of the material below in the See below requires action—and what type of action, as long as we’re at it. (Or maybe, if you’re really feeling punchy, you could respond with nothing more than a link to this article.)

Of course, such tactics are too time-consuming and soul-crushing for most of us to perform on the one hand, and they just perpetuate the scourge of corporate email culture on the other. But one dubious hope does remain. Perhaps we’ll finally reach the point when the only thing worse than losing your corporate job on account of not playing the passive-aggressive game is having to work that job in the first place.

This post originally appeared at The Atlantic. More from our sister site: 

How canned baby food became king

Should the US make standardized tests harder?

The origins of aggressive atheism