We’ve all seen them. Most of us have written them at some time or another. And we’ve all either laughed at them or become infuriated by them – occasionally both at the same time.
The passive-aggressive note has become something of an office tradition, sticky-taped over the kitchen microwave, stuck to someone’s desk or pinned up on the noticeboard, denouncing, decrying and deploring some hapless staffer’s behaviour for all to see and shame.
But passive-aggressive notes can be helpful in the workplace, according to experts – especially with humour and creativity thrown in.
Some of the world’s best are classic works of poetry or prose, with the hilarity factor somehow ramped up by the professional office setting.
A demand by one note-writer is scolded by another ticking them off not for what they said, but how they chose to say it …
Notes about food being stolen from the office fridge or cupboard are perhaps the most common, and often the most poignant. They can make you smile, but also stab at your heart.
Dr Janet Fitzell, director of Fourleaf Consulting who works extensively in the field of organisational development, in close contact with managers and leaders, says some of the politics that go on in offices can be helpful as they bring different perspectives to debate.
In this way, notes can provide alternative views on people or standards of behaviour in a corporate setting.
But on the other hand …
“Leadership has a lot to do with developing a healthy culture in which people want to work and are respectful towards each other,” she says.
“When you get office cultures where it becomes necessary to post notices in kitchens and offices, it says something about that culture.
“Why would people who maintain a tidy and healthy home behave in a different way in the office? You see in the workplace sinks full of dirty dishes and spilt sugar not wiped up, which wouldn’t happen in those people’s homes.
“So there are lessons there for how workplace managers can manage and support an office culture that ensures everyone can be the best they can be.”
But when those notes are left, their sternness can be memorably lightened by a serving of humour.
Here, in another situation of food going missing, the potency of the ticking-off is undermined by the thief – or someone making fun of everyone involved – fighting back.
“Often notes in the office are left by people complaining that someone’s taken something of theirs, or isn’t cleaning up their mess,” says Natalie Khoury, of Rise-Up Coaching, who spends a great deal of time helping people in offices get on with each other better or deal with disagreements.
“If they’re a bit aggressive, they can create office gossip and impact on the way someone – either the note-writer or the target of the note – is perceived.
“But if a note is written well, and includes and joke or something to make someone smile, then it can be a lot more effective.”
Sometimes, however, it can be the wrong-doer, or someone sympathetic to them, who gets the last laugh.
Notes can explore numerous ways to try to punish or deter food thieves.
Some suggest food owners added a little something extra to their meals and refreshments before putting them into the fridge.
Of course, it’s tough if everyone knows who the wrong-doer might be, or makes them think that everyone knows who they are.
But it can be entertaining seeing notes that make their point in a colourful, or creative, way.
Khoury makes the point that, really, we shouldn’t be leaving notes at all.
There should be clear protocols laid down by office managers, and employees should take on the responsibility of following them correctly.
“It should be up to the management or leadership to set expectations in an office, rather than staff leaving notes for other staff,” she says.
And while a good passive-aggressive note can be delightful in getting a point across while avoiding conflict, some can be rather less than politically correct, but funny nonetheless.
Dr Fitzell says the curt note seems to be a phenomenon rising in popularity in toilet cubicles.
“Most recently I’ve seen a lot of notes in toilets talking about the behaviour that’s expected of people in the toilets,” she says.
“The ones in unisex toilets are particularly interesting about the need to avoid splashing on the seats, and so on.”
Other notes can be just as humorous, but also quite brutal.
And at the end of the day, it can all simply get too much.