Sluffing off my body armor, I dropped into my chair and took a long drink from the cold bottle of water sitting on my desk. Almost absent-mindedly, I pulled up Outlook on my computer to see what email I had missed during a morning of key leader engagements at the Iraqi Defense Ministry. While most were the typical tripe dealing with everything from Wednesday evening salsa night to the weekly schedule of flights out of Baghdad International Airport, one in particular caught my eye: a message from my career manager entitled “Promotion Board.” Wasting no time, I slid the mouse cursor over the message and clicked.

The email communicated information about the ongoing promotion board, for which I thought I was well-prepared. Toward the end, the sender had added a personal message about my most recent evaluation. In the parlance of a merit-based system, it was what is referred to as a “career” evaluation: written by a senior general officer, enumerated (“#1 of…), and a concrete endorsement of my promotion potential. However, the email concluded, “Your evaluation didn’t arrive in time to be included in your board file. Maybe it would have made a difference for you. Sorry ☹☹☹.”

My first thought was, “What kind of idiot puts emojis in an official email?” My second was to ask for clarification, which I did. I sat there at my desk, frustrated, annoyed, and thousands of miles from where I wanted to be at that moment. When the Outlook “ping” announced the arrival of a response, I couldn’t open it fast enough. “Per my last email,” he began, “I cannot discuss the results of ongoing boards.” Blah, blah, blah. Translation: you weren’t selected for promotion.

Deployed for yet another summer in Iraq, with no hope of promotion on the horizon, I knuckled down and did my best to stay focused on the task at hand. Summer turned into fall, and fall brought the inevitable release of the promotion list. Knowing the day before the list’s official release would be an inauspicious day—when people not selected are traditionally notified—I stuck with my standard Sunday routine: catch a little extra sleep, clean up my living area, and grab lunch in the dining facility with my team. Walking back out into the bright sun after eating, a seagull let loose on my face, covering most of my head and torso with a thick, white goo. It was going to be that kind of day. I returned to my CHU—containerized housing unit—and cleaned up before heading to my work area, where I saw a note to meet with the commanding general—my boss—that evening in his office.

I waited over an hour for the official “bad” news; the boss was late, and I was left to cool my heels outside his office. When he finally arrived, he was grinning from ear to ear. I remember thinking that was odd, considering what he was about to tell me. Then he handed me a cigar and said, “Congratulations!” Which I thought was even more odd since I knew I wasn’t on the promotion list. My boss looked at me quizzically and said, “I really thought you’d be more excited.” I explained that I knew I wasn’t on the list, that it had to be a mistake. He checked. Nope, I was on the list. Then I told him about the email from my career manager.

“What kind of idiot puts emojis in an official email?” He asked. Right? We laughed. We shared a cigar and an O’Doul’s. All was right again in the world. Then he added: “So, all this time you thought you weren’t going to be promoted? And you still showed up ready to go every day.” Yep. To be fair, it’s not like I had much of a choice. No one was going to Uber me home from Baghdad.

Email Phrases – What Do They Really Mean?

Years later, I still catch myself thinking about that email, and the many that followed that left me wondering what they really meant. Some were passive. Some were passive aggressive. Some were just downright aggressive. But they were all annoying and unnecessary, but none so much as the email with those three sad-faced emojis. We shouldn’t have to interpret email, but yet we do. Not a day goes by when an email doesn’t show up that leaves us wondering, “What do they really mean?”

  1. Per my last email. This is shorthand for, “Go back and re-read the whole email and stop asking stupid questions.” This is also a go-to phrase for people who don’t write clearly. “It’s not me, it’s you.”
  2. Hope this helps. This is a very specific email phrase that conveys two messages: “This is all you’re going to get from me” and “leave me the f@#$ alone.” Don’t mistake it for anything else.
  3. Thanks in advance. Okay, I’ll confess that I use this one, usually with people who either can’t manage their email or don’t respond to simple requests. It’s a polite way of saying, “I’m thanking you now, so you feel compelled to do whatever it is I’m asking.”
  4. Moving forward. Again, a phrase that I use from time to time. Translation: “We’re moving on. Stop wasting my time and let it go already.”
  5. Just checking in. This is the opening statement you write on any email to someone who doesn’t reply to a message in a timely manner. What it means: “I’m going to keep sending you emails on this subject until you answer. I can do this all day.”
  6. Not sure this was meant for me. When you find yourself in the midst of someone’s reply all rant, this is the most polite way of saying, “Take me off your trash email thread.” It also comes in handy when someone writes something offensive in an email, to which you can add the entire organization when replying “Not sure this was meant for me.”
  7. Sorry for being unclear. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of this one. “I’m not sorry. You’re stupid. Any five-year-old could understand this.”
  8. As stated below. Email phraseology doesn’t get much more direct than this. “Read the entire email. Not just the subject line. You’re making yourself look stupid asking questions that are spelled out in the email.”
  9. I see your point. Don’t fall for this classic email trap. This is typically followed by a comma and the word “but”, and its meaning is simple: “I couldn’t care less what you think. I’m right and that’s all that matters.”
  10. Kind regards. Context matters here. In a normal email, this is a polite closing. One your grandma would use, in fact. However, when used in conjunction with any of the phrases listed earlier, this conveys the same meaning as your middle finger.

Bottom Line: Clear Communication is Key in Email

I still wonder about those sad faces from time to time. Was there a deeper meaning there? Something that I might have misinterpreted? I later asked my career manager what they meant. He responded, “Did I do that? What kind of idiot puts emojis in an official email?”

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.