Why Replying 'OK' In Work Chats Sounds So Aggressive, According To An Internet Linguist

It's one of the most secretly fraught words to use with co-workers.
When we use "okay," "OK," "kk" or other variations of the word at work, we may convey meanings we don't intend.
Adan Perez / EyeEm via Getty Images
When we use "okay," "OK," "kk" or other variations of the word at work, we may convey meanings we don't intend.

“OK” is a basic word of acceptance we say out loud to show agreement, but when you use it in digital workspaces such as Slack, Google Chat or email, you may be unwittingly communicating negativity or aggression.

In the mind of an anxious employee, an “OK” or “okay” can become proof of hostility and judgment in text-based communication. When the boss answers a deadline request with just “OK” in an email, the two-letter word can suddenly sound harsh. When a colleague replies to a paragraph-long question with a one-letter “k” on Slack, it can send us into an anxious tailspin, worried the sender is mad at us. Why does simply saying “okay” ― or any of its other forms, such as the briefer “OK,” “kay” and “k,” or the bubbly “kk” ― not always sound OK online?

One expert has an answer.

“These really subtle things are often what our vague social impressions are made out of.”

- Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist

More words in general sound more polite

Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist and author of the upcoming book Because Internet, said OK is not inherently rude but the length of a reply matters.

“Anything that’s shorter can sound curter, anything that’s longer can sound more polite,” McCulloch said. In other words, your “kay” may sound like a throwaway answer to the recipient.

This may be one subconscious reason many of us pad our OKs with cheery qualifiers like “OK, great” or “OK, sounds good” to convey that we come in peace. Those extra words can make all the difference.

“Having two things there, it makes it seem as if you have gone through a bit of an extra effort, and it’s that extra effort that makes something more polite,” McCulloch said. “These really subtle things are often what our vague social impressions are made out of.”

Use “kk” or an exclamation point to soften responses

McCulloch noted that English speakers do not have a formal or informal “you” to give clarity on whether someone is being polite, so we often employ other subtle cues to convey a collegial tone online.

“Kk” is an example. When we shoot back an answer with “kk,” we’re doing what’s called reduplication in linguistics: repeating a word or part of a word to convey some meaning.

“I think [‘kk’ is] probably doing what the reduplication in ‘bye-bye’ is doing. It’s softening it,” McCulloch said.

When we communicate face-to-face, we use gestures and facial expressions to convey friendliness of our OK; online, we can deploy “kk” and “OK!” to add some enthusiasm to the brief answer “OK.”

“The exclamation mark can indicate that kind of raised tone of voice or polite social smile,” McCulloch said.

You think about this less if you are a boss or an older person

Here’s a hard truth for employees debating word phrasing and exclamation point placement in messages to higher-ups: Bosses do not have to worry about this as much. “In general, people are more polite to people who have more power over them, and that is true online as well,” McCulloch said. “Your boss does not spend that much time psychoanalyzing you, because they don’t have to.“

Still, who is saying the “OK” matters. “The same message coming from a boss versus coming from a co-worker can feel ruder, just because you know that there is that power imbalance,” McCulloch said.

The anxiety over “okay” versus “OK” versus “kk” may also depend on what era of internet you grew up in.

“I think there is a generational split in terms of how much people infer tone of voice from internet communication, from punctuation marks and word choice and capitalization, all these types of subtle cues that can substitute for tone of voice in the written domain,” McCulloch said.

She said that older people tend to infer less tone of voice from internet connection than younger people. While a younger person may find a period at the end of a message to be ominous, for example, an older person may be more surprised that anyone is reading meaning into their periods at all, she said.

We can all be better at using OKs

Take your lead on your form of “okay” based on what you see around you, McCulloch suggested. “Generally what I try to do in emails is mirror what the other person is doing,” she said. “If I see someone else saying things like ‘ok cool,’ I can do something in that family.”

And before you twist yourself into a pretzel over whether the pointedly brief “k” might come across as passive-aggressive, consider your history with the person. Do they always use this punctuation or phrase?

“If someone has a particular quirk that they always do something that way, that’s probably because they think that’s normal,” McCulloch said.

Being less anxious about communicating with co-workers online also comes down to being aware of what you can control. Take solace in knowing that you are not a mind reader of your co-workers’ thoughts. Instead of immediately jumping to the worst conclusion about someone’s “OK,” take a step back and give the “OK” offender the benefit of the doubt for why they may be answering like this. It can save you time, too: In the hour that you worry over a paragraphs-long response filled with hedges and qualifiers, you could actually be doing your job.

“In the cases where they’re not telling you to eff off, and they’re not telling you that you’re a terrible person, and it’s a question of what does this period mean, maybe we can use our words and ask if there’s a genuine problem or extend people the benefit of the doubt a bit more,” McCulloch said.

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