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.
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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.

12 Yoga Poses To Undo The Damage Of Your Desk Job
Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)(01 of 12)
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If you only do one yoga pose after a long day at work, make it a downward-facing dog, a holistic pose that stretches and strengthens many parts of the body. To come into the pose, move into an inverted "V' shape. With hands outstretched in front and you, lift the hips and ground the feet (at about hips-width apart) into the floor. Ground all the fingers into the floor and point them forward, bring your attention to the breath as you enjoy the stretch for 30-60 seconds. "It helps you lengthen and strengthen muscles in the body," says Vidya Bielkus, certified yoga teacher and co-founder of Health Yoga Life. "It reduces tension in the shoulders, relaxes the neck, and lets a little more blood flow get to the brain. You're also able to really stretch the legs, so if you're sitting all day, the legs are getting inactive." The pose is also great for stretching out the wrists and hands, which may become sore or tired from hours of typing. (credit: Getty)
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)(02 of 12)
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Counter a long day of contracting the back with this powerful back and chest-opening posture. Come to a comfortable standing position with feet hips-width apart, bring your hands up over your head with palms facing forward and thumbs hooked as you bend gently backwards and breathe deeply. "This is a powerful pose to free up tight chest muscles," Bielkus says. (credit: Getty)
Fish Pose (Matsyasana)(03 of 12)
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Fish pose is an excellent tension reducer, and can also be therapeutic for fatigue and anxiety, according to Yoga Journal. To come into the pose, sit up on your hips with legs stretched out together in front of you and toes pointed. Bring your hands under your hips and lean back to prop yourself up on your forearms. Then, lift the chest above the shoulders and drop the head back to the ground behind you. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for 15-30 seconds. Fish pose "releases tension in the neck, throat, and head, helps stretch the chest muscles and opens up the lungs," Bielkus says. (credit: Getty)
Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)(04 of 12)
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A forward bend provides a soothing feeling of release -- making the pose therapeutic for stress and anxiety -- and with the added arm bind, this standing forward bend variation provides a deep shoulder stretch as well. Stand with your feet at hips-width distance, and slowly bend forward from the hips to come into the forward bend. To take the strain off the lower back, bend the knees slightly. Then, try adding an arm bind to stretch the shoulders: Interlace your hands at the lower back and stretch the arms over your head and hands towards the ground in front of you. For those with tight shoulders, hold a belt between your hands, allowing the shoulders to get a deep but less intense stretch. "By binding the hands, you also allow the arms to stretch and tight shoulders to relax," Bielkus says. "After sitting all day, it's a great idea to turn your world upside down and bring some blood back to the brain while getting a great stretch for the legs." (credit: Getty)
Cat & Cow Pose (Marjaryasana & Bitilasana)(05 of 12)
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Cat-cow tilts can be an effective headache reliever, in addition to opening up the back and stretching the spine. Start with hands and knees on the floor in a tabletop position with a neutral spine. On the inhale, round the spine and curve up into your cat pose (pictured above). On the exhale, arch the back and lift the chest to come into a cow pose. Repeat three to five times, focusing on the breath. "It also helps bring the neck back into the position over the spine -- people tend to protrude it forward, and this pose brings the vertebrae back to homeostasis," Bielkus says. (credit: Getty)
Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)(06 of 12)
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This pose helps to open the hips and ease sciatica discomfort that can be made worse by sitting for long periods. Sit up tall with the soles of the feet touching and knees spreading open, bringing the feet in toward the pelvis and clasping your hands around your feet. Flap the knees up and down several times like butterfly wings, then sit still and focus the weight of the hips and thighs into the floor, easing pain in the sciatic nerve. "The sciatic nerve starts in the lower back and runs down both leg, and sciatic nerve pain can occur when the nerve is somehow compressed," Bielkus says. "Long commutes and sitting for long periods of time exacerbates it." (credit: Getty)
Slow Neck Stretches(07 of 12)
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To counter neck discomfort from staring down at a keyboard or phone, Bielkus recommends a few repetitions of yogic slow neck stretches. Sitting in a cross-legged pose, lean the head to the right and extend the left arm and hand toward the ground until you feel a deep stretch on the left side of the neck. Breathe deeply and hold for a few breath cycles, repeating on the other side. You can also try standing in Mountain Pose and stretching the neck to one side, gently pulling with the same hand. "This can also easily be done standing anywhere, even in a cubicle," she says. "It eases neck tension and strain." (credit: Getty)
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)(08 of 12)
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"This pose is an accessible back bend for most people," Bielkus says. "It lengthens the spine, opens up the chest and counteracts sitting hunched over all day." Lying on the floor, put your hands on the ground slightly in front of you and tuck the elbows into the chest. Push up into your hands, lifting into a slight backbend and drawing the shoulders down. Turn your gaze upwards, and try not to take any tension into the face or jaw. (credit: Getty)
Half Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana)(09 of 12)
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The hips can get tight from long hours of sitting. To improve flexibility and range of motion in the hips, and open up the chest and shoulders, try a half pigeon pose. Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, sliding the right knee forward and left leg back, as pictured above, trying to bend the front leg at a 90-degree angle. Sit up tall, and on the exhale, hinge the chest forward and bring the arms out in front of you to feel a deep stretch. "A half pigeon is great for opening up the hips," Bielkus says. If you're particularly tight in the hips, try rolling up a blanket under the hips and sitting upright, and then gently hinging forward. (credit: Shuttershock)
Child's Pose (Balasana)(10 of 12)
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"Child's pose helps us turn inside and slow our minds down," Virayoga founder Elena Brower recently told The Huffington Post. The foundational resting pose in many yoga classes, the soothing Child's Pose can help put the mind at ease while also gently opening up the back, hips and shoulders, according to Bielkus. Sit down with your legs folded beneath you, toes touching and knees spread apart from each other. Drape your chest down between your thighs, bringing your forehead to the floor and either extending the arms out in front of you or resting them by your sides. Breathe deeply and rest in the pose for as long as desired. (credit: Getty)
Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)(11 of 12)
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"This pose opens the hips and groin and is very calming for the mind and body," Bielkus says. Happy Baby Pose is accessible even for beginners, but still provides an excellent stretch for the hip joints, which can get stiff from too much sitting. Lie down on your back, draw the knees into your chest and grab your feet from the inside, pulling them down so the knees extend on either side of your torso. If the stretch is too intense, grab behind your thighs. Try to bring the hips down to the floor. Breathe deeply and rock gently side to side, returning to stillness at your center for 30 seconds. (credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="Flickr" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="5c619182e4b0910c63f35750" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="http://www.flickr.com/" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="before_you_go_slideshow" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="4" data-vars-position-in-unit="12">Flickr</a>:<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/30011527@N05/6153759377" role="link" class=" js-entry-link cet-external-link" data-vars-item-name="lululemon athletica" data-vars-item-type="text" data-vars-unit-name="5c619182e4b0910c63f35750" data-vars-unit-type="buzz_body" data-vars-target-content-id="http://www.flickr.com/photos/30011527@N05/6153759377" data-vars-target-content-type="url" data-vars-type="web_external_link" data-vars-subunit-name="before_you_go_slideshow" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="5" data-vars-position-in-unit="13">lululemon athletica</a>)
Sitali Breathing(12 of 12)
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This cooling breath is the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day. "It releases tension in body and mind, and helps us relieve stress and anger and brings us to a more balanced and clear state," says Bielkus. To perform this refreshing pranayama exercise, sit in a chair or on the floor in an easy crossed-legged position with your eyes closed. Stick your tongue out and curl up its outer edges. (If you're having trouble tongue curling, try your best and form a slight “O” with the mouth). Inhale through the mouth, letting the air pass over the tongue, feeling a cool breath, and then exhale through your nose. "Continue long rhythmic breathing for three minutes," she says. "You'll feel totally refreshed!" (credit: Getty)
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