This Is How To Master The Art Of The Professional Clapback

Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
This story was originally published on September 1, 2017.
Not all fantasies involve romance. For example, for many people, a dream day at work might go something like this: You arrive on time, feeling focused and alert. You have a full day, but are prepared for each task and interaction. On top of that, you accomplish your tasks for the day with a few signature flourishes that show off your brilliance.
There is one potential hiccup. As usual, your Work Nemesis (a.k.a., the person who always tries it...), attempts to show you up. Maybe that involves doing their best to make you look inept in front of a customer or client. Maybe that involves copying your manager on a snotty email — or taking you off an important thread. Or, maybe they always have a lot (of nothing) to say, despite never paying attention.
But what if when this happens on your perfect, dream day at work, instead of remembering the best retort a week later when unloading with friends — you have the perfect reply in the moment! The best professional clapbacks maintain standards of HR-appropriate conversation, but needle the other person just so, all while putting the onus on them to get their sh*t together.
Danielle René (@Deerene_), a writer and marketing consultant based in Washington, D.C., recently showcased the fine art of these interactions on Twitter when she shared her own professional clapbacks and asked others to do the same.
Ah, the glory of a well-timed "per my last email..."! This phrase does a lot of work in only four words. (Unlike the person it's aimed at.) First, it establishes that you are already on track. Second, it points out that the other person is the one not paying attention. Third, it subtly calls out the fact that the other person not only failed to pay attention, but also rushed to judgment/criticism/self-righteousness, instead of being thorough. It's beautiful.
René continued to showcase her best comebacks, which addressed issue such as the necessity of leaving a trail of evidence for your work, and having undue tasks dumped onto you. In an email to Refinery29, she said that a friend's story inspired her to start the thread, and she was initially surprise by how many other people took it on.
"A friend (@blkcarmenSDiego) shared that a coworker sent her a scathing emailing saying she was out of compliance. She responded by forwarding the original submission which was sent on time and meant she was indeed IN compliance. It reminded me of all the times people tried to confront me over email about something, and in the end, they had done wrong. I write fiction in my spare time and when I saw the opportunity to tell a funny hypothetical story using workplace scenarios, I ran with it — and it went way more viral than I expected," explained René.
"Coworkers or customers are the only people who can get on your nerves for 8+ hours a day without repercussion," René adds. "I think the thread was so viral because people could finally get it off their chest. It was a safe space to vent. And it was a learning experience. A lot of younger people replied. They didn't know how to be direct with their coworkers and to check them on negative behaviors. They found some examples in that thread."
For example, one user shared her experience dealing with an academic advisor who criticized how much work she was doing to maintain her standing in an honors' program:
Instead of going off, she took a breath, collected every receipt she could find, and responded: "If you look at my attached files you will see ... "After, I laid out every single honors class/event I'd taken/attended (30 events/classes). I ended with "in the future I'd prefer you not blindside me with meetings where my character is being called into question. She replied with — thank you. And that was literally it."
It's fair to argue that the professional clapback is just another form of passive aggression, but René explains it's often part and parcel of office culture today. Sometimes it's a gateway to getting things done (while ensuring that you're not demeaned, or swept under the rug), and other times, it's purely for your own personal satisfaction. Even if it's not the most productive measure.
"I would say most of the responses were more direct and to-the-point than passive aggressive. Stand up for yourself — but don't let that potentially passive aggressive email be the end of it," she says. "We have to learn to have direct, productive, meaningful conversations with people who get on our nerves. I vote passive aggressive emails over delivering hands — fisticuffs, if you will — to someone at the office, but in general I'm not a fan of it," René admits. "I would classify most of these replies at saying something with tact, another lost art form."
René does recommend moderation when it comes to clapping back: "Our workplaces can become cubicle war zones," she says. "If you send one professional clapback, that doesn't make you a crummy person. But a whole work environment of that is toxic. Could you imagine having to do that every day or having it done to you? What a nightmare."
She suggests breaking out of the "transactional" nature of work now and then by reintroducing small moments of human interaction. Doing so can remind workers that the person on the other side of your request is not a "little cog, [but] someone who is probably stressed, tired, and over it just like you."
"When I do my consulting work with small businesses, I teach them how to address conflict or frustration professionally when working with customers," René continues. "You can't just go off. You'll go broke doing that because you'll drive everyone away."
"In traditional work environments," she adds, "pick up the phone! I know that sounds like something out of a history movie, but really: Talk to someone. Hear their voice and you may soften up your per my usual email replies — and they might actually take the time to search for the answer instead of bothering you."
René says that she rarely pulls her "clapback trigger" these days because she has learned more productive ways to build and maintain healthy professional relationships and navigate conflict. However, she admits, sometimes it's totally fine to remind people who's boss.
"It's not always perfect but it is worth the effort," she says. "But I admit ... some of those replies were HILARIOUS! Don't let these people punk you!"
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