I would use rope-a-dope, but it's got connotations of pretending to lose that I don't need. I'm trying to describe the behavior of someone who sends twenty detailed emails a day about various projects, and the recipient of his emails has finally gotten tired of trying to parse them, so the recipient just agrees to whatever he proposes. I'd like an expression that evokes both outward earnestness and hidden creepiness, like Uriah Heep, Dickens's "Humble servant" with veiled ambition, who overdoes it with professions of humility until he's in power. Water torture would work, but comes too close to a more racist expression that I'm not comfortable with.
Lately a favorite of mine while describing the amount of small finishing work left on our house is
Death of/by a thousand cuts (UsingEnglish.com)
If something is suffering the death of a thousand cuts, or death by a thousand cuts, lots of small bad things are happening, none of which are fatal in themselves, but which add up to a slow and painful demise.
The phrase is a transliteration of the Chinese torture and execution practice Lingchi (Wikipedia):
a form of torture and execution used in China from roughly AD 900 until it was banned in 1905. It was also used in Vietnam. In this form of execution, a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period of time, eventually resulting in death.
Kill by inches — Fine Dictionary
by gradual means, as by torture
"When he says that it is killing him by inches, and that we must go away, I know he is speaking the truth." — "Lover or Friend" by Rosa Nouchette Carey
the act or process of weakening and gradually defeating an enemy through constant attacks and continued pressure over a long period of time
"a war of attrition"
Boiling frog — TFD
A problematic situation that will gradually increase in severity until it reaches calamitous proportions, such that the people involved or affected by it will not notice the danger until it is too late to act.
It is a metaphor taken from an anecdotal parable about boiling a frog, in which a frog placed in boiling water will immediately try to save itself, but one placed in cool water that is gradually brought to a boil will not notice the heat until it is boiled to death.
"Drug addiction is often a boiling frog, as many people don't see their addiction as problematic until it has consumed their lives."
You could say this person whittled down the recipient:
to reduce the amount of, as if by whittling;
take away by degrees (usually followed by down, away, etc.)
to whittle down the company's overhead; to whittle away one's inheritance.
More info on whittle:
carve (wood) into an object by repeatedly cutting small slices from it. synonyms: pare, shave, trim, carve, shape, model
"he sat whittling a piece of wood"
carve (an object) from wood by repeatedly cutting small slices from it. reduce something in size, amount, or extent by a gradual series of steps.
"the short list of fifteen was whittled down to five"
synonyms: erode, wear away, eat away, reduce, diminish, undermine, weaken, subvert, compromise, impair, impede, hinder, cripple, disable, enfeeble, sap
"his powers were whittled away"
reduce, cut down, cut back, prune, trim, slim down, pare down, shrink, decrease, diminish
"the ten teams have been whittled down to six"
I've seen T-shirts and bumper stickers describing this as like being "nibbled to death by Ducks"
nibbled to death by ducks
Subject to constant petty annoyances : Writing in such an editor-dominated environment was like being nibbled to death by ducks/ is being nickeled-and-dimed, nibbled to death by
It's not clear to me in your question, whether the sender of the emails is doing this as a deliberate (office-political?) strategy to some end, or whether he is oblivious of the effect he is creating on the receiver.
Similarly, how justifiable is the receiver's unwillingness to further "parse" the emails. Presumably he's not merely tired or lazy?
If you're more describing the receiver, then maybe he's simply overwhelmed ?
Finally, maybe worth mentioning a one-time deliberate policy (or ploy) of labour agitators called work-to-rule wherein employees follow rules strictly and exactly - in other words, is the email sending a variant of this: rather than going slow, he's clogging a communication line; in other words, some kind of "bureaucratic attitude" or malicious compliance on the part of the sender?
You could say that they are pestering you.
Pester (from ODO)
verb [with object] Trouble or annoy (someone) with frequent or persistent requests or interruptions: she constantly pestered him with telephone calls
"Snowflaking" : The idiomatic image of being covered over with small "snowflakes" of requested actions in such a fashion that it prevents concentration on import/high priority work. The particular connotation is that of the head of a bureaucracy giving small, distracting, but required, tasks to subordinates in order to prevent them from concentrating on and perhaps obstructing larger issues. The image is further reinforced if one thinks of a blizzard of memos flying around an office. A recent prevalent use was in relation to Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to transform the US DoD (in the pre 9-11 period)
Snowflaking would apply more to distractions, which might be irritating, than to pure irritations.
There are numerous phrases. Most of them are borrowed translations. Here are the most common ones:
- Nickel and Dime-ing: This does what you describe in economic form, a bunch of tiny charges eventually driving the other into spending large amounts of money.
- Death of/by a thousand cuts: This one has its origins in descriptions of torture from pre-revolution China. Shoutout to @vynsane for it.
- Kill by inches. @NVZ brought this one up.
- Whittling down: Refers to a type of wood carving. Shoutout to @Kevin Workman
- Draining by Mosquitoes: This one originated in Florida, but I've heard it throughout the US.
Note that there are other terms, some of which are obscure, most of which are dialect-specific, and many of which have fallen out of modern use; all of whic are still valid. If I didn't mention a phrase, it's because I view it as uncommon.
There are already numerous viable answers, but I didn't see this one here, so I thought I'd add it.
to diminish or destroy by degrees
The straw that broke the camel's back
the straw that broke the camel's back
The final limit of capacity, including patience.
An Arabian anecdote told of a camel whose owner loaded the beast of burden with as much straw as possible. Not satisfied with the staggering load he had put on the camel, the owner added just one last piece of straw. Even that one wisp was too much, and the animal collapsed with a broken back, leaving the owner with no way to take his goods to the market. The story is a parable for all the times you've been repeatedly irked until you can't take it anymore and you explode.
As the definition says, this simply means that the straw (sometimes feather), something inconsequential, has been added after you've been repeatedly provoked which caused something to snap.
This is also where we get the phrase final straw from — the final thing that provokes you and makes you snap is the straw
The term gaslight or gaslighting which means to manipulate someone into questioning there own memory, sanity or perception.
The term comes from the play "Gas Light" where an abusive husband slowly drives his wife insane by claiming to not hear noises, moving furniture around and claiming it was always there and he would cause the gas lights dim and then deny the lighting had changed.
Cold war - thefreedictionary.com
A state of rivalry and tension between two factions, groups, or individuals that stops short of open, violent confrontation.
Filibuster A filibuster is a parliamentary procedure where debate over a proposed piece of legislation is extended, allowing one or more members to delay or entirely prevent a vote on the proposal. It is sometimes referred to as "talking out a bill" or "talking a bill to death" and characterized as a form of obstruction in a legislature or other decision-making body. The English term "filibuster" is derived from the Spanish filibustero, itself deriving originally from the Dutch vrijbuiter, "privateer, pirate, robber" (also the root of English "freebooter"). The Spanish form entered the English language in the 1850s, as applied to military adventurers from the United States then operating in Central America and the Spanish West Indies such as William Walker.
(The above text lifted verbatim from Wikipedia.)