Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A slip of the e-mail

Sandra Parshall

I’ll never forget the feeling. 

I had disagreed with a woman in a group I belonged to on some minor issue (can’t even remember what, although I recall the aftermath vividly). She wrote an e-mail expressing her opinion of me. She meant to send it to another member of the group. Instead, she sent it to me.

I replied (with her message appended), saying simply, “I don’t think you meant to send this to me.” An embarrassed apology came back. Did I believe a word of it? Of course not. I don’t know whether the mistake resulted from her e-mail program auto-completing the TO address or from her subconscious taking control of her actions, but I am certain that I got a glimpse of her true feelings through that misdirected message, and it altered the way I regarded her and the way I interacted with her.

The experience also made me super-cautious about checking the recipient address on any e-mail that might be remotely sensitive. I’ve since slipped up once that I recall, but fortunately it was a relatively minor incident with no great consequences.

Slips of the tongue are common. We all make them every day, and usually they’re not significant. So-called Freudian slips, which supposedly reveal deep-seated hostility, desire or belief, are far more embarrassing but also less common. (Remember when Condoleeza Rice referred to George W. Bush as her husband?) Most people can laugh off such a gaffe – although everyone who hears it might take pleasure in repeatedly it ad infinitum, whether it’s funny or scandalous or sad.

E-mail slips are different. When you put something in writing, it’s awfully hard to claim you did it accidentally. And once people see a statement written down, they’re less likely to believe you didn’t mean it. Sure, you can fire off an angry e-mail on impulse (I’ve done it often enough), but it requires more conscious effort than simply spitting the words from your mouth. If you tap out a scorching assessment of your boss’s salient characteristics, he will care more about the opinion you express than about your mistake in posting it to the entire office network. 

When I saw the critical e-mail about me, I was wounded because I had thought the people involved were my friends, that we shared a common goal. I was willing to forgive the accidental (or subconscious-driven) misdirection to my inbox, but I couldn’t overlook the message itself. It made me more wary, more suspicious of others.

This is the kind of thing that destroys friendships in the computer era. I’m sure some romantic relationships have also ended because of e-mail mistakes. The worst errors of all, leaving damning e-mail on a computer where anyone can read it, or sending a sensitive message to someone who might reveal it, have undoubtedly ended a few marriages. As former Congressman Anthony Weiner discovered, once it leaves you, you have no control over how it’s used.

Do you have a personal e-mail horror story? Have you heard tales of woe from friends or relatives who have been done in by misdirected e-mail? Do you take any measures to safeguarded against sending messages to the wrong people?


Sheila Connolly said...

We tend to overlook how much human communication depends on interpreting facial expressions, gestures, etc. In conversation you can soften your statement with a smile, but in writing you're stuck with it, with no way to temper what you've said. It took me years to realize that was why I hate phone conversations--I want to see the person, rather than just hear him or her.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, that softening can be expressed in text with a simple smiley. :) I use it all the time in therapy sessions with my online clients. And the winkie expresses nuances from "I'm kidding" to "I'm not attacking you, I'm telling you affectionately a truth I think you're ready to hear." ;) A therapist in f2f practice would never actually wink at a client! The emoticons, when used right, are the text equivalent of tone of voice and facial expression.

Julia Buckley said...

I had this happen, Sandra. I had waited for months to hear from a particular agent, and then I finally did, so I immediately sent an e-mail to my husband, saying, basicaly, that she FINALLY got back to me, and followed that with a couple of comments about the agent's reaction to my writing.

And then I sent it. A minute later, with a hot rush of blood to my face, I realized that I had sent the comments TO the agent. Images of my bloodied and dying career flashed before my eyes.

I quickly sent an apology e-mail, saying that the e-mail had been intended for my husband. I begged her to forgive me for my lack of professionalism.

Luckily, the agent happened to be a very good-natured person who found the whole mistake hilarious, and said that she was pleased I hadn't said much worse things about her.

Still, I would like to think I learned a valuable lesson and that I will never make that sort of mistake again--except that as you pointed out, Sandra, we seem to do these things almost unconsciously, and that's almost enough to scare me off e-mail entirely. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Make that word in line four "basically," not basicaly.

Grace Topping said...

I've seen a person's career ruined when the person accidentally sent an e-mail to the whole 10,000 person organization critical of management. No one missed seeing that one.

When I write a message about something sensitive, I ask myself, "Is this something that I want to leave my control once I hit send." Regardless of who I was sending it to, I erase it.

I got the plot to my manuscript from a misdirected fax. My friend received an important document faxed to her incorrectly. Knowing that I was interested in writing mysteries, she told me to keep her experience in mind. What would happen if something was sent to the wrong fax number? Would someone be willing to kill to keep the information quiet? In my story, that's what happens.

So, you can get a good story anywhere--even from a misdirected fax or an e-mail sent to the wrong person.


Sandra Parshall said...

Grace, I'm glad you're using the idea. Everybody who uses e-communication will relate.

JJM said...

Been lucky in this regard, myself, but remember with some amusement the time someone else sent a private message complaining about a listowner's being a "drip" to the list itself. The listowner in question took it in good humour and referred to his own "drippitude" in his reply. But misdirected mail is hardly restricted to e-mail, of course -- 40 years ago, my father (a journalist) suddenly started receiving top-secret messages addressed to U.S. Naval Intelligence on his teletype machine ... He had a grand time trying to get through to them per telephone to warn them of their mistake. Finally, he just replied directly to the sender suggesting a bit more care was in order. And that is when they finally believed he was telling the truth. :D

Leslie Budewitz said...

Mario, wow -- what temptation! Misdirected mail or email can be a serious problem in litigation -- are you ethically bound to notify the other side and return the material, or ethically bound to use it for your client's advantage? Most experts and courts say the former, and Rules of Professional Conduct are being changed to require return without keeping a copy, but some zealous types still disagree. Imagine what horrors could result.

Mary Welk said...

I recall getting an email from someone that contained about six forwarded messages. It was the top message my friend wanted me to see, but of course I scrolled down to read all the other messages because I thought they were all related. My mistake. One of the messages was rather personal and described one person's romantic feelings toward another person. I knew both persons. Both were married, but not to each other. It was embarrassing, to say the least, when I saw both of them at a party several months later.

Anonymous said...

It isn't just e-mail though I have a story on that too. Once in real life I accidentally sent a personal snail mail letter meant for my boyfriend to one of my favorite ancient cousins. She somehow never would return it -- never got around to it, that kind of thing. I think she didn't want me to be embarrassed more than I was. The funny thing: I suspect it was the one that was not a torrid love letter one doesn't want others to read. It was a rant and gripe about my maternal grandfather & his brood's machinations du jour -- her first cousin's family. She always loved me but after reading my letter she wasn't supposed to get she seemed to love me better, knew what I REALLY thought of some very aggravating & annoying people, knew that I was the person she thought I was rather than being like them.

On the e-mail scene a friend & I had to change the e-mail addresses we wrote each other at because my e-mail was too similar to the group's e-mail name and we kept sending stuff to the list that we meant only for ourselves. (My problem was when I was in that e-mail account I automatically put the group in the send-to subconsciously.) We didn't lose any friends or anything as we didn't say anything bad, but how well I know how easily it can happen!

Anonymous contributor

Sandra Parshall said...

What a wonderful story about your aunt! I love the idea of her getting a glimpse of the real you through your misdirected letter. What odd consequences our actions can have.