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?