Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Emails Gone Astray

Email.   One of the love-hate relationships of the modern age.  We’re lost when our email systems are down, but those same systems can make us insane.  It’s an addiction, but gets a free pass from intervention and therapy because it’s so damned useful.

It’s also so damned dangerous.  It’s pretty hard to dial a wrong phone number and say something bad (though I have been accidentally speed-dialed a time or two by a relative who thought they were calling their bank) and harder still to think you are talking to your friend face to face and instead be talking to your supervisor .  But once we leave it to the press of a Send or OK button or the Enter key, well, anything can happen. 

I once sent an email expressing concern/criticism to a colleague and that person escalated our conflict by not replying to me one-on-one but rather copying the entire staff, including our boss.  Our boss then escalated it beyond the pale by the email equivalent of yelling at me, and did so copying the entire staff.  The boss then blamed me for copying the group—which I hastened to clarify was not the case.  It took an uncomfortable situation and made it an unforgiveable one.  The icing on the cake was the next day when yet another co-worker bumbled and sent an email to my disingenuous colleague bitchily saying I had a lot of “chutzpah” criticizing her , but, you guessed it, sent the email to me instead. 

This was a mess, but not as much of a mess as an incident that had taken place years earlier with a former colleague from another job whose email gaffe—in the political and diplomatic arenas—landed him in the daily newspaper.  Ouch. 

Recently, an employee at a vendor I use accidentally forwarded to me rather than to one of their supervisors a scathing complaint from another customer.  Oops!  I’ve often been on receiving end of stray client emails meant for other Karens (including ones working at my competitors).  And one time I was copied on a snarky email between two people at a business I that had been my client for years but whose marketing contact had recently left so these two people were now trying to make their mark by cutting me from the budget.  Oops! I have sent internal memos (thank goodness nothing sensitive) to a former source for an article I wrote by accident because the first three letters of her email address were the same as my boss’.  Oops!  And curses on that “auto-fill” function!

But I am sure these kinds of gaffes happen thousands, if not millions, of times a day in offices and homes across the globe, the likelihood increasing with an individual’s volume of email traffic.  Daughters are complaining to their sisters about their mothers and the remarks are ending up in poor Mom’s email; snide coworker comments are ending up being sent to clients; a guy’s bravado about a date conquest is ending up in his date’s email instead of his buddy’s; an executive gets an email that was meant for her competitor-- the possibilities are endless. 

And what is the etiquette when one is on the receiving end of a misdirected email?  If the person sending it and/or the person who was supposed to receive it will be in trouble if they don’t know the communication has gone astray (if, for example, an appointment is being rescheduled), then simply hit reply and say “I believe this was sent to me in error.”  As for more politically charged situations, well, it all depends. Are we taking the high road or not?  Are we trying to have the last word or not?  My policy is usually “silence is golden” and I have, I confess, been known to take pleasure imagining that a person who sent a mean-spirited email realizes their error on their own and worries… Miss Manners may disagree with me, of course.

I wondered if these email gaffes were also playing out with younger people, with text messaging and instant messaging.  Or are young people already so transparent with the details of their personal lives on social networking that it’s a moot point?  I was assured by a young friend that they were just as vulnerable.  She was at the moment nervous that texts she was sending a new boyfriend would accidentally get sent to her freshly-broken-up-with old boyfriend instead, with their names starting with the same first letter.

What’s your best—or worst—email error (or sabotage) story?  Go to the Post Comment section below and tell all!  Change names to protect the innocent (or more importantly, yourself) if you like, but spill!


  1. Just last week I sent an email that I had second thoughts about. I wondered if it had been in the best of taste and whether it would be received in the spirit of which it was sent. I did swing in the wind for a bit, but fortunately for me, the response indicated that indeed it had been received in like-minded confidence. I read recently that Google is making a new feature where you can "recall" or "cancel" an email sent in error. Not sure how long the window is for retrieving, but it sure would have given me an opportunity to rephrase my missive. As the old saying goes..never put anything in writing that you wouldn't want to see in a court of law!

  2. Pre Email or E anything for that matter I taught first grade along with 2 other teachers. One drove me insane at school but was very generous to me outside of school. After one particularly annoying recess episode with her I returned to my classroom and promptly wrote a nasty and immature note to the third teacher alllll about what happened. I commissioned one of my little students to take the note to Mrs. L. Naturally you can guess where my proud but confused little emissary made his hand-off.

    Leslie...if you are reading this...it all happened when I was teaching 'over by Gropps'.

  3. OMGosh, did the kid give it to George Washington?:)

  4. =)

    I'll let this 'inside' joke out. Leslie and I knew each other at Princeton. She remembers that one of my little 1st graders in this same class once told me that he'd seen George Washington!! I asked him where and he told me it was 'over by Gropps'. Gropps was a tavern in the area. I have no idea who he saw but I'm sure they had a hat with a feather or something.

  5. oh how the virtual world is full of very real diasters........