Pause before sending that email

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It may be therapeutic to dash off a cranky email, but a misfire can have far-reaching results. Don’t believe me? Read on…


Paul Wallbank Tech Talk blog

My grandmother always taught me not to speak ill of anyone; and what was true in a mining town 60 years ago is just as valid on the internet today.

A Brisbane restaurant learned this the hard way last week where an off-the-cuff response to a customer’s comment not only found its way into the local newspaper, but also on to a popular US consumer website.

Every year or so one of these stories seems to catch the collective eye. An earlier example was a New Zealand event manager who called a prospective customer’s wedding “cheap, nasty and tacky”.

The problem with email is we tend to treat it as a casual, informal medium like a chat in the tea room when it’s actually a written, permanent record with a potentially worldwide circulation.

It shouldn’t be understated just how many copies of your witty and sharp response to an unhappy customer, disaffected staff member or overworked supplier could be spinning around the interwebs. Just one of your friends, colleagues or victims could send it on to thousands of others.

The Claire Swire email debacle eight years ago is the best example of this; a young London lawyer decided to share some of his girlfriend’s private emails with his workmates. One of them forwarded the mail to six of his associates and so on. The result ended up on front pages around the world and nearly wrecked the careers and reputations of all involved.

But it’s not just the reputation of the senders that’s at risk, as many of these emails go out under a business name. This opens up all manner of legal headaches for managers.

Clear and concise internet and email usage policies make people aware of the risks to themselves and their business, but these written policies are worthless if staff and management fire off emails without thinking.

Personally I have a policy of never sending anything while irritated or in a bad mood. Sometimes it’s therapeutic to write out a cranky letter or email, but I immediately file it in my drafts folder and leave the address off so I can’t send it accidentally.

Usually when I re-read it a few days later I’m glad I didn’t send it as often the situation has been resolved in the meantime. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d inflamed things with a rashly written and rude message.

For suspect emails, the best test is the six o’clock news test. If you wouldn’t like to see your name and photo next to the content of an email on the evening news, then it’s a good idea not to hit the “send” or “forward” button.

With the internet, it’s worth listening to granny’s advice and don’t speak ill of anyone in a message. If you do, then at least have a good lie down before clicking send.


Paul Wallbank is a writer, speaker and broadcaster on technology issues. He founded national support organisation PC Rescue in 1995 and has spent over 14 years helping businesses get the most from their IT.

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