A Word

Column: That 'uh-oh' momment by Jacqueline Alexander
First published in the Henley Standard newspaper

We've all done it. Many of us have done it more than once and some of us have paid a high price for it. The worst part is the awful moment of realisation when you hit "send" and immediately notice that your email is winging its way to the wrong person.

Often this will have few repercussions. The content of the email will be innocent and the recipient will simply notify you of your error but the results can be catastrophic. Believe me.

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, nearly lost his job over careless use of the send button. Annoyed by what he saw as the incompetence of a client, he sent an email to his boss complaining of the unnecessary work being caused by the ineptitude and laziness of the client's marketing manager. The language was colourful and the message was clear as he vented his frustration.

Unfortunately, instead of sending the email to the boss, he sent it to the client.

Fortunately for him, I was his boss. A bouquet of flowers, a grovelling email and an explanatory phone call later, the client forgave my hot-headed employee and we worked our way back into favour, but it was a very close shave.

There are worse examples. According to AOL, 42 per cent of email users have sent an email to the wrong person. CNN.com reports an example very similar to my own experience only in this case the sender lost the company a $5million account. Ouch.

Probably the worse examples are personal emails intended for the eyes of a friend or loved one but viewed by the subject matter. After a disastrous first date, Karla Comer decided to deal with the situation by ignoring the subsequent phone calls from her date. Having received an email from her not-so-beau requesting a second date, she forwarded the message to her friend explaining that the chap "was an idiot with no understanding of social cues".

It wasn't until she received a reply from the now angry and spurned beau that she realised she had sent her original email to the wrong person.

Many email programmes have attempted to save us embarrassment by adding functions to delete or edit sent emails. Microsoft Outlook has a recall function that allows the user to retrieve unread emails from the recipient but, unfortunately, the system only works if both sender and receiver are using the same mail client and server. It also relies on the mail having remained unread, which is leaving too much in the hands of fate for it to be effective.

One service that may catch on belongs to Google. Its email service, called Gmail in most countries but Google Mail here, has introduced a feature called "Got the wrong Bob".

It is designed to save you embarrassment by prompting you to confirm the recipient of your email. The system looks at the groups of people you email most often and if the person destined to receive your message doesn't fit with your normal behaviour, it will ask you if you are sure you want to send to Bob, Bill, Ben or whoever it may be. It's not foolproof but it may help you to avoid an awkward, or impossible, situation.

The system also includes a 10-second recall service so, if you are lucky enough to immediately realise your error, you can cancel the sending of the email and instead of an "uh-oh" moment, you can enjoy the pleasure of a "phew"moment.

Next: Keeping it real

Audio: Jacqueline Alexander presents Web Watch with Phil Kennedy on BBC Berkshire and BBC Oxford:

Copyright: Jacqueline Alexander 2012

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