June 21, 2013
Reply-all fail: How to handle 'send' mishaps, other online disasters
The symptoms are universal: There’s a sudden gasp for air and an involuntary utterance of “uh-oh,” followed by an instant surge of heat rushing over the body, increased heart rate, dizziness, nausea and an overwhelming desire to dig a hole, crawl in that hole, put a large rock over the top, maybe decorate with some wallpaper and nice drapes and send out for sushi because you’ll want to stay in that hole a very, very long time.
Such are the measurable physiological and psychological responses that occur upon accidentally sending a steamy text meant for your hot girlfriend to your church minister instead. Or Google-chatting more than one person at a time -- perhaps your mom plus an important client -- and mistakenly sending the client your sassy critique of the latest “Real Housewives” episode.
Or, possibly worst of all, tapping the dreaded “reply all” button and propelling a snarky reference about your supervisor’s body odor -- meant only as an inside joke between a couple of pals -- companywide, including your boss’s inbox.
A few years back, Zoe Francis, a Pleasanton, Calif., freelance writer, accidentally sent an email to her boss in which she referred to him as a distinctive type of feminine hygiene product.
“I thought I would die when I sent that note,” she says. “The second I hit ‘send,’ I knew I had made an egregious error. Luckily, he did not kill me or fire me.”
You’d think we’d all know better by now.
After all, email is hardly new, and most everyone has gotten the hang of smartphones, texting and social media. Yet the speed of modern communication combined with an itchy trigger finger on “send” often get us into all manner of cyber mischief.
Luckily for Francis, her mishap came out OK. When her boss got that note, he strolled ever so slowly to her desk. “He wasn’t laughing,” Francis says. “But he understood the error and took it extremely well. Quite frankly, it was a bit of a turning point in our relationship -- a wee bit for the better, oddly enough.”
Online mishaps can certainly be funny -- an embarrassment of glitches, fodder for jokes at the company picnic or the college reunion.
But serious consequences can happen, too. Jobs have been lost, relationships altered. Email “storms” -- when people “reply all” to “reply all” messages over and over, multiplying like rabbits in everyone’s inboxes -- can overload servers and shut down critical systems. Some research has shown that at least 15 percent of an average office worker’s day is spent on email, and 5 percent of those received are of the “reply all” variety.
These mishaps have become such a problem that some versions of Microsoft’s Outlook email systems provide a way to disable/enable the evil “reply all” button. Applications, such as Sperry Software’s Reply to All Monitor, are on the market, providing pop-ups that ask “Are you sure?” when you start to respond to multiple recipients. And Gmail offers an “undo send” button and the option of setting a five- to 30-second delay in your outbound messages, so you have a small window to fix a mistake.
Still, programs can do only so much to mitigate user error. There’s no pop-up window for stupid.
Thom VanValkenburg, 32, of Martinez, Calif., works for an engineering firm in Oakland and has heard plenty of email horror stories.
“So I’m really, really careful,” he says. “I pay close attention to whom I’m sending to. Another problem is [that] if you are too quick to press ‘send,’ you might forget there’s an attachment that you might not want to forward. That can be dangerous.”
VanValkenburg’s safeguard technique is to write up emails, then set them off to the side for a while and take a fresh look before hitting ‘send.’ “Even just a couple of minutes gives you a new take on it, making sure you said things correctly,” he says.
Good advice, but mistakes still happen to the most careful among us. And once you’ve made a big one, then what? How do you recover?
“You should face the music,” says Sue Fox, Pleasanton, Calif.-based etiquette expert and author of “Business Etiquette for Dummies.” “Take a deep breath, stay put and face the consequences honestly and apologetically. Possibly you can use a little humor, but be careful you don’t make the offense worse.
“If you’ve made an online faux pas, the worst thing you can do is disappear, change your email address, close your Twitter and Facebook accounts, vow to move out of town, assume an alias, and never communicate with that person or group of people again as long as you live.”
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