Sunday, July 08, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: I KNOW WHAT YOU E-MAILED LAST SUMMER

According to the technology-research firm IDC, by the end of 2007 we'll be sending 97 billion e-mails every day this year worldwide. (IDC Reveals the Future of Email As It Navigates Through A Resurgence of Spam and Real-Time Market Substitutes) That's an awful lot of e-mail. It may even be, dare I say it, enough.

I'm increasingly convinced that it's time for us to take a breather from e-mail. The time we spend reading it, responding to it, misconstruing it, over-reacting to it and, all too often, misusing it has outpaced its time-saving features. Too often people hide behind e-mail and write things to people that they'd never think of saying face to face. Confiding in someone via e-mail can be fraught with peril, since you can't prevent the recipient's index finger from clicking on the "forward" button and sharing your deepest secrets with any number of other people.

An indiscreet forwarding of a mutual friend's e-mail led a reader to, ahem, e-mail me about her mother.

After my reader's mother asked her to read an e-mail that she'd written to a cousin about another relative's medical condition, she left the room. My reader noticed from the subject line of another e-mail recently sent by her mother that it was forwarded from their mutual friend. The 40-something daughter clicked on this e-mail and saw that it discussed the mutual friend's infirm parents as well as her lay-about spouse. It shocked my reader that her mother had forwarded the e-mail to someone who, the daughter knows, the sender would not want to know about her problems.

As her mother returned to the room, the daughter quickly clicked back to the e-mail her mother had asked her to read. She didn't tell her mother that she'd read the forwarded e-mail.

"She'd feel betrayed if she knew that my mother had forwarded her e-mails to this person," my reader writes. "Is there anything a person can do with e-mails they write to prevent them from being forwarded? I'm worried that my mother might be forwarding my e-mails too."

She's right to worry. So far as I know, there's no technological remedy for her problem, no quick fix to render e-mail unforwardable. The only certain way to prevent her mother from violating her confidence is to stop e-mailing her.

But because she read the e-mail her mother had forwarded from one third party to another, my reader faces a more difficult question. Now that she knows that her mother has been injudiciously forwarding her friend's e-mail, is she obligated to let her friend know? Remember, she gained this information only by violating her mother's privacy by reading her outgoing e-mail without her permission.

Ah, e-mail!

The right thing for my reader to do is to come clean with her mother. She should tell her that she noticed that another of her mother's e-mails was from their mutual friend and that she wondered why she had forwarded it. If her mother doesn't have a good reason, my reader should ask her to promise to discontinue the practice. I'd also encourage the mother to ask the mutual friend to choose an option other than e-mail to discuss personal problems.

I would stop short of alerting the friend to her mother's impropriety, however, and instead focus on trying to correct both it and her own.

Confronting her mother is a risky gambit, of course, since she knows what she knows only because she peeked where she had no business peeking. Her mother would be justified in being upset with her for doing this. But if the two of them can get beyond the indiscretion on the daughter's part, they can focus on what's best for their mutual friend. Ideally her mother will stop forwarding e-mail inappropriately, my reader will stop reading other people's e-mail and all three parties will be better off.

1 comment:

Michael Corcoran said...

This is interesting to me. But I do think there is a case for serious, and even personal discussion via e-mail. Some people are simply more coherent through the written word than they are speaking in person. Is it hiding? Many people would say yes, but I disagree. I think a letter is in many ways a very personal way of speaking to someone.

As far as the forward button problem. There is no getting around that. I guess it depends on how sensitive the information is.

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