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How to deal with reply-all mishaps and other online disasters

By Angela Hill
Oakland Tribune
Posted: 04/26/2013 06:51:43 AM PDT

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 mistaken 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. Quick, someone get the shovel.

A few years back, Zoe Francis, a Pleasanton 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 said. “The second I hit ‘send,’ I knew I had made an egregious error. Luckily, he did not kill me or fire me.”

Slow learners
You’d think we’d all know better by now. After all, email is hardly new, and most everyone’s gotten the hang of smartphones, texting and social media. Yet the speed of modern communication combined with an itchy trigger finger on “send” often gets us into all manner of cyber mischief.

Luckily for Francis, this mishap came out OK. When her boss got that note, he strolled ever so slowly to her desk. “He wasn’t laughing,” Francis said. “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. Who can forget the “reply-all-pocalypse” of last November when New York University student Max Wiseltier received an email from college administrators about a tax form, which he tried to forward to his mom saying, “Do you want me to do this?” A slip of the mouse later and Wiseltier had sent that simple query to all his fellow 39,979 students on the Listserv. Thousands upon thousands of them then replied-all back, mocking him, adding jokes and comments, turning the innocent mistake into an Internet phenomenon and getting Wiseltier on everything from ABC News to Jimmy Kimmel.

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, 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 only do so much to mitigate user error. There’s no pop-up window for stupid.

Check twice, click once
Thom VanValkenburg, 32, of Martinez works for an engineering firm in Oakland and has heard plenty of email horror stories.

“So I’m really, really careful,” he said. “I pay close attention to whom I’m sending to. Another problem is 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.”

His 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 said. Good advice. But mistakes still happen to the most careful among us. And once you have made a big one, then what? How do you recover?

“You should face the music,” says Sue Fox, Pleasanton-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,” she added, “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.” In other words, digging a hole just gets you in deeper.

  • Honesty is always the best policy.
  • Most people will give you another chance to redeem yourself. You’re much better off taking responsibility for your blunder than blaming it on someone or something else.
  • Respond with a written apology. Do not make a lot of excuses. Make it short and sweet and end the conversation online.
  • Some e-mail annoyances and embarrassing missent messages are simply the result of taking too little time to think. Pleasanton business etiquette expert Sue Fox offers some tips on avoiding online faux pas:
  • Always double-check the list of recipients, especially if the message says something negative.
  • Don’t use e-mail to lambaste a colleague, and especially don’t copy others on the message. That’s tantamount to chewing someone out in front of a room full of his peers.
  • Disagreements or discipline are best handled in person or at least over the phone.
  • If you receive a scathing e-mail, resist the urge to write a similarly scathing message in return. Take the high road. Offer the olive branch, or at the very least, distract the other person by making him wonder why you haven’t responded.
  • Never, ever write something in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want published in the newspaper or publicly online. Even if you send them to people you trust, e-mails that contain sensitive, mean, or potentially embarrassing information have a way of being forwarded beyond your original audience.


Follow Angela Hill on, or read her Sunday Give ‘Em Hill column.


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