I could have blamed it on Outlook’s Auto-Complete; or could have faulted my fingers that hit the Send button all too quick; or maybe hold responsible a passing-by employee that distracted my attention. But the truth of the matter is that it was all my doing, or, more precisely, my undoing. The incident took place, let’s see, maybe eighteen years ago? My video streaming and web development company was growing nicely. At that time we occupied a set of offices on 28th St. and 7th Ave.; right at the heart of NYC’s flower district. The bonus was that every morning, coming to work, I would find myself submerged in wonderful flora scents. I was in my thirties; it was close to the peak of the Internet’s Golden Age; the blooming economy of the late 90’s. Still fairly inexperienced when it came to business – I started my company by jumping into the water and was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time; I felt like the world was at my feet. I was, for the most part, the only game in town when it came to streaming live video on the web. My clients includes the NY Times, PBS, U2 and the Rolling Stones; all had their videos and live events run through my servers. The video streaming technology we used was created by a company that emerged out of Israel and then relocated to Silicon Valley in an attempt to spread their wings. While they were negotiating technology deals, I was granted a license to operate my servers, using their technology, throughout the East Coast. My company, Yard Productions, which I co-founded together with my wife out of our Queens one bedroom apartment, had at time already over a dozen employees, and the future looked bright.
One of my main contact people at the video technology company, whose name I will not divulge (for privacy,) was all in all a decent chap, except that on occasion he did whatever it is some corporate people do to advance their interests. In all honesty, I have no recollection whatsoever as to what it was that sparked the incident I am about to share. Much dirty water had since passed through Manhattan’s East River. But the result of whatever it was, ended up being that I felt superbly frustrated. Taking the coward’s way, I spilled onto a long and whining email my dislikes of that person. I trust that I made full use of foul language and other juicy descriptions. The email was intended for… someone, I cannot even recall to whom – maybe my brother in Israeli who knew that person, or a close friend, or maybe a trusted business associate, I do not remember. But when I completed the writing, scattered-minded, I mistakenly typed the start of the name of the person the email was about onto the recipient field. Auto-complete did what auto-complete was programmed to do, and that person’s email address materialized. Unaware of this colossal mistake, I press… Send.
You know that moment when you do something, and in the split second you do it, you instantly realize the mistake, but it’s already too late? Like a coffee mug that you misplace on the edge of the table, letting go of the handle, only to realize a little too late that there is nothing there to support it? There’s no way back, no rewind button, no CTL+Z (or Command + Z for Mac…) I clearly remember that moment, when I hit the damned Send, realizing in a flash the magnitude of what I have done. I just sent a hate email to the person whom I wish least to read it; the person who held a key to an important business relationship. Oh dear.
I remember hours of deliberation, of guilt and mental pain. What should I do? Is there a chance this email will end up in his spam folder? No, I knew, not a chance in hell. What should I do?
Time ticked by. Ultimately I picked up the phone and called him. There was no way to excuse what I wrote; it was clearly not error, no slip of tongue and, most definitely, not a typo. The email was full of bad mouthing, malice and ill-intent. I do love writing but the shortcoming is that when I put my talent to foul use, well, you can imagine the result. I do not recall the details of that conversation. I likely apologized deeply. The other party was solemn though respectable, that much I remember. After we hung up, the relationship continued but nothing was the same. Whether it was my guilt that taunted me to hear longer silences and hidden meanings of words never fully expressed, or whether that person really held a grunge (I couldn’t blame him if he did,) I would never know.
Some time later that company was sold (to Microsoft if I am not mistaken,) and my firm, which continued to grow and flourish, moved on to another streaming technology. Real Video was the new kid on the block and took over the streaming market; at least for a while. Over the years I had a couple of other such embarrassing situations where Auto-complete, which I could have but never did disable (it’s just all too damn convenience,) messed things up. One such other incident almost got me fired when I did a short stint working for corporate America. But never again did I resolve to bad mouthing via email. Lesson learned. It took several more email incidents to teach me that some exchanges should never be done by email. The medium just doesn’t allow for real subtleties of emotions. Written words are often taken out of context, or read completely different than intended. A good strategy that helped me whine off nasty emails was the wait-before-you-click-send policy. When I wrote an email sensing my blood boiling, I would force myself to hold off from sending it for a minimum of an hour, preferably 12-24 hours. Then I would read it again. In most cases I ended up never sending that email or, at least, much altering it, softening the tone; or, better still, picking up the phone. I still wrote the email as it was a way to vent, release steam. But later just deleted it. Nowadays I am happy to report I don’t even need to do that. But it didn’t happen overnight. Its a self-observation process that takes time.
I feel for today’s younger generation who seem to think that texting is a suitable replacement for face to face communication. For me, the accumulation of my life’s experience is that nothing can substitute an in-person exchange. I still find myself baffled when receiving a text message from a friend, cancelling dinner plans last minutes with a “sorry, we are not going to make it.” The ‘sorry’ does not make for personal interaction. I would have much preferred to receive a phone call with, “I apologize. This and that came up last minute and though we were very much looking forward to seeing you guys, we will need to take a rain-check.” I can hear the voice and, hopefully, the sincerity behind it. But then again, maybe it is me who need to do some more self-reflection work, allowing even the most impersonal message to leave no negative impression, much like a peddle thrown into a lake, causing but little disturbance before the water resume their calm.
Learned from: reflections on a misguided email.