Before You Press SEND, Think!
By Gaye Clark
Years ago, I dreamed of a device that would combine the thoughtful expression of a personal letter with the speed of a telephone. Then I purchased a computer, signed up for high-speed Internet, and discovered email.
I used to spend hours calling every number in the church directory in search of volunteers. Now I e-mail 20 women in less than five minutes. A computer’s assistance in my hectic schedule became an addiction.
Then one day I asked my techno-savvy husband to define an email term called “BCC.”
Jim explained, “That means blind carbon copy. Say you want to send your boss an email, and you want me to read it, but you don’t want him to know you sent it to me. If you put my address in the BCC line, then I’ll get a copy of what you wrote, and he’ll never know.” I later regretted the day of that discovery.
Early one morning, I slipped into my study to check my e-mail. Most mornings my inbox contained nothing but spam. But this day was different. I opened an email from Sharon Williams,* a close friend in another state. Sharon and I shared all of our personal tragedies, triumphs, and struggles. Email made those exchanges effortless and convenient. We wrote about our burdens in the middle of the day or night—whenever the Spirit led. Sharon’s assurances to pray for me comforted me through many difficulties.
That morning, a wake-up call awaited me. Instead of a warm “Hello, how are you?” I read: “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!”
At first I had no idea what Sharon meant. What had her so angry? Then I scrolled down. Sharon referenced an email to me that I addressed to a mutual friend, Janice.* I had sent Sharon a blind carbon copy.
“Didn’t you read this message carefully before you hit send and blind copied me and perhaps the entire planet? Do you think Janice appreciated that you shared her private note with me? You owe Janice an apology. Please don’t e-mail me again.”
My blood pressure dropped, and my heart pounded to compensate. For several moments I felt sick. The ache of conviction washed over me. In tears, I searched for some offering of reconciliation in her note. There was none. I had made a terrible mistake, and it cost me a good friend—permanently.
I hadn’t taken the time to carefully read Janice’s original email. I overlooked the sentence where Janice had requested that I not forward her note to anyone else. Janice knew better than I the damage forwarded emails created. I learned later that several of Janice’s co-workers engaged in angry back and forth messages by email. Their last notes eventually made it to her boss’ desk. He ended the argument with pink slips.
I assumed it was all right to copy Sharon on Janice’s email because I knew she cared for Janice and would empathize with her comments. I could understand Janice not wanting a particular note to circulate at work, but Sharon was a church friend, not a coworker. She might even pray for Janice. But good intentions didn’t make this right.
That explained Janice’s anger, if she learned of the disclosure, but what about Sharon? Why her overreaction?
I sat at my desk and pondered the question. The Lord brought to mind many of the e-mails Sharon and I had exchanged over the past year. She shared some deep hurts with me and no one else. If I was so quick to violate Janice’s trust, perhaps Sharon feared I had done the same thing to her. Sharon didn’t feel safe because I had proven myself untrustworthy. Ouch.
I immediately replied to Sharon (despite her request that I never email her again) that I would apologize to Janice. Given Sharon’s deep anger, I didn’t have the courage to call her.
But I did call Janice.
Janice’s voice on the phone made my heart pound. “Hey girl! How are you?”
“I’m uh … I’m fine.”
Janice knew me well. “You don’t sound fine. What’s wrong?”
I took a deep breath. “Janice, I need to ask your forgiveness.” My voice lowered two octaves. “Remember that uh … email where you uh … let off a little steam about your boss?”
She caught up with me in an instant. “Oh no!” She gasped and waited for me to lower the boom.
“It went to Sharon. I mean, I forwarded it to Sharon. I didn’t think you’d mind and I really didn’t catch your request not to forward it to anyone else until I had already sent it.”
“You sent it only to Sharon?”
“Yes. I know she’s a friend of yours, and she proved herself true by confronting me with this. She’s right. Janice, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.” I let out a deep breath.
“Thanks for telling me. You know I forgive you. I don’t mind Sharon knowing. It’s just when you forward a note to one person, and that person might forward it on to someone else, and then you’d be amazed at how things circle back around. What did you say to Sharon?”
I winced. “I emailed her that you and I would talk and I hoped she’d forgive me. She’s pretty upset with me, and I know I should have called her but—”
“Let me pray for you and Sharon right now.”
I’ve never felt closer to Janice than at that moment. She prayed for my reconciliation with Sharon.
I made a few more overtures to Sharon, but they remained unanswered. For weeks, I thought of little else but my severed relationship.
Was there a better way to approach all this? I embarked on an earnest quest to discover the proper use of email in the nonprofessional setting. Rules for email etiquette, for the most part, refer to the corporate world. However, the basic principles speak to personal contact as well.
Some lessons learned:
Don’t discuss sensitive issues in an email.
It’s not a private conversation. Think of an email as an open postcard rather than a sealed envelope. When you send an email, if you feel the need to add “please don’t forward this to anyone else,” consider the consequences if your wishes go unheeded.
Email is convenient, but lacks cues of the spoken word and body language.
When I talk with someone directly, I can hear the tone in her voice and ask questions—feedback we often take for granted. It’s far too easy in emails to assume wrong conclusions.
Never react to an email in anger.
Take a deep breath. Don’t reply in haste. Give yourself time to cool off and pray. It’s easy to say harsh words in an email that we would never dream of using in person. You cannot take back an email anymore than the spoken word. James 1:19 reminds us, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Always address the recipient by name and sign personal emails.
This may seem obvious, but it is essential. A computer screen doesn’t reveal the face of a friend. As you type “Dear Mary,” you begin to think more concretely about the person. Take ownership of what you write and avoid anonymous emails. One email buddy of mine always begins each note to me with, “My Dear Gaye, Sister in Christ.” Her first words in every note remind me of her love and our relationship.
Common sense? Yes. But I did not heed such wisdom until I endured these painful consequences. Sharon taught me a valuable lesson. I continued to ask the Lord to aid me in the repair of our relationship. Our friend Janice prayed, too.
A good many months later, I received a long-awaited note in my inbox:
Dear Sister in Christ,
I have been praying about our disagreement, and I now realize I reacted far too harshly. I pointed out your flaws without receiving your repentance. That’s not how family operates... I hope you can forgive me because I am truly sorry.
Love in Christ,
This time I pushed away the keyboard and picked up the phone. I brushed back happy tears and waited for Sharon to answer.
She sounded relieved. “I’m glad you called. It’s much better to hear your words than read them.”
She was right. Sometimes the unique voice of a friend can add warmth to a real conversation. I still think my computer is great, but my phone won’t become obsolete anytime soon.
Editor’s note: Sharon Williams and Janice are pseudonyms to protect their privacy.