Beware the trickster god of undead emails

November 28, 2003

A little restraint may just save your bacon when it comes to corresponding electronically, advises Valerie Atkinson

There is never a good day to bury bad emails. And, apparently, never a good way either. The wretched things are like the undead - just when you think it is safe to deny their existence, or convince yourself that they are harmless, up they leer our of their computer coffins and sink their keyboard teeth into your neck.

Email, having completely replaced memos and telephone message slips, has become the major means of 21st-century business communication. Not to mention intimate interaction. Ask any captain of industry trying to reduce costs and time wasted on personal communications. Ask any Ministry of Defence spook or Downing Street drudge. Gone are the days when a bit of covert shredding might have saved the professional or personal bacon.

As some organisations take steps to ban email communication, there is a suspicion that this is not only an exercise in frugality, but also a means of protecting company integrity. Or of hiding the worst of its practices and the detail of its duplicity.

One of the most knowing bits of advice I trot out to anyone aflame with indignation at the behaviour of a colleague is never to send a hasty reproof by email. Not without an overnight suspension. To start with, the cadence of emailed correspondence is difficult to pin down, unless remarks are accompanied by exclamation marks or LOUD CAPITALS. And to include such dubious trappings in professional correspondence would be to appear at best a cliche, and at worst a half-wit hysteric. In any case, by morning you may have realised that no insult was intended or that careless indifference is the best form of defence. And with email there is no retreat; no opportunity to retrieve the item - and your dignity - by rifling through a pigeonhole or screaming down to the post room to recover it.

There are many cringe-making stories of emails intended for individuals but accidentally sent to whole groups of people, any one of whom might be the subject of slanderous comments. Forwarding messages can get confused with replying to them; and the use of aliases offers all sorts of libellous pitfalls. Beware, in particular, the hazards of exchanging love letters electronically. You must be sure you have the correct address.

Inadvertently declaring passionate love to a complete stranger may sound like a devious way of gaining attention, but it has been known to happen quite unintentionally.

Love letters. Remember the delicious piquancy of waiting for an item to drop through the letterbox? The physical tangibility of those precious objects created a means to sustain any heartsore individual through separation. Emails cannot match them.

But if you think electronic communication less substantial and therefore less incriminating, remember this: the great god of virtual reality has your emails still. You may think you have deleted them - but all you need is a disciplinary process, a judicial inquiry or even a panic-stricken realisation that an entire year's exam marks are in the public domain to discover that they live on in cyberspace. You cannot burn or shred them.

There they sit, ghostlike, holding confidential information, injudicious remarks, hidden aspects of the personality, just waiting for the moment their presence is required. Then down they'll slither from their android attic and drag you off to damnation.

Only when one of those computer chaps comes up with the technological equivalent of a silver bullet will we be able to sleep soundly, secure in the knowledge that the keeper of our hastier thoughts, and the indelible record of our more impulsive actions, remains interred.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at the University of York.

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