No doubt everyone has experienced the moment of panic when your snarky e-mail meant for a friend finds its way to a wider audience thanks to an inadvertent "reply all." How about hitting send before realizing your spell-checker double-crossed you?
NPR issued a call for embarrassing e-mail stories — and we heard about not only the moment you realized your error, but the efforts you went through to make sure peace was restored and what lessons were learned. Here is a selection of the e-mails we received (and could post within our standards of decency). In some cases, senders changed the names of those involved in their story.
This is my favorite e-mail faux pas to be filed under "Don't hit send in the heat of emotion." I'd been sending book revisions between my co-author and agent, back and forth. Finally the agent asked for a stronger narrative arc, so we obliged by removing most everything but dialogue. She responded to me via e-mail, saying "That is really great, but I want more sex!" (The exclamation was hers.)
Frustrated, I responded by forwarding the agent's comment to my co-writer: "So do I, but how do I respond to this???"
Within minutes, I got my response — not from my co-writer, but from the agent as I'd mistakenly hit reply, not forward, in the e-mail. Said agent indeed responded:
"Well, you know...He nuzzled my neck and nibbled my ear lobe." Then proceeded with more such dialogue.
She was totally serious.
What could I do, but laugh. It could have been worse. Lesson learned.
Angie Brenner, San Diego
I was working in a university psychiatry department on a research project with the university hospital. As a part of the project, subjects would get X-ray scans to assess bone growth. Since the research staff was present when the scans took place, we wore radiation badges to have our own exposure to radiation checked on a monthly basis.
One month, the unfriendly and disgruntled radiation exposure coordinator sent this e-mail to my co-worker and me: "Please send over your radiation badges for last month."
I replied to my co-worker:
"She is not a 'rad' coordinator at all."
Of course, I unknowingly replied to both my co-worker and the not-so-rad coordinator. She was not happy about it. But at least she got the joke.
*not her real name
Linnea Welker, Rhinecliff, N.Y.
I once sent a gloating e-mail to my brother about an anticipated pay raise. The gloat was over my savvy argument in favor of the raise and how it would dupe my boss.
Later that afternoon I received an e-mail joke from my brother. It was so humorous I decided to share it with everyone in my work address book.
What I didn't realize is that my brother replied to my original gloating message with the joke. So my original message was appended to the joke and sent to the president, vice president and about six other principals at my company.
I spent my lunch hour infiltrating various offices to delete the e-mail in question.
Now only me, my bro, and NPR know the truth.
Michael Gonzalez, Rochester, N.Y.
This is your basic case of "I sent the behind-the-back-criticism to the person I was criticizing." My company was hiring an editor, a job that calls for good proofreading skills. Many of the cover letters were full of typos. I forwarded a particularly egregious example to a co-worker with a note that made fun of the number of errors — except that I hit the reply button by mistake, sending the message back to the job applicant herself.
Within minutes I got an angry response: "If you don't want to hire me, fine, but don't mock me."
I e-mailed back my apologies but also this: "There are two lessons here: One, to me, to double-check the TO line before hitting the send button. The second, to you, to proofread your cover letters whenever you are applying for any job in editing or publishing. I hope we both learned something from my mistake."
Peggy Robin, Washington, D.C.
Several of my friends and I received an e-mail from a mutual friend inviting us to yet another pre-wedding ditty on her and her fiance's behalf. I clicked Reply to All and wrote, "I'd rather stab myself in the eye than go." I didn't realize she had copied her own e-mail address (WHO does that?) so the message went to her. Needless to say, I was quickly informed that I would no longer be needed as a bridesmaid.
Mandy Rivers, Columbia, S.C.
Several years ago, I was working in a marketing job in Silicon Valley just as e-mail communications were becoming the norm. I was transitioning from one position to another, and in the process I was pushing old projects off on two separate individuals. For the purpose of this story, it is important to know that I am Caucasian, and the two individuals taking over for me were African-American. In the course of e-mailing various documents to the people taking over for me, I sent an e-mail to my boss letting her know that I had transitioned most of the issues, and if anything came up from this point forward that she should let me know so that I could "fill in the blanks" for my two replacements. I had my auto spell check feature enabled, but had neglected to edit my e-mail carefully before pressing "send" and as a result, instead of writing "fill in the blanks" I wrote "fill in the blacks."
And yes, I had copied my two African-American co-workers on the e-mail. Fortunately, everyone had a pretty good sense of humor about it, but I was mortified and certain that the impression I made stuck with me for some time.
Leslie Zacks, St. Louis
My team was discussing the effectiveness of a technical support person from another company who was supposed to be helping us. I wrote the e-mail below and accidentally copied the person I was talking about:
Wednesday, 10 p.m.:
"I think you are earning a place in heaven next to Mother Teresa with your patience. Fred is a nightmare. Can you imagine getting this supercilious attitude from someone at another company?
BTW, although he told me he was closing the lab he did not mention anything about closing cases.
Perhaps Harvard Business School could use Company X as a case study for support organizations from hell."
I sent out an apology:
Thursday, 5 p.m.:
"Last night I inadvertently sent a message that I intended for an internal group. In that message I represented my attitude towards Company X support and Fred in an unprofessional manner. My error was compounded by sending it to an inappropriate audience.
I apologize for my error."
A few months later I then sent this message out, also copying "Fred:"
Tuesday, 7:58 p.m.:
"If this works it will be the first time that politeness was effective with Fred. Good luck."
And then I apologized for the second time:
Tuesday 8 p.m.:
"I am such an idiot. I cannot believe I did it again. Fred — I apologize for my rude e-mail. My behavior was inexcusable."
These incidents occurred in 2003, and I am reminded of them by my team from time to time, including just last Thursday.
Quentin Fennessy, Austin, Texas
I work in an office. There are biweekly meetings that our entire department are invited to attend. As my intern was on the distribution list for the department, she forwarded the meeting invitation to me and asked if this was something she needed to attend. I clicked the reply button and typed the following: "No, you don't need to. It would be boring anyway." I clicked send. Five minutes later, I received a response with the same subject line from my supervisor. It read, "Are my meetings really that boring?"
I walked around to my intern's cube and asked her whether she had received my response. She had not. The e-mail had gone to my supervisor, and I thought I would be left to dig myself out of the hole that was referring to her meetings as boring.
Surprisingly, she asked me for feedback as to how she could make the meetings more interesting. We all had a pretty good laugh and it is now a running joke in our department.
Candace Eudaley, Dubuque, Iowa
I am a very poor speller and rely heavily on Spell Check. One day I wrote to a customer that they could "feel free to take their package to any UPS drop off lactation"! Unfortunately, Spell Check did not catch my error in word choice, but my boss did! The customer never did reply.
Fern Wroten, Oakland, Md.
A few years ago I took over the facilities function for a company. I quickly surveyed the needs and found the No. 1 complaint was pantry stocking. The company had five buildings with maybe 40 pantries which had coffee, tea, and other free edibles. These pantries were a pride of the company as in the we-care-about-employees program.
So I contacted all the floor support people (about 95 percent women) to determine the nature of the complaints. The key was around systems to communicate when a pantry needed stocking and getting the pantry stocked quickly. So after a month of setting up systems to solve the problem, I sent out a mass e-mail to the company:
"The facilities department has set up a new e-mail for pantry issues. If you have any needs, simply send an e-mail to facilities and a facilities agent will be happy to rush over and restock your panties."
I did not get fired, but I did get a reputation.
Peter Smith, Clifton, Va.