The Freudian e-mail

The Freudian e-mail: By Regina Lynn Preciado. What happens when you send a disparaging message to precisely the wrong person?

Published June 19, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"*This* from the VP of content?" Judy wrote, snorting derisively. "It reads like a 14-year-old wrote it. Clearly he's not acquainted with Strunk and White. Who does he report to, anyway, Beavis and Butt-Head?"

It wasn't until after she fired the missile that she realized she had replied to the VP himself rather than forwarding the message to a co-worker.

Who hasn't experienced the sudden cessation of heartbeat, the loud whoosh as the air leaves the lungs, the slow creep of blood to the face as you realize that your message is on its way to the one person who should never, ever see it? E-mail brings a whole new dimension to the embarrassment of having the object of your derision overhear your mocking remarks.

Alice Kahn, co-author of "Your Joke's in the E-Mail" (Ten Speed Press), once coined a term for this kind of slip: the Freudian Send.

It happens when you're so obsessed with the person under fire that you type his name into the To: box. Sometimes it's more insidious: You forget to check the CC: field; you "reply to all" or to a mailing list; or, like Judy, you click the wrong button.

As with most psychological phenomena, the Freudian Send follows a distinct pattern:

Stage 1 -- Moral superiority: You feel entitled to spout your opinion, especially if you're pointing out another person's stupidity.

Stage 2 -- False security: You state your convictions much more baldly than you would in face-to-face conversation.

Stage 3 -- Real regret: You can't ever take back what you said -- it's there, in writing, archivable and irrevocable.

Bringing your fantasies to life ...

Sometimes your subconscious takes over. Think of the Freudian slip, where you say what's supposedly really on your mind rather than what you intend to say. ("Hi, breasts. I mean Beth.") How can you be sure your Freudian Send was an accident? Maybe you secretly wanted the person to know your true feelings.

Patricia received an e-mail demand from a client, which she forwarded to her boss. Her boss replied to her and copied the CEO: "That's absolutely RIDICULOUS. Why doesn't she just ask for your unborn child while she's at it?"

The CEO got into the fun. "Sure, we can do that. Does she want a boy or a girl?"

"We just kept adding responses and forwarding the message to each other," Patricia reports. "I still have no idea how this happened, but after about 13 forwards, I sent it on its way -- to the client."

Only when the CEO called her into his office did Patricia realize what she had done. Months of groveling failed to mollify the client. "But ultimately it was a good thing that we lost that account," Patricia says. "They had been difficult to deal with from the start and wasted a lot of our time. Of course, [the CEO] was absolutely mortified." It's one thing to embarrass yourself; it's another to drag your boss along.

At least you're not in your underwear ...

Remember the horror when your teacher intercepted your love note and read it aloud to the whole class? Now everyone knew how you felt about a certain redhead ... including the redhead.

A co-worker sent April a message claiming that another co-worker wanted to ask April out. April responded with a "humorous but definitely snotty" message that "pretty much completely dissed him," insulting his intelligence and questioning his maturity. (Never mind the developmental stage of the person who sent the "He likes you" e-mail in the first place.)

"It was very Freudian," she says. "I accidentally hit Forward. He was on my mind and I typed his name. He replied with a cutting remark for each line I'd written ('So I'm just a boy, huh?'), and then he made my life miserable at work for about six months. He used to glare at me and make fun of me, and all his friends did too. I felt like I was reliving some sort of grade-school playground nightmare."

Maybe, but the important thing is that they communicated. It's always better to have everything out in the open, right?

Brutal honesty is just brutal ...

When you slip up in your speech, you suffer a few moments of embarrassment. You apologize. Then it's over, forgotten.

The recipient of a Freudian Send, on the other hand, has your honest, thought-out opinion right there on the screen. You didn't craft your message by accident, you simply sent it to the wrong person. In fact, she knows that she's seeing an honest side of you, one you'd prefer to hide from her.

An apology is nowhere near adequate. You have to think fast. Play spin doctor. Lie.

Kevin was having second thoughts about his girlfriend, who was smothering him with her demands for attention.

"She talks about relationships the way teenage boys jerk off," he wrote to a friend. "We're approaching exhaustion -- we've rubbed blisters on our souls, and they're beginning to pop."

When he got home he learned why his confidante had never replied to his message.

"She came straight over with a series of questions that I tap-danced through like Gregory Hines on double Starbucks," he recalls, shuddering. "I managed to recast my 'observations' in a more ambiguous (read: less life-threatening) and sophisticated light."

A year and a half later, he attributes the success of the relationship to the lesson he learned that night: "Free speech is only free when you learn to aim it wisely."

Get professional help ...

Judy -- who'd mis-sent her sneer at the new VP of content -- managed to save her reputation, and probably her job, by acting as soon as she realized what she had done.

"This is a prime example of why it's important to be nice to people," she says. "You never know when you'll need a friend in tech support." He was able to delete the message from the queue before it reached its destination.

E-mail feels so safe. It's conversational, spur-of-the-moment; it seems to float off into cyberspace and you forget that you've committed yourself in writing.

But it's so easy to mis-direct a message. It's even funny -- when it happens to somebody else.

By Regina Lynn Preciado

Regina Lynn Preciado almost submitted this article to instead of to her editor.

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