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Be in a hurry to make e-mends

By Don Mayhew

McClatchy Newspapers

FRESNO, Calif. — Author Bonnie Hearn Hill was exchanging ideas via e-mail this summer with a friend writing a psychological thriller. The story involved a character’s murder.

"I think you need to kill him sooner, right off the bat," Hill, of Fresno, Calif., wrote. The friend didn’t reply.

She wrote again, supplying details about where and when the murder might take place. No response.

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Finally, Hill called her friend, who said he hadn’t received any of her e-mails — and by the way, uses his middle initial in his e-mail address. She’d been sending her homicidal messages to a stranger with a similar name.

Oops.

It’s only a matter of time

We rely so heavily on e-mail to communicate that it’s only a matter of time before most of us goof. The potential for unintended consequences is almost infinite.

Why? We fall into routines without thinking. Worst of all, our fingers sometimes move faster than our brains. So we send the wrong message to the wrong person or hit "reply all" instead of "reply."

In the blink of an eye, more people than the entire population of Estonia know about your gout.

How do you fix it? Lisa Benenson, editor-in-chief of Hallmark Magazine, says there are a couple of ironclad rules.

"Be prepared to own up to it if you mess up," she says, and do so in person or on the phone, not by sending another e-mail.

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Act quickly

Some people are so embarrassed about making such a mistake that they decide to ignore it and hope the recipients will do the same. Bad move.

"You are going to have to come away from your computer eventually," Benenson says. "It’s really no different than if you had made the mistake in person. In person, you’re just called upon to fix it faster."

Beyond that, what you should do depends on the scenario:

You hit "reply all" instead of "reply." "If you haven’t said anything obnoxious, you’re fine," Benenson says.

If you realize your mistake immediately, send another e-mail to apologize.

Explain yourself, then beg for forgiveness. Bonus points for sending an old-fashioned, handwritten note.

"You’re not going to fix it with e-mail, so pick up the phone," Benenson says.

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Insult is in the eye of the beholder

"The interpretation of the e-mail is really in the mind of the recipient," Benenson says. "You can’t control how they’re going to read your e-mail."

You send instead of save an e-mail that isn’t ready. If you can quickly complete it as you’d hoped to send it, do so and put in the subject line "correct version," so the recipients know which one to keep.

At the top, ask them to keep this version and briefly explain that you sent the earlier message too quickly.

"The best thing is to fix it fast and get the right version to them," Benenson says.

You inadvertently e-mail a stranger. Hill says she "really expected police" to knock on her door after sending her errant messages about murder to someone she’d never met.

After getting off the phone with her friend, she apologized to the other man with an e-mail and explained that she had been discussing a fictional murder.

Benenson says Hill did exactly the right thing. But the author never heard back from the guy.

"Can’t say that I blame him," she says. "He must’ve thought I was either murderous or crazy."

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