Monday, July 17, 2006
I was very interested to learn yesterday - while reading the newspaper - that one of the big cell phone companies has an employee whose title is something like, The Grand Poobah of Cell Phone Etiquette. She is supposedly the person who lets us know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable when using cell phones. (As an aside, the focus of the article was that 35% of American employees rank their co-workers’ personal cell phone ring tones going off at work as their most annoying work interruption. DUH - cell phone rings are designed to be annoying. The correct question actually is: Why does an employer permit employees to use their cell phones at work as I suspect the employees are not being paid to answer personal phone calls while at work?)
Anyway, during a recent discussion brought about by the posting and forwarding of a somewhat mean-spirited e-mail, I got to thinking we might need a Grand Poobah of internet or e-mail etiquette. I am not nominating myself but I do feel qualified for the position because I have made some pretty big boo boos, like the time I intended to send an e-mail to a co-counsel on a case stating unequivocally that our mutual client was a putz but inadvertently (or NOT) sent it to the client. Whoops!
A few things came to my mind regarding the recent discussion about people sending e-mails that maybe should never have even been written, let alone sent.
First off, I should say for those of you who do not know me - I am an attorney and I play one on TV (that last part is a fib). That said, much of my background is as an insurance defense attorney and I have handled DOZENS of cases involving lawsuits that arise out of one person innocently (or NOT) making a damaging statement about another person or entity. These would be civil cases - defamation for libel or slander - where the plaintiff is seeking money damages. While they are definitely difficult for the plaintiff to win, the problem for the defendant (the person who so innocently stated "whatever" about the plaintiff) is that she/he would have to defend the action in court and that means very expensive legal fees. On the other end - the damages end, if the plaintiff gets that far - one measure of damages is based upon the level or number of publications, i.e., how many times did the defendant "state" or “publish” the defamation. That number can get very large if you are "publishing" the statement on an internet forum or bulletin board. WOW!
Secondly, one of the posts indicated it was a federal offense to send out certain types of e-mails. Initially, that sounded somewhat incredible but - in fact - I am confident a federal law could easily (and unwittingly and unknowingly - which are not good defenses by the way - remember our Perry Mason law class motto - "ignorance of the law is no defense") be violated on the internet (like copyright, trademark, intellectual property infringement, and so on). More importantly, a "federal case" could be made out of an internet posting, primarily because the nature of internet communication allows it to be disseminated to hundreds of people, perhaps millions of people, in what seems like a nano second.
Thirdly, in my not-so-humble-opinion, many people think the internet allows them to remain anonymous. It is thought that what we used to do over the backyard fence (but would never admit to anyone -- gossip - dish - chitchat - kibitz) is perfectly fine because we are secure in our homes, no one can see us, no one really "knows" who we are, etc. Of course, that isn't true. In fact, the internet is a device that can easily expose our secrets, rob us of our identities, and threaten our privacy.
Fourthly – and this is my free legal advice: Don’t make evidence. You are making it too easy for your enemies. Writing it down and sending it across the internet becomes a permanent and easily retrievable record. We are no longer in the era when a tape of a conversation – or portions of a tape – can inadvertently (or NOT) be erased. What you write down and send on the internet could come back to haunt you later.
So, where to go from here? How about I tell you of the conversation I recently had with my daughters (ages 23 and 20)? The conversation concerned whether or not my sweet little Maggie, age 20, could bring a guest to a wedding reception when the invitation was specifically addressed just to her but the reply card had the spot that indicated "how many will be attending". This conversation, by the way, was a lively debate of sorts and covered many topics (friendship, money, gift-giving, how to meet a nice person at a wedding instead of the butthead you wanted to bring to the wedding, etc.). The big message I was trying to get across to them was that rules of etiquette were not designed to make people uncomfortable and stuffy but, rather, are mostly designed to make sure that feelings don't get hurt. For example, it is probably best if you and/or your beloved tell your future mother-in-law of your engagement before you announce it to each of your customers at the bank, especially if she is a local merchant and also a customer of the same bank! Am I right? Could you see how her feelings might get hurt? In the end, the message they took away from the conversation was that you should follow rules of etiquette because "somebody might get hurt". Now, whenever someone BURPS (a topic which I regrettably cannot find in the index of my copy of "Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium"), one of them cries out, "Watch out, someone is going to get hurt!"
The motto I want you to take from this story is: Whenever you are about to push the send button - think of BURPING - and make sure your message will not cause someone to get hurt!