Readers respond on how to handle mean-spirited emails

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 1, 2012

“Bravo!” and “Well said!” were the opening words in several responses to last week’s column on forwarding mean-spirited emails.*

It seems, like me, many of our coffee companions are just plain fed up with the fear- and hate-mongering defamatory email forwards that pollute our inboxes.

Some of our readers even offered suggestions on what to do with them.

“In this modern age of communication, lies and gossip make their way around the world before Truth can even get its feet on the ground,” former Cochrane business owner Ken Harder wrote.

Cochrane reader Bonnie Grant compared them to the demeaning office water-cooler humour that is no longer tolerated.

“For some time, what you refer to as ‘mean-spirited’ emails have been upsetting me,” she wrote. “Like you, I never forward them, and in fact, after reading the first line, I delete them. Unfortunately, they are often hidden under the guise of jokes or humour.”

But like the effective social pressure that has been brought against base water-cooler chatter, social pressure can be mounted against this kind of email chatter, too, she said.

Jim Hillson, pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church in Cochrane, agrees. “E-communication can become mean-spirited gossip.”

He noted how so many folks who leave malicious comments on media blogs cloak themselves in anonymity. “I think people who wish to participate in public discourse need to be identified so that we know who is saying what.”

From Armstrong, B.C., Margaret Crozier wrote: “Your column this week is so true and so needed by all emailers. Even if we do not send those kinds of emails ourselves, we certainly receive them often enough that your words are an encouragement to keep on checking things or, as you suggest, hit Delete.

“There is so much hate and anger in the world and for me to send more on to my email friends is just as you say: I become ‘a liar, a libeller and a slanderer.’ Have I ever been guilty of forwarding unchecked emails? Sadly, yes. But I have learned to be much more careful in checking and often send the results of my search to the ones who send the emails with the hope that they, too, will begin to be more discerning and not send stuff that is offensive in any way.”

Indeed, the very least we can do is hit Delete, wrote Calgary coffee companion Debbie Faulkner. Hitting Delete and not even responding may allow the recipient to fly high above the poisonous reputation-damaging hateful words.

“Flying higher means remaining silent rather than refuting the slander,” she said. “Silence somehow weakens the poison.”

Cochrane coffee companion Smokey Seidel sees the solution quite differently.

“I fear just hitting the Delete key on intolerant emails is not enough,” he wrote. “One has to bite the bullet and hit the Reply All key with a rebuttal. It is insufficient just to stop the spread of bigoted misinformation; one has to fight back against ignorance and intolerance.”

Because so much of the forwarded stuff is just a resurfacing of garbage that’s been circulating on the Internet for years, the Internet itself may contain the information needed for a good rebuttal, Smokey said, and often the rebuttal addresses the very email in question.

“These rebuttals need to be sent to both the sender and those on the copy list. In addition, make a request that they put the record straight and forward the rebuttal to the people from whom they received the email, as well as those to whom they forwarded it.”

Mean-spirited forwardings require “positive, not passive, action,” he said. “Rebuttal, not Delete.”

In our busy schedules, however, we don’t always have time to form a detailed rebuttal of our own. At such times, as Cochrane reader Sue Parnell suggested in her note, we can Reply All and provide the URLs (Internet addresses) for the correct information.

“Thank goodness there are some of us not too hasty in pressing that Forward key,” she said.

And if we really don’t have the time to do even our own research on the truthfulness of a suspicious forward, we can at least do what Cochrane nurse Adele Dyall does.

“I used to check out the contents of some of these emails but they took too much of my time,” she wrote. “I now return them to the sender and ask them if they have checked out the validity of the email they are sending and advise them I do not forward anything that hasn't been verified or is offensive.”

I’ll close for now with a bit of wisdom often attributed to the 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

*See also my columns on the broader topic of email etiquette for May 25, 2011 and June 1, 2011.


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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