Tens of thousands of people have now read a series of emails sent by Carolyn Bourne (a champion flower-breeder, living in Devon, U.K,) to Heidi Withers, her stepson’s fiancée, after a weekend visit. Ms Withers was apparently so shocked by the messages – which accuse her of being rude, vulgar, and committing apparently unforgivable sins such as sleeping in late and taking a second helping before being invited to do so – that she forwarded them to friends. These friends forwarded them to others, and likely before the participants knew what was happening, the conflict and the emails were being discussed in the Telegraph, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, among other media outlets.
While no one could have predicted that email messages within an obscure British family would end up as a subject of international attention, it is worth repeating that there is no such thing as a reliably “private” email message. You simply have no way of knowing whom the recipient of your message might decide to share it with. This is just a fact of modern life. If you hold views that you don’t wish to be known generally, or have done things that you wish to remain private, don’t write about them in email.
The rumpus over Ms Bourne’s emails made me think, not so much about the perils of the internet, as about some more general problems with communication. Before transmitting any kind of message – whether on twitter, via a facebook posting, email, or handwritten note – it is essential to ask yourself what you hope to achieve by sending the message. Ms Bourne says in her email that she is writing because, “It is high time someone explained to you about good manners,” and to encourage her future daughter-in-law “for your own good” to consider enrolling in finishing school. She has adopted the classic “this is for your sake, not mine” communication strategy. But if Ms Bourne was able to be honestly self-reflective, would she really maintain that she wrote with her future daughter-in-law’s and the family’s best interests at heart? If you genuinely want to reach out and help another person, is it the best practice to confront them with a long list of their misdeeds? I suspect that Ms Bourne took a dislike to Ms Withers, was annoyed by her behaviour, and wanted to get it off her chest. And that’s OK. But she should have sought out a friend to complain to, rather than sending a message obviously intended to be hurtful.
Perhaps I’m mistaken here, and Ms Bourne really did have at heart the best interests and future happiness of her stepson and his wife. (After all, everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.) If that was indeed the case, then next thing she needed to ask herself was, is putting all of this down in writing really the appropriate next step? One thing that email shares with old-fashioned handwritten notes is that both are monologues. The recipient has no opportunity in the moment to defend herself or explain. If you genuinely want to reach out to someone and help them, it is doubtful that a “stern talking-to,” whether delivered via email or on the finest stationery, is the ideal communication strategy.