I’m writing to you today because I am in a bit of a pickle, as they say. I have a potential embarrassment avoidance type of dilemma. Am in quandary.
I have been accidentally copied on an email intended for my friend’s husband. (Our names both start with the same two letters, he has multiple email addresses, and I am sure this was accidental and in no way a passive-aggressive cry for help.)
Normally, not a big deal. Delete! Ignore. Never happened. But. This was an angry email. She included many exclamation points, an outpouring of frustration, and strong… language of unhappiness. I wish I hadn’t seen it, but I have, and I’m certain they both know I have.
My question is this. How to address? If either of them asks me about it or mentions it, do I lie and say I don’t know what they’re talking about? Do I gently steer them toward a marriage counsellor? Do I just say, hey, this is between you two, it’s none of my business? Do I shrug and say hey, everyone gets mad on occasion and everyone has accidentally emailed someone before, don’t give it another thought? I feel like any of these would be cold, judgemental, or dismissive which is the last thing I want to be to either one if them.
Generally, I find embarrassment dissipates when you acknowledge things, but in this case I am leaning toward pretending it never ever happened and hoping that neither of them ever mentions it.
However, if they do, I’m at a complete loss. Advice?
Stuck in the Middle
As someone who has been on both sides of this situation (I’ve been both the sender AND the recipient of wildly misdirected emails thanks to various address book shortcuts or the dreaded “Reply All” snafu), I personally believe the onus to acknowledge the mistake falls on the sender. As the sender, you’ve already done enough to the poor unwitting recipient of your anger, tantrum, inappropriate joke, etc. Sack up and apologize, the sooner the better. (And if, say, the message contained less-than-flattering things about the person you just accidentally emailed, be sure to avoid the non-apology I-got-caught-style apology, i.e. “I’m sorry YOU saw that.” No, you’re sorry YOU wrote that.)
The recipient should not also be required to sit around wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do or say. You know, like you’re currently doing. So again, the sender SHOULD say something, and say it soon.
If your friend does indeed approach you about the email, I actually don’t think something along the lines of, “I realized pretty quickly that it was a private matter and deleted it immediately, as it’s none of my business” is perfectly appropriate. And not cold or judgmental at all — I think it’s kind, because it allows your friend some dignity and an out to not HAVE to share/explain/rehash her marital drama with you just because she fat-fingered an address. Suggesting a marriage counselor or addressing any of the specifics of the message strikes me an monumentally uncool, because then you are overstepping AND basically admitting that you read the entire email, long after you established that it was not intended for you.
However, if the subject matter was painfully apparent right from the first few sentences, I might add something like, “Hey, but look: If there’s something you do want to talk about, I’m here and I love you no matter what, okay?”
And then I would drop it, forever and ever, amen, unless SHE brings the topic up at some point in the future.
But what if your friend doesn’t share my bite-the-bullet take on email-gone-awry etiquette and never brings it up? Well, despite your own embarrassment, you will need to accept that in the end, it’s her right not to bring it up. It’s her marriage, her mess. A variation on the “hey, if you need to talk, I’m here” might be appropriate, especially if you sense she’s avoiding you or there’s palpable embarrassment and awkwardness in the air. But if she really seems determined to pretend that it didn’t happen, fiddle dee dee, life is just fiiiiiine, then…again, grant her the kindness to not force the issue. You caught a peek at her dirty laundry, yes, but it won’t hurt anyone to pretend you didn’t. (Unless said laundry included hints at say, domestic abuse or something serious like that.) And your friend shouldn’t have to pull it all out of the washer and go over every stain and wrinkle in front of you if she really doesn’t want to.
There’s also the oddball chance that she really doesn’t realize you received the email instead of her husband. I mean, yeah, it’s probably likely that she confronted him about ignoring her email and he didn’t know what she was talking about and she stormed over to Sent Items to prove him wrong and…oh. CRAP. But maybe not. They might have the world’s most passive aggressive fighting style of any married couple on the planet and routinely ignore each other’s freak-outs. Which is another reason I really vote for letting the email sender take the lead in these sorts of situations. (Except for if, say, you receive an email in which the sender is badmouthing YOU. In that case, I’m ALL FOR a quick reply back to let them know that yeah, I saw this. THANKS JERK FACE.) If she doesn’t know that you saw it, there’s not really a good way NOW to bring up the fact that you did without upping the awkwardness and her embarrassment by another million percent.
Unless, of course, she makes the same mistake again. At which point, you email back immediately to point out the address book auto-fill gaffe. It might not occur to her to go back and check her Sent Items or anything, but at least you’ll hopefully be spared receiving the details of this couple’s divorce agreement (or a transcript of their make-up sexting session) down the line.
Amalah has returned from maternity leave so if there is a question you would like answered by her on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org.