While finishing up a computer service call for a client, I saw Deborah, the CEO's Administrative Assistant, in the hall rushing toward me. She grabbed my shoulder and said, "Geoff, can you undo an email?"
"You mean unsend?"
"Yes, whatever -get it back," she said, still a little out of breath. She was wringing her hands together and her face had the desperation of a junkie hoping a dealer would give her the right answer.
"Was it something to your boss?" I asked.
"No, much worse," she said. "I accidentally hit 'Reply to All'."
"If it left your Outbox, I can't help you," I confessed. Deborah's face lost any remaining trace of color.
Some corporate mail servers like Microsoft's Exchange Server allow users to "unsend" an email message -provided the recipient hasn't opened it yet. AOL also allows unsending email messages but only the unopened messages sent to fellow AOL users.
In most cases, when an email message leaves your computer, control over whether or not the recipient gets it is out of your hands. It waits on your recipient's mail server waiting for their email program to pull it into his or her Inbox.
Email can appear to go directly from one computer to another, but it actually doesn't. Unless your office hosts its own internal email server, an email destined for a computer in your boss's office next door to yours shoots out of your building via the Internet and is routed through various email exchangers that could be located anywhere in the world. A moment later your message makes its grand entrance into your lucky boss's Inbox. Yet it seems like your message simply traveled only a few feet!
The reason you can change your mind on a phone call to a friend after his or her phone starts ringing is because all the connections between phones communicate simultaneously. Email, on the other hand, "hops." And when it hops away from your computer, your involvement is finished and a change of mind can be tragic!
Unless you can physically intercept your regrettable message at the recipient's computer before the message is seen, then you are out of luck.
A better way to handle the panic that sweeps you after having sent a ill-thought email that is now racing through cyberspace straight into the Inbox of a person you never meant see it is to avoid the problem altogether. Email and careless words combine to create a powder keg waiting to be ignited by a hasty click of the Send button!
To compensate for email's lack of an effective unsend button, I've adopted a personal policy: Never send an email about someone that you wouldn't want that person to see. The risk is too great because you simply don't control the email after sending it. Remember that spoken words leave impressions, but email leaves tracks.
If you heed this advice, you'll never need to beg your IT guy for an unsend button.