THE BLOG

E-Mail: Self-Imposing a Delay

04/22/2014 11:12 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2014

In a curious story, even for the New York Post, we are told in a bold headline that "NY state government officials [are] shunning email." That is, in the face of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's taking possession of records compiled by an anti-corruption commission disbanded by Governor Cuomo, an anonymous lobbyist who emailed a State official was called and told, "Are you out of your mind? Never e-mail me again."

Of course, the anecdotal, anonymous account which was reported hardly matches up to the headline. But, in actuality, people nowadays are afraid and probably should be, not only in government circles but also in the business world. And not only when using their business email accounts. The stupid things we say in person, or even by phone, are far worse when viewed in print -- indelible, encryptable print. Yet, people can't refrain from the ease of email or texting. The Chris Christie story would be a big a fat zero if Bridget Kelly had instead issued her now-famous eight word jeremiad about lane closings ("Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee") by phone, or in person.

So, let's return to the anonymous lobbyist. Or to Bridget Kelly. Or to any one of myriad others who sent emails they may later regret. What if the individual who wrote the email or text employed a self-imposed protocol to wait 24 hours before sending emails that might arguably be controversial. Would he still have sent it? Would he have committed to writing words that might conceivably ring a death knell for him if found in the hands of a modern-day Inspector Javert? Probably not for a person with the tiniest amount of discerning, self-discipline. Because let's face it, we all know that one of the first places an investigation will turn is to emails where, for reasons that are not so easily cognizable, people are just plain sloppy -- or angry.

Yes, smart, discerning people across the public spectrum haven't shown such smarts or self-discipline. The Christie five, the SAC Capital Advisors (so far) eight, (former) Rep. Christopher Lee, Raj Rajaratnam, David Petraeus, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner or Brett Favre, just to name a famous few. And the list is getting far longer -- it may even be becoming a badge of honor in federal prison to have been nailed by one's emails. Maybe certain criminal groups such as the mafia are smarter than the rest of us -- they still do a "walk and talk" down a public thoroughfare, or maybe in a Turkish bath, when they need to communicate something intended only for the listener.

Now this might sound to the cynic as a lesson-plan for how to commit a crime -- i.e., leave no digital fingerprints. But it's not that at all. It's about using discretion. Many of these emails are impulsively authored. There are those emails that are sent in a pique of anger (or maybe inebriation), and those that are truly innocent but appear to be something that they're not really (and in those cases, putting them in context is not always as easy as one would hope.)

It is hard for folks who have never been investigated to understand the sleepless nights that one may be forced to endure revisiting an email now, especially if it is in the hands of a prosecutor or regulator. Sure, there are some -- Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley, for example -- who presumably knew what they were sending and, arrogantly (certainly foolishly) believed they were invulnerable, and pushed "send" anyway. But the truth is that the incendiary emails that have gotten folks into trouble were often born of emotional or impulsive outbursts. And they are typically outbursts that haven't even been proofread. They were "mad as hell" perhaps, and didn't wait until they calmed down before they discharged a bullet that boomeranged into the hands of a regulator or prosecutor.

But most important, they didn't wait long enough before hitting the send button to stop and think: "What the hell am I doing? Let me think about how this will look if/when someone reads it; the consequences of what I am saying or sending." Again, not here a lesson in how not to be caught. Rather, a lesson in how not to commit the crime or offensive conduct in the first place, because the text of a lot of emails constitute crimes in and of themselves.

True -- in today's culture, waiting 24 hours to respond in the rapid fire political or business world may simply be too long; downright intolerable to the people born into our post-MTV, multi-tasking, multi-screen, ADD existence.

But can we at least revert to the time frame of writing a letter -- or even a fax. You wrote it; you proofed it; maybe you had someone else review it; you put it into the envelope or the fax machine. It gave you time to think about it, even to correct it so you said what you meant, before you irrevocably hit "send." Maybe, it even allowed you a second thought so that you called the person instead.

OK, it may be ideal, but I must admit that waiting 24 hours is not realistic. But can't you wait long enough -- maybe just six hours -- to allow you to engage in the introspection or "time out" needed to cool one's blood or ardor, and save oneself from having to explain, to bosses, co-workers, board members or -- worse, regulators or prosecutors -- what you actually were intending to say by the time you regained your wits? You may even sleep better. Isn't it worth it? Really!