TractorThe local roads are decorated with “Foot and Mouth” notices, as another outbreak sets in around my home here in the UK. Infectious diseases are nasty things, with an amazing ability to propagate rapidly and to do great damage in the process. There is also a communication affliction that is now infectious, thanks to email: Foot-in-Mouth disease.

Foot-in-Mouth disease? The habit of saying things in an out loud voice, that should have stayed inside the brain for a few seconds of vital additional processing. I have worked with a few people that habitually spoke their thoughts out loud, accidentally. They were very entertaining, and often said exactly what other people were thinking, but not saying. This usually resulted in lots of broken ice and moved things along. However, there is a different type of foot-in-mouth, where communication doesn’t get as much thought as it needed and “comes out all wrong”.

“A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.”
– Benjamin Franklin

The quote may have been inspired during his French travels, as there is an old proverb “better a slip of the foot than a slip of the tongue”. There is even a site, The think before you send, collecting email disaster stories, complete with a hall of shame – thanks for the pointer Sam. If you trip over, you can pick yourself up. If you miscommunicate, the recovery can be a long journey. Adding email into the equation creates the ability to accidentally offend millions of people at the click of a button.

Part of the asymmetric nature of email is that it is quicker to make a mistake, than to fix it. There is no edit-undo, even a ‘recall’ function it isn’t going to save you. Make these checks before you hit send:

  • Check the “to:” field. Is that the right person and address? Is that phone number going to Nigel in sales or Nigel at your competitor?
  • Check the “cc:” field. Does it need a trim, or to grow?
  • Check the subject. Does it have the right meaning, out of context, for the recipients?
  • Check the body. One more read through. If the content is emotive or emotional, call or meet instead.

Here’s to an end to Foot-in-Mouth, as well as Foot and Mouth, disease.

(more on email mistakes here: 7 Common e-mail mistakes).