Will being able to 'unsend' email save the day?

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Gmail has introduced an "undo send" to allow you to cancel an email up to 30 seconds after you've dispatched it. Does this help fix a major source of daily regret, asks Peter Fleming.

A few years ago the eminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking reportedly received an email which read: "Come on get your finger out, I haven't got time to be sitting here all day waiting for you, get on with it!"

It turned out the sender was an engineer working late at the office and intended his missive to be read by a slow co-worker. Unfortunately he had been corresponding with the physicist about A Brief History of Time, and sent it to him instead.

Given the huge number of internet searches for "how to undo sent email" Google has developed precisely this option for its email users. Rather than wallow in paranoia and remorse following that misjudged message, we can choose a standard cooling-off period to delay sent messages by 10, 20 or 30 seconds. This will hopefully provide enough time for us to reconsider whether that office-wide message about the boss's eating habits was perhaps just a little too harsh.

No doubt this feature will be particularly attractive to workplace email users. A survey of marketing professionals found that 78% had mistakenly forwarded a "sensitive" message to the wrong person. Outlook's "message recall" was always a ridiculous proposition in this regard. That only made the receiver pore over the original message more attentively.

The "undo sent email" function is a more serious attempt to allay the paranoia currently running rampant in office life today. The problem with email is that it is sometimes too easy to express one's spontaneous thoughts and feelings in the heat of the moment. Given its speed and lack of face-to-face contact with the receiver, no wonder many of us see email as potentially career threatening device. Workers have even been fired for getting email etiquette wrong - such as sending messages using BLOCK CAPITALS.

But this "undo send" email feature is especially significant now as work spills over into home life and more people are communicating when tired or irritated.

And then there is the dangerous practice of email checking (and sending) after Friday night drinks. This has led to some almost legendary blunders in office management. No doubt that angry email sent to the boss at 11pm perfectly captured his inherent flaws. Especially after a few fortifying drinks. But in the cold light of the morning things now look very different. Many have learned the hard way that email and alcohol do not mix.

Email becomes the weapon of choice for disgruntled workers because of the changing nature of office culture. Many employers today expect us to display an extremely professional demeanour at work, which has sanitised interpersonal relationships. Office interactions are neither too emotional or too cold, and never unpredictable. Email provides an easily accessible space to vent and express human qualities that are otherwise suppressed, especially after arriving home and mulling over a problem at work - often with devastating consequences.

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In the old days we used to complain about work to our partners and friends. It was left at that. As email enters the mix it can be tempting to tell everybody how you really feel. And therein lies the problem. Because email is such a one-dimensional form of communication it tends to capture only a small element of how someone genuinely feels about an issue. The complexity and depth of our concerns are missed. As a result, the sender only sees sharp and negative edges of our emotional state.

So will the "undo sent email" feature help in this regard? In many ways this is simply a fancy repackaging of the "save" function. Such a relabelling is an attempt to align a specific user anxiety - regret and remorse - with the technology. It therefore serves more of a symbolic function. We feel protected by a safety net in an age where economic security is rapidly disappearing.

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Moreover, self-censuring and "mindfulness" are increasingly considered an important and valuable human attribute - especially in the workplace. The "undo sent email" option expresses a wider desire to have a second chance, to redo our behaviour and reactions until we get it just right. While regret was once considered a natural human emotion, today it is public enemy number one, which doesn't necessary make for a healthier or happy way of life.

And is 30 seconds really enough? Rather than relieving us of anxiety one can imagine it actually mounting as we watch the 30-second countdown. Was I too curt? Did I put an "xx" at the end of the message by mistake? Am I giving too much away?

It is clear that email has become a symbolic vehicle for many wider anxieties and issues that we experience not only at work but in life more generally. But do we really want to live in an "undo society"? Can we ever perfect life entirely? Indeed, perhaps that irate email to the boss was exactly what he needed to hear.

Peter Fleming is the author of The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself.

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