Among the several curses associated with e-mailing is the temptation to craft a snarky response to an offensive correspondent. I can think of many times in my life when I was confronted with a situation that demanded a clever riposte and my wits failed me. E-mail gives us the time and opportunity to be witty and irresponsible.
I think my favorite crushing remark is one attributed to Winston Churchill when he was asked to describe political opponent Clement Atlee: “A modest man, but then, he has so much to be modest about.” As satisfying as that remark may have been for Churchill, my guess is that it did nothing to help his relationship with the man who was once his deputy prime minister. Cutting remarks can certainly be funny as long as the subject is someone else.
Writing on publicly owned computers carries with it the additional danger of converting a passing inappropriate thought into a public record. Something that seems innocuous on the computer screen may seem decidedly less so on the front page of the local newspaper. When I began my career in city government, I would occasionally write a blistering letter in response to some provocation and then store it in the bottom drawer of my desk before discarding it. This process usually, but not always, helped keep me out of trouble.
I once received a letter from a lady who identified herself as a “spiritual advisor” complaining that our ambulance crews failed to clean out a car after a particularly grisly highway accident. Her concern was that when she took the mother of one of the victims to see the car in an effort to help her deal with her grief, the visible evidence of the tragedy only made matters worse. My reaction to the letter was that the advisor made a really bad choice when she decided to take her friend to visit the car, and I made my feelings clear in a hasty reply. The lady then wrote a letter to the mayor suggesting his city administrator needed counseling or some other form of psychological help. Sometimes the best response is no response at all.
Years of bitter experience have taught me to practice the Golden Rule of correspondence, which is, of course, to write unto others as you would have them write unto you. Arming people who are already aggrieved by you with your own words is the worst form of revenge.