Lessons Learned (Kinda) From Hitting Reply Instead of Forward

Back in my graduate student days, I was a managing editor for an online academic journal. One of my duties was to maintain the website. So I was a "webmaster," even though I had absolutely no mastery of the web.

Nevertheless, I fumbled along and learned as I went. Then, one day, I received an inquiry from Some Professor at Very Important University asking me a few technical questions. I had no clue. So I forwarded it along to a friend, saying something along the lines of, "Hey, I left my Klingon-to-English dictionary at home. Please translate."

You know... that whole Computer Guys and Star Trek thing. Get it? I mean, it's funny at different levels.

Anyway, a few minutes later the aforementioned professor's name once again appeared in my inbox. "What is this Klingon-to-English dictionary of which you speak?" he asked.

With that, a surge of white, hot, and holy terror went through my body. Indeed, I had hit "reply" instead of "forward."


I'm a pretty neurotic guy to begin with, but as a graduate student this particular character trait was amplified to intolerable levels. Every little bump in the road from typos to rejected manuscripts had me convinced that I had no future in academia.

So this whole thing threw me deep into the pit of obsessive fretting. I imagined the insulted professor composing an email to some secret "All Professors Throughout The Universe" listserv. He would declare me unworthy of employment in this or any profession until the end of time. No public shaming. Just a short and miserable life in a ditch in southwest Alabama (it's always southwest Alabama).

I immediately sent an apology. After five minutes, I sent another. I'm pretty sure that I sent a third. I never heard back. And I don't blame him.

Needless to say, life went on. But a memory of this episode remains instructive. For starters, it reminds me to be careful with my digital communications. But still, when I'm rushed, I can be careless. And I have been careless.

I suppose, then, that this is ultimately about the value of humility. I got busted being a jerk. That made me feel really, really bad. But what if I had hit forward? Would I have still felt guilty and ashamed?

Probably Absolutely not.

The fact is that here and pretty much always, I am only aware of my sins when they are shoved in my face. Otherwise, I'm pretty good at making excuses and shrugging off my shortcomings. "Oh, I'm just kidding around." But if the wrong (right?) person hears the joke, it stops being funny.

Since Klingongate, I have been on the receiving end of a few missent emails. I usually get a frantic apology shortly after. In response, I always tell my own story. I then admit that I still make poor decisions with my words and, therefore, have no room to judge anyone.

I don't like saying that I am "forgiving" anyone when I have done this. To me, that almost implies that I have some moral advantage in the situation. I don't. Instead, what I intend to say is, "I'm a mess, and it's great to see that you're a mess too. Let's get a drink!" Hopefully, this makes everyone feel a little less shame and a little more human.

Solidarity is a beautiful thing... even if hitting reply instead of forward isn't.