There is an old Jewish tale to teach children about gossip. It goes something like this:
The rabbi called a little boy to his office who was often gossiping around town. The child claimed his words did not matter because he could simply apologize and take them back whenever he needed. The rabbi, determined to teach his lesson, sent the boy out to the town square with a feather pillow and instructed him to tear open the pillow and empty all of the feathers. When the boy returned, the rabbi instructed him to return to the square and collect all the feathers back into the pillow. And when the boy said that there was no way he could ever find all of the feathers again, the rabbi said, “As it is with your words. Once they have been spoken, you can never bring them back.”
I was reminded of this story recently when I got into one of those ridiculous email arguments. I’m sure you’ve had these before:
First I emailed a perfectly polite invoice request. Then the recipient somewhat politely scolded me for submitting materials incorrectly. I apologized for not following her system exactly and explained that I didn’t know and would do it correctly now… to which she responded defensively claiming to have explained it well enough in the first place.
And THEN another email arrived that copied her original text (which she believed to be the good enough explanation) to PROVE to me that she was correct and this was entirely my fault.
We’ve all had these exchanges, right? It wasn’t unfamiliar to me. For my part, I really didn’t care one way or another as long as it got done. I was content to archive the emails, follow the process and move on. And then something interesting happened. I got another email that read: “Recall: [name removed] would like to recall the message.”
She would like to recall the message
“How convenient!” I thought. She can just recall her message. Well, clearly she realized she had overstepped appropriate professional boundaries (perhaps she was especially conscious of it because her boss was copied on the message?). But the damage was done. The feathers were scattered all over the town square and there was no bringing them back now.
Why is there a recall function like this in email? Once you’ve sent it, you’ve sent it. Why do we even pretend to have this safety net? And in our information age, haven’t we learned that once words are sent, they are sent for good?
Here’s the real lesson: you cannot recall your words just as you cannot go to the town square and collect all the feathers. We all speak out of turn and say things we wish we wouldn’t have. But there are no short cuts. You don’t get to take it back. We have to own up to our own shortcomings.
I’d collect the feathers back if I could
I am no saint. And I am most certainly not immune from letting words escape my mouth that I sincerely wish I could collect back. This happens in my work life more often than almost any other time. I find myself quickly pulled to the edge with colleagues in a way I don’t often find in other aspects of my life. The stakes always feel higher and I get quite passionate about whatever we are working on.
There’s more to it than high stakes. Work is a fascinating place filled with tremendous vulnerability. Most of us have been taught that being “professional” means somehow buttoned up with minimal emotion. But when you are lucky enough to spend your days in work that you passionately believe in, work that you love, you find your identity tightly woven up in that work. Criticisms and disagreements from co-workers are no longer about the work; they are about you. And that is an intense vulnerability that most of us were not raised or trained to manage on a day-to-day basis.
I am quite guilty, too often, of letting words escape me that I deeply regret. But here’s the thing, you don’t get to recall them. If you’re strong enough, you can apologize for them. And if you’re lucky enough, you will be forgiven for them. But you cannot recall them.
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