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July 9th, 2012

“Retracting” an Email: A Fool’s Game

by Sean Devlin, Front Rush

From time to time, we will get a question from a Coach asking how to “retract an email” that was already sent.

In other words, they sent an email and realized there was a typo, or it was sent to the wrong person, or it was sent too early. We will then explain that this is impossible because there is no central “email” location that handles all the email in the world. Instead, once an email is sent an email is sent*.

We typically get a counter argument like “My Microsoft Outlook allows me to recall an email” or “My Gmail allows me to pull back a sent email”. Because of this, we decided to set the record straight and explain what “recalling an email” really means and to assertively state not to rely on this “functionality” offered by some other email services out there.

First, lets start with Microsoft Outlook which many college coaches still rely on.  With Outlook, once an email is sent, there is an option to “recall this message”. PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T DO THIS. You see, when you click that button, Outlook doesn’t actually “recall” the message (again, its impossible). Instead, what it does is send another message to the recipient that states that you want to recall the original. Well being human, and having the curiosity that most of us humans have, most people who receive that message will specifically look at the original. That “recall this message” button is really like a “Hey I messed up the original email so please read it and see my mistake” button.

Secondly, lets look at Gmail. It has an “Undo” button (if you turn it on). This undo button gives the impression that once an email is sent, you can “Undo” and have it come back or cancel it. This also is misleading, although it is a little more functional than Outlook’s version. What actually happens is that when you hit “send” in Gmail, they delay sending for a couple of seconds so that you have an opportunity to click “Undo”. Its almost like a countdown before it actually gets sent. This is more functional because the email never gets to the recipient but it becomes a bit of a hazard if you start to rely on it. Especially when you make the mistake I have made before and used an email client that does not have “Undo” when I am used to the “Undo” and sent some poorly formatted emails.

So hopefully, that clears things up if you’re a coach who is an email warrior. There is no “recall this message” functionality that really works. When an email is received by the recipient, they own it. If you could retract an email, it would be the equivalent of going into their phone or computer and stealing it back.

*The one exception is that in an internal network where you are sending an email from one colleague to the next, the system admin could set up rules that would allow for the retraction of an email. This is only under very unique circumstances.

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