'Hi Liz': The Story of an E-Mail Disaster

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For better or for worse, you have to feel for Elizabeth Becton, and for the assistant at a Washington lobbying group who made the mistake of calling her "Liz" in an e-mail.

Becton is executive assistant and office manager for Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and in a one-hour period last month, she got angry at a lobbyist at McBee Strategic Consultanting, who sounded a touch too chummy when trying to set up a meeting between the congressman and some representatives of JPMorgan Chase.

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She would probably like to forget the whole thing -- except that it is all stored in e-mail servers somewhere, and was leaked to Anne Schroeder Mullins of Politico.com.

"Hi Liz," wrote the assistant, "just checking in on whether the Congressman is available next week."

The reply, two minutes later: "Who is Liz?"

"Hi Elizabeth, I thought you went by Liz -- apologies if that is incorrect."

"I do not go by Liz. Where did you get your information?"

It goes on, and you can read the entire exchange below -- but it's a funny-and-sad reminder of the pitfalls of e-mail.

"Sounds like you got played by someone who KNOWS I hate that name and that it's a fast way to TICK me off," Becton writes a few minutes later. "Who told you that I go by that name?"

'Netiquette'

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, who literally wrote the book on e-mail etiquette ("SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better"), warn of precisely this kind of case.

"It's always best to stay formal until someone gives you permission to become more informal," wrote Schwalbe in an e-mail to ABC News.

On the other hand, he said, "We do all need to cut each other a whole lot of slack. Everyone makes mistakes! But that goes in both directions -- sometimes we need to be forgiven for being more informal than we should have been -- and sometimes we need to be forgiven for getting perhaps overly annoyed."

"I hate e-mail," said Mike DeCesare, Rep. McDermott's press secretary, who did not dispute the authenticity of the exchange. "I despise it, and one reason is that it seems to lack humanity.

"If I say something to you in person it comes across one way," he said by telephone, "and if I write it in an e-mail it comes across completely differently."

DeCesare said he would not make Becton available for an interview. "This is not how we do business in this office," he said. "It only takes one thing."

Anne Schroeder Mullins, the Politico columnist, said the e-mail exchange "seems to be spreading like wildfire" around Washington and the Web.

"I e-mailed Mike and asked if she's okay," said Mullins. "It sounds like she's keeping her job. Everyone has a bad day."

E-Mail Texts

Here's a redacted version of the e-mail exchange, as published by Politico:

From: XXX

Sent: Friday, May 22, 2009 11:38 AM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: JPMC Meeting Request

Elizabeth,

Attached is a meeting request for JP Morgan Chase who will be in DC June 3rd-4th and would like to request a brief meeting with the Congressman.

Let me know if you need any additional information.

Thank you!

Best,

XXX

________________________________

From: XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:05 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Hi Liz,

just checking in on whether the Congressman is available next week. [REDACTED] can confirm a meeting time for you - she is available at [REDACTED].

Thank you!

Best,

XXX

________________________________

From: Becton, Elizabeth

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