'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

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:07 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Importance: High

Who is Liz?

Elizabeth Becton

Executive Assistant/Office Manager

Office of Congressman Jim McDermott

XXXX Longworth House Office Building

Washington, DC 20515

XXX phone

XXX fax

________________________________

From: XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:07 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

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

________________________________

From: Becton, Elizabeth

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:08 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

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

________________________________

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:10 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Hi Elizabeth, I'm so sorry if I offended you! I thought you had gone by Liz at Potlatch, this was my mistake. Best, XXX

________________________________

From: Becton, Elizabeth

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:11 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

NEVER. I hate that name.

________________________________

From: XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:13 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Hi Elizabeth, I'm so sorry if I offended you! I must have mis-heard. My mistake! Best, XX

________________________________

'I Do Not Go by Liz'

From: Becton, Elizabeth

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:20 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Importance: High

XXX:

If I wanted you to call me by any other name, I would have offered that to you. I think it's rude when people don't even ask permission and take all sorts of liberties with your name. This is a real sore spot with me. My name has a lot of "nicknames" which I don't use. I use either my first name or my last name because I row with a lot of other women who share the same first name. Now, please do not ever call me by a nickname again.

As for your meeting request, who is the point of contact for this meeting? If it's not you, then I need to know who because it's very time-consuming to deal with a lot of people for one meeting.

Thanks,

________________________________

From: XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:23 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Hi Elizabeth, I'm so sorry I offended you! My mistake!

XXX can confirm a meeting time for you - she is available at XXX XXXX.

Thank you!

Best, XXX

________________________________

[UNRELATED EMAILS REDACTED]

From: XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:33 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Of course! Again, I am sincerely sorry for offending you. I must have mis-heard and it was in no way my intention to make you upset. I always enjoy working with you and seeing you at the WSS events J

Best,

XXX

________________________________

From: Becton, Elizabeth

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:37 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Sounds like you got played by someone who KNOWS I hate that name and that it's a fast way to TICK me off. Who told you that I go by that name? They are not your friend...

________________________________

From: XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:38 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Hi Elizabeth,

Again, I am sincerely sorry for offending you. I don't want to cause trouble as I clearly must have mis-heard the person at Potlatch. It was in no way my intention to make you upset.

Best,

XXX

________________________________

From: Becton, Elizabeth

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:41 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Importance: High

I REALLY want to know who told you to call me that.

________________________________

From:XXX

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 5:44 PM

To: Becton, Elizabeth

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Hi Elizabeth,

Again, I am sincerely sorry for offending you. I don't recall who I overheard. It was in no way my intention to make you upset.

Best,

XXX

________________________________

From: Becton, Elizabeth

Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 6:04 PM

To: XXX

Subject: RE: JPMC Meeting Request

Let me put it this way, they don't know me and perhaps they were PRETENDING to know me better than they do and pretended that I go by Liz. They did YOU a disservice.

In the future, you should be VERY careful about such things. People like to brag about their connections in DC. It's a past time for some. It's also dangerous to eaves drop, as you have just found out.

Quit apologizing and never call me anything but Elizabeth again. Also, make sure you correct anyone who attempts to call me by any other name but Elizabeth. Are we clear on this? Like I said, it's a hot button for me.

And please don't call the office and not leave a message. My colleague told me you called while I was away at the Ladies' room. I do sometimes leave my desk.