“Don’t tell J.” Does the Use of Initials Lessen The Fallout of Damaging Emails?

I’ve done it, frankly, because other people do it. Maybe you do it too. When we’re talking about someone not on the email thread in an unflattering light, we start using their initials. When we talk about them in a more positive light, we use their full name.

I think we feel we can disclaim that we were talking about them if the email winds up in the wrong hands. My wife suggested that it is because we feel uncomfortable talking about the person and using their initials makes it feel less personal.

How well does it actually work? Not well, as I’ve always suspected. Context is everything and we’re not fooling anyone, as this NYT article on the lawsuit between Julie Taymor and the producers of the play Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark shows:

“Glen Berger, appear conniving as he sought to draft new scenes in cahoots with the producers, Bono and the Edge. (“Best not to mention anything to J.,” he wrote at one point, according to the court papers.)”

I haven’t looked at the rest of the court filing yet, but it apparently reveals a number of emails which I’m sure include a lot more similar bon mots.

I’ll probably keep using initials out of deference to others on a thread if they start it. But, if I were really honest I’d reply saying it’s pointless. We’re not fooling anyone. If its just to make ourselves feel better, the problem is that it looks worse if it does get in the wrong hands later.

About Sean O'Connor

Sean O’Connor is the Boeing International Professor at the University of Washington School of Law (Seattle). He is also Chair of the Center for Advanced Study and Research on Innovation Policy and Faculty Director of the Cannabis Law &B Policy Project. With a diverse background in music, technology, philosophy, history, business, and law, he specializes in legal issues and strategies for entrepreneurship and the commercialization of innovation in biotechnology, information technology, and new media/digital arts.
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