Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Auntie Seraphic & the Malicious Eavesdropper

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

I'm currently involved in a convoluted and drama-filled situation, and I'm at a loss as to what to do. Here's the shortest version of the story:

I have been friends with a family of Nice Catholic Boys and Nice Catholic Girls for the past twenty years. The sister I was closest to (let’s call her A) moved out of the country last year. A has never been good at communication, and I rarely hear from her despite the emails and letters I[...] write on a regular basis. When I get frustrated with her silence, I turn to [another] NCG (B) who is not only a mutual friend of ours, she is dating the brother (C) of A. B and I write several emails a day to each other, talk on the phone often, and try to get together as frequently as our schedules allow.

Recently, A came back to [our nation] for a month’s vacation. B and I found out that A was angry with us because she was informed that we have been “badmouthing” her while she’s been away. We were both fairly surprised because most of our frustrations come out in our emails. Both B and I tried to contact A via emails, letters, and phone calls, but she refuses to talk to us to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, C and B have been holding on to their strained relationship.

After two months of this drama, B and I were told that the original story was not quite true. Whoever the “informer” was didn’t hear us saying these things; this person hacked into our email account, read our emails, and copied and pasted quotes about A into a Word document. These quotes are not chronological and completely out of context. And now they have been forwarded to C.

B and I are completely humiliated and hurt that someone would be malicious enough to do something like this. Our privacy has been completely invaded; our emails are like our diaries. I believe that venting is a natural thing to do and these emails were only meant for B and I to see. It’s especially hurtful that this would be done by our nice Catholic friends who should know better and are now causing friendships and relationships to be hurt and possibly ended.

I feel like I’ve done all I can do but is there something here that I’m missing? I’ve tried to contact A to no avail. I’ve said novenas and rosaries and offered Masses and Communions for the resolution of this ridiculous situation. Please give me some advice on how to handle the situation. Thank you!

The Unwilling Drama Queen

Dear Unwilling Drama Queen,

How awful! What a mess! Whoever read your emails and sent A this cut-and-paste poison pen letter did a terrible, terrible thing. He or she or they are not "nice" or "friends"-- they are evil-doing enemies. (Um, do you know who it was?) If he or she or they are Catholics, they ought to know they have committed at least two or three awful sins and need a good tearstained grovel in the confessional on Saturday afternoon.

Your story reminds me that email is not safe (more on this below), and that we have all got to be very careful with what we put in writing.

You've already tried to contact A, and it hasn't worked. And you've been storming heaven, and heaven hasn't sent a resolution yet. Perhaps it is time to be silent--and to change all your passwords, if you haven't done that already.

You and B have been terribly wronged by someone. That, to me, is the most important thing. Someone has stolen from both of you. This must be traumatic. Just ghastly. I want to say that before I give you a short sermon on the dangers of venting. No matter what you and B said, I think you are both the most sinned against here.

I agree that it is perfectly natural for women to blow off steam when we feel hurt by other women, although I don't think it is always a wise or helpful thing to do. The Christian life demands that we "rise above" the natural. And although I assume my friends gossip and complain about me, I sort of hope they don't. Someone once sent an email about me to me by mistake, and it permanently affected my relationship with three people.

Meanwhile, it is a very bad idea for a woman (or man) to discuss a member of her (or his) beloved's family with a third party. Blood really is thicker than water. In an ideal situation, B would have told you that she can't discuss A because A is C's sister. Such reticence is not just kind, it is rock-solid prudent.

Personally, I don't allow anyone outside the family to complain about members of my family. My siblings and I may look like cold and bloodless Anglo-Saxons, but say the wrong thing and we turn into seething claymore-wielding clansmen. My married brother's wife is now my sister, to be defended to the death; my unmarried brother's girlfriend (if he had one) is a stranger, at best a charming acquaintance, at worst a threat to family peace. I feel badly for C who is now torn between his sister A and his girlfriend B. That said, I repeat that the person you should all be worried about is the malevolent creep (creeps or creepette) who sent that cut-and-paste email.

The only thing you could say to A--if you ever manage to talk to A, who might not ever want to talk to you, and you must respect that---is "We were only complaining because we really like you and want you to contact us more often. We're horrified that someone got into our accounts and sent you that cut-and-paste email. If we had any idea that could happen, we would never have written a word."

Meanwhile, since both you and B were (and still are) frustrated by A's lack of communication, you both may have to pray for detachment. The painful truth may be that you care for A more than she cares for either of you. Leave her be.

I spoke to a computer security expert, and he said that the first thing I should state is that I am not a lawyer (IANAL). He's not a lawyer, either. So that done, I now will tell you that he told me that hacking is very hard to prove. And, worse, email is considered public communication unless it has been encrypted. It is just too easy for others to read.

You might forget to log off on a home or college computer, and then the person who uses it next finds out, reads, cuts and pastes, steals your password, emails all your contacts pretending to be you. You might unconsciously press "Send All" when you meant to press "Send". You might absentmindedly send an email to the wrong person, and she or he might forward it to everyone in town. You might forward an email to someone, forgetting that there's an entire correspondence under the latest message. Public, public, public.

Unencrypted email is nothing like a diary or a letter. It is much more like a postcard--a postcard any postman (remember the Chesterton story?) can alter invisibly, with your name still scrawled at the bottom. I find this terrifying.

Therefore, my last bit of advice is to remember this lesson and swear never again to send anyone anything by email that you would not want read at your wedding or funeral. I just did myself.

Grace and peace,


berenike said...



Julie said...

I've never known anyone (other than family) for as long as 20 years so I might be wrong -- but I do know that my friendships of 5 or 6 years are different than the newer ones. Some people who I've been friends with for 6 years, I've discovered things about them I don't like or things they do that make me crazy, so spending time with them consists of as much tolerance as enjoyment. And then the sets of siblings whom I'm friends with -- when we're all together we're all friends, but there's only one whom I would email directly or who I would feel put out if she didn't tell me about a new job or something.

I guess what I'm saying is, you've been friends with this whole family for 20 years? That is a distinct kind of friendship. And I would say that your friendship with A is apparently not the kind where she feels the need to keep you informed about everything going on in life. Unfortunately it would have been better just to embrace that you are that-kind-of-friends with B and rest in the knowledge that, being a good family friend, you and A will certainly cross paths and catch up sooner or later.

The most maddening thing for me in this situation would be that I think you have to be meek and mild and thoroughly apologetic in order to salvage all these relationships. If you restrict yourself to raging against the scumbag who read your emails, that might lead to defending your behavior, which will junk it all. Oh, awful, what an awful situation.

fifi said...

Horrors!! I'm changing all my passwords NOW!!!

Jennifer said...

It never ceases to amaze me after all these years of the internet and email that there are still people who think email and, often enough, their blogs are like 'a diary'. They are nothing like a diary, for the reasons you have mentioned above, and more.

Aside from which, you should never - NEVER - commit to email or paper correspondence that which might shame you later. Really, it would be better all 'round not to say things that would shame you at all, but if you must, do it in person, out of earshot of other people. And only to someone you trust.

Jennifer said...

That said, this does not at ALL excuse the epic jerk who hacked into the email, cut/paste, and sent to A. That person should be flogged. In public.

regularguy said...

I really feel for you in your situation and I'm hoping you can sort out this situation. Here's a couple of thoughts that I hope may help.

We all have difficulties in interacting with people from time to time, even people we love. This is a part of life, however what we do under irritation is critical as Christians. A bunch of things have happened to you, some of which are within your influence and some which are not. So I'm going to focus on the things that are or were within your sphere of influence.

There is a principle that is worth trying to follow as closely as possible when interacting with people, which is: to never say (or write etc.) a thing about a person to anyone else which you are not prepared to say to the persons face directly. The rationale behind this is that if you are feeling angry, unhappy, uncomfortable or irritated about someone, then you either have a just reason for feeling that way, or you don't.

If you do have a just reason for feeling that way, then you should talk to them driven by Christian charity (and humility just in case you're wrong) and give the person a chance to respond, perhaps rectify the situation, and or clear up any misunderstanding. More often than not, this kind of conflict is rooted in some innocent misunderstand of one or both of the parties. However, not sorting it out may very well mean that the misunderstanding festers into much bigger situation than it originally was.

If you don't have a just reason for feeling that way, then the though should be relegated to the trash can never to be thought again.

The only exception to this, is if you are legitimately talking to someone (perhaps your priest) to figure out how you should resolve the situation. However, venting should always be avoided as it violates the justice of the other person regardless of the intended scope of publication. Charity should always be applied even when composing your diary entries. I'm not trying to pass a judgement on your situation here but it is worth noting that genuinely innocent emails would have been really uninteresting to the person who hacked your email.

There is another point to consider that is relevant to your specific situation. I work in geographically dispersed teams often and there is something I've discovered. All modern forms of communication (email, letters, telephone) are flawed. I like to call them communication supplements. Like dietary supplements, they can help, but you won't live long just eating them alone.

This is a trick the distance and the devil plays on people. Once you're apart from a person, you're on a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to you thinking the other person is more selfish, stupid, hopeless, or irrational than they really are. Unfortunately there are only really two things you can do in this situation and that is either get some face to face contact time (not always possible), or know that this is what is going to happen and cut the other person way more slack than you normally would. These are just phantoms that the distance and poor communication mediums will play on you. Don't let it break your relationships. I should note, that this happens at both ends of the communications pipe.

I'm not going to bother talking about the person who broke into your mail as it is so blatantly wrong that it doesn't really require discussion. Also it is squarely outside your direct influence anyway.

Anyway, I really hope you can patch things up with your friend. Ignore all the nonsense that has put a wedge between you and your friend, take hold of those things that are in your influence and try and sort it out again. That's all you can do really.