Obsessive Disclaiming Disorder in email communication

If I don’t know what you’re thinking, I know what you should be thinking: This is 1999, and you’re reading an article mistakenly dated twenty years hence. But unfortunately, despite our developmental blindness to them — together with their invisibility within the legal system — the pestilence of email disclaimers really does continue to menace perfectly sufficient signatures. Indeed, the contagion looks set to outlive polio.

A recent post in my LinkedIn feed referenced an email from HMRC with a 17-word message, and a 493-word disclaimer. Admittedly, HMRC’s a soft target for purported battiness, but it’s far from alone in practising a rite that might have excused itself from the digital party, in quiet embarrassment, two decades ago.

The eccentricity is now into postgraduate age and, despite a generation of public abuse and humiliation — without chalking up a single precedent of legal efficacy — looks set to endure. It’s a small mercy that these textual tumours remain an email-centric phenomenon, but the same fact serves to heighten their absurdity.

The disclaimer still has something of a spring in its step; it certainly outpaces contemporary human evolution in its generational diversity. Like a Heston Blumenthal chip, there’s always room for improvement; there’s always a legal chef willing to bear the challenge of pursuing it, and always a quavering executive, or government mandarin, with an appetite for garrulous legalese in lieu of actual risk assessment. 

Western visitors to Korea are often baffled and amused by lingering anxieties over the risks posed by… electric fans. Not, you might think, the risk of a child squeezing a tiny finger through the mesh and losing it to a high-speed rotational blade. But the risk that, if inadvisedly left on overnight in a closed room, it might be the end of you. 

Some say its fatal mechanism is hypothermia; others say hyperthermia; others, still, suggest an increase in carbon dioxide concentration. Scientists, I mean. Yes, it’s a subject that’s still a worthy topic for research funding. Government warnings are intended to reduce the risk, particularly during the summer months. In the meantime, newspaper reports dovetail with parochial rumours: ‘Man, 88, mysteriously found dead at home. Coroner’s report inconclusive. A neighbour discovered the body. A fan was reportedly left on in the room.’ Or something to that effect.

Bible readers shouldn’t underestimate the entertainment value of the speck in your brother’s eye. But, getting back to the beam in our own: Through no greater lens than the email has the employer looked upon its employees so inexplicably askance. Why doesn’t HMRC consider it similarly judicious to post a 493-word letter after closing a phone call? Why are businesses so insouciant about leaves of blank headed paper lying around the office, yet clamour for legal counsel in trembling voices when an employee hits New Message in Outlook? Why don’t they legally vaccinate their text messages?

Unparalleled in its ability to stir atavistic fears of institutional misrepresentation, only email must be chastened by these mystical incantations. While organisations continue to rabidly communicate unguarded through platforms old and new — from telephone calls, meetings, and text messages, through to Google Hangouts, Slack, and Facebook Workplace — many continue to cower in foreboding at the thought of transmitting an email without a prayer of protection.

The Enlightenment was supposed to present an existential threat to superstition, not merely to trade its mechanism from the spirit world to industry. The scourge of email disclaimers is, after all, only a marginally more benign indictment upon human rationality than trial by ordeal. What other flavours of callow groupthink, and contemptibly blind imitation, haunt the meeting rooms of our nation’s commercial and governmental institutions?


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