Looking for “Un-Send”

I wrote an email from my Yahoo email account and sent to the wrong email address in Europe. Is it any way that I can retrieve the email I sent from the wrong email address and delete it before the wrong recipient can read my email?

No.

There are a couple of exceptions (one of which isn’t really an exception at all), but the answer you need to keep in mind and always remember is simply no.

Once email has been sent, it has been sent. It cannot be “unsent”.

I’ll describe why that is and what those so-called “exceptions” are all about.

When you hit Send…

When you hit the Send button, the following happens:

  • If you’re using a PC-based email program, like Outlook or Thunderbird, the email is sent from your machine to your email provider. (If you’re using a web-based email service, the message you were composing is already on their servers.)
  • The email is sent from your email provider to the email provider of your recipient.
  • The email is placed in the recipient’s online inbox1.
  • If the recipient is using a PC-based email program, it is downloaded to the recipient’s machine.

Two things are important to realize about that scenario:

  • The first three steps — up to and including arrival in your recipients’ online inbox — can happen in seconds.
  • Regardless of which steps have or have not occurred, it’s all out of your control once the sequence begins.

Once an email leaves your outbox, you lose all control over it. And I do mean all control over it. You cannot stop it. You cannot change it. You cannot track whether it’s been read or not. You cannot tell if it’s been forwarded or deleted. You can’t even know whether it’s been received, unless you get some kind of response from the recipient.

Not really an exception: Gmail

Many people point to a feature in Gmail and tell me, “But, but … Gmail lets you unsend!”.

No. No, it does not.

What Gmail has called “Undo Send” should be called “Delay Send”.

When enabled, all this option does is delay sending your message for up to a maximum of 30 seconds. During that time, you can cancel or “undo” the send.

Once those few seconds has passed, the message is actually sent.

And once it’s actually been sent, it cannot be un-sent.

All this feature does is give you a few seconds to change your mind. After that, you’re out of luck.

An actual exception: some corporate systems

“Corporate” here is really just a characterization, because of course, these email systems may be used elsewhere. It’s just more common to see them in large corporations.

Some of these email systems have a real, honest-to-goodness un-send option.

However, there are two requirements:

  1. The sender and the recipient both must be on the same corporate email system. I’m not talking about Gmail or Hotmail or whatever, here. I mean that both sender and recipient likely work for the same company and use the same email system as provided by that company.
  2. The email has not yet been read by the recipient.

It’s possible that an un-send function will actually remove your message from the inbox of the recipient(s).

Hopefully this is obvious, but once they’ve read the message, there’s no way to make them un-read it. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. You might be able to “remove the evidence”, in that the message may have disappeared from their inbox, but even then, they could have copied or printed it before that happened.

And again, this is not, not, NOT available with the email services available on the internet, and not something that would work between different email services, even if it was.

“Recall” can actually make the problem worse

Some email programs and systems offer a function called message recall.

The intent was to provide a semi-standard way to “recall”, or bring back, a message that had been sent: a way to un-send it.

The problem is that it’s not implemented (or it simply doesn’t work as intended) in most email programs. When I’ve seen this attempted, the cure seems much worse than the disease.

When recall is used, it sends another email message to all the recipients of the original message which says:

{Sender} would like to recall the message {Subject}

Now, I’m sure the idea is that the message would never be seen by the recipients, and the mail programs would just recognize some special headers and perform the recall function by deleting the original message from the recipient’s inbox.

In practice, that’s not what happens. What happens instead is that everyone who got your first message by mistake now gets this second message, drawing even more attention to your mistake.

I’m sure it works on some systems somewhere, but make darned sure you understand whether or not it will. Otherwise, it’ll just make people pay even more attention to your original mistake. Much like a politician attempting to delete evidence from the internet, there’s a very good chance that all it really will do is make people take even more notice of whatever it is you’re attempting to hide, and perhaps make copies that are even further out of your reach.

The moral of our story

There is no “undo send”.

Even if you could undo a send you still run the risk of people reading the email before you hit Undo.

Once email is sent, you lose all control over it; all control.

Bottom line: make sure you really mean it when you hit Send.


This essay originally appeared on Ask Leo! where I help people use technology more effectively, giving them the confidence to do more, be more, and explore more of the world that today’s technology makes available to us all.

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