Don’t Put In An Email What You Wouldn’t Want To See On the Front Pages Of The Telegraph

by admin on July 12, 2011

Several readers sent me a link to the following story from the UK in which a prominent stepmother sent a scathing email to her future daughter-in-law blasting her for her apparent lack of manners.   The recipient of the email then forwarded it to a few friends who in turn forwarded it and the email went viral.    News articles here and here.

My first reaction after reading this was, “Good grief, have we, as a culture, become so enamored of reality television that this would be considered newsworthy?”   Second thought, “What kind of pathetic news outlet would deem this to be newsworthy?”   Didn’t anyone else feel somewhat sullied just reading about this?  It’s like we communally all decided to debase ourselves by being crass voyeurs.

I decided to not post the full text of the email because I do not want to perpetuate the idea that publishing what should have been private is somehow OK.   I’m not going to delve into the content of the email either since it is clearly a case of different and dueling perspectives and we’ll never know the truth of what really happened.  I will, however, address the matter of writing such a missive and how one receives it.

This story really demonstrates, in quite spectacular clarity, the old adage that one should never write in an email what you would never want to see published on the front page of your local newspaper.   We’ve all done it however.  Everyone of us has written something in a chat, letter or an email that probably would have been better said in person or not at all.   We all have a hope that private communication stays private between the sender and recipient but the reality is that once it leaves your hand, you no longer have control over its dispersal.

Confronting someone about their ill manners should be done face to face, in person and only as a last recourse.  Particularly with family and future in-laws, only the most egregious, long patterned behavior should be addressed.  Everything else should be overlooked as a practical expression of the belief that  “love covers a multitude of sins”.    The key motivation should be to encourage them to see how certain behaviors are actually detrimental to themselves and their relationships.   Confronting someone merely to assuage your own sense of discomfort or offense often will not have the desired effect of actually influencing someone to change.

Receiving a scathing email or letter will certainly tempt one to share the contents with co-workers, family, and friends.   Why?  To receive validation from others that we really are not as bad as the letter writer claims we are.  We want our damaged ego stroked back to normalcy by people telling us how evil that email/letter writer is and how we didn’t deserve to be treated this way.

But what of the consequences?  The bride’s father encouraged her to take the “moral high ground” and ignore the email from her future mother-in-law.    Sending the email displayed a  lack of discretion, unkindness and selfishness by the MIL but the bride confirms to the world that she is just as unkind, selfish and devoid of discretion as her future MIL is.  She held the power to choose whether this debacle ended in her In Box or whether it was perpetuated beyond her immediate family.   It’s retaliatory rudeness at its stupidest because while MIL’s email was private, the bride’s actions exposed everyone in the family to international ridicule and shame.   Both women displayed a profound lack of foresight to see how their actions would affect the family relationships.   In other words, in order to preserve the hope of better relationships in the future, sometimes the best response in the here and now is to do NOTHING.

Years ago when my husband and I were first married, he received a long letter from a then young adult relative who bitterly complained that after marrying me, my husband now had very little time to spend with him.  It was a letter written with a lot of angst, jealousy and selfishness.   My husband wisely filed away the letter never showing it to me or anyone else.   It would surface years later during a decluttering project but by this time, the author had matured, gotten married and promptly started having children (thus experiencing firsthand how time consuming it can be) and the relationship between us and him had strengthened and solidified into something positive and productive.    His family is a great blessing to us.

For the Withers/Bourne families, there are now a huge, nearly insurmountable barrier to familial harmony and the children born into this family dynamic are to be pitied.  Such a shame.

{ 85 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary J. July 12, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Yeah- I was aghast when I read the snippy and cruel attitude the FMIL took against Heidi in regards to her diabetes. The diabetes section was edited out of most of the papers that reprinted the letter. Most papers completely glossed over the fact that the FMIL sniped at Heidi for being unable to eat certain things, require more food, or need to stop for food when on a long walk. I mean, really? To me, the viral quality of this note was unpredictable to Heidi. She shared it with her friends, in a similar fashion others share their problems on the forum (our forum users are much more circumspect, of course) but no one can really know what makes something go viral.

The FMIL knew she would destroy her relationship with her FDIL and possibly her DS by sending the email- and she sent it repeatedly to ensure it would be seen. Finally, anyone who values etiquette hopefully knows that one cannot teach etiquette or criticize it while completely ignoring it. The best course of action is to lead by example, and when appropriate, gently correct some one. I fail to see this letter as a means to correct the FDIL and more of a weapon of the FMIL- the FMIL wanted to hurt and embarrass the FDIL and could care less about helping mold her into a better person. It invalidates all of her accusations and makes her a resident of EHell.

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Ista July 12, 2011 at 10:03 pm

As a side note: I was wondering whether the Bride to Be had anything to say publicly on this subject. What I found surprised me. The groom and his father have been estranged for sometime and only started closing the breach in the last handful of years. FSMIL is on her third marriage with scandalous stories (she admits to a “coloured past”) surrounding the dissolutions of her first two marriages. And, groom’s REAL mother (Mrs B is his Step-Mother) has stated she has seen nothing wrong with Bride to Be’s manners (granted that can be chalked up to personal feelings she may have for the woman who married her ex, hard to say from the outside).
Oh, and Bride to Be doesn’t seem to have commented publicly on the note at all.
When one delves into the story it’s an interesting commentary on life and the common man of today…much like many novels I can think of.

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Spuck July 12, 2011 at 10:04 pm

I think what it all ultimately comes down to is that the FMIL wrote down her opinions, which the second she decided to keep, then send out, could be archived for future generations. She was the one who decided to put her views, in writing, out in the open. The whole world seeing the e-mail is just an unintended consequence, but it was the risk the mother in law took when she decided to write the e-mail,.

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Louise July 13, 2011 at 12:12 am

@Karma

“Do I really need to “explain” this? When you take your private communication and show it to others, (friends or not) they discuss it, talk about it, tell others, and it leaves your realm of control. It’s a very simple concept. If you don’t want others to know, don’t tell it, show it, and definitely don’t forward it!”
–Of course Heidi wanted people to know — the friends she forwarded the e-mail to. That’s not the same as “wanting to publicize” the e-mail or “figuring she’d punish her FMIL,” — which is what you claimed in your first post — that’s running to your friends, which I think is a reasonable thing to do when you’re hurt. If someone hurts you, what do you do? If your policy is “don’t tell it,” do you really keep it bottled up inside? You don’t tell anyone about anything? Your original post made it sound like Heidi set out to destroy her mother-in-law’s reputation or something, which is certainly not the impression I get. My impression is that the friends went, “OMG!” and forwarded the e-mail on and it erupted from there.

“It doesn’t matter what I think about the fairness or unfairness of the MIL’s feelings. Either the MIL lied about the FDIL’s actions, or she told the truth. (The only people who will know are those who were there.)”
–The mother-in-law said Heidi’s manners were so vile, they offended the family dog, a creature that licks its own butt and quite possibly eats poop. So yes, I think the mother-in-law is exaggerating the bride’s etiquette sins. If that doesn’t bother you, so be it, but it certainly makes me doubt the veracity of the mother-in-law’s claims. I happen to do care about things that aren’t fair.

” This isn’t about fair or unfair. It’s about two women who both handled their affairs in such a way that they each came out looking like idiots.”
–I don’t see what’s idiotic about showing a few of your friends what a harpy your mother-in-law is. But if your policy is “don’t tell it,” I can see why you do.

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The Elf July 13, 2011 at 7:10 am

Bint, that was me. Aside from sacrasm quotes regarding the quality of journalism for the story, I also confused Daily Telegraph with Daily Mail. My bad!

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Jojo July 13, 2011 at 7:50 am

My mother has always maintained that it is the rudest people she knows that are the greatest sticklers for etiquette. They somehow always think that no matter how abrupt, demanding or challenging they may be, a simple thank you note will excuse all ills and then ask the same of others, becoming upset at the slightest slip in behaviour.
I would far rather have a great guest and no thank you note or gift than a demanding guest who sends me a brief thank you letter on lavender scented note paper from Harrods. It mystifies me why FMIL sent three emails to two separate email accounts. Why not a letter as she herself asked for? Letters also don’t get as far ( unless you scan them into the computer that is).
But I think FMIL may fall into the rather entitled ‘I can behave as I please but can never excuse your behaviour’ bracket.
I get the feeling FDIL did her best but being ‘defective’ what with having diabetes and all, would never have passed muster anyway. All her crimes seem to stem from the fact that she needs to have a regular eating pattern that includes diabetic friendly food and probably had to miss out on the family walk because she didn’t have access to this, then decided after a long working week to have a lie in on a Saturday morning.
I don’t think any of the MILs I’ve ever met would have had an issue with this at all.
And if they had, they’d have found a more constructive way to broach the issue because this woman will one day be the mother of their grandchildren. And grandchildren count for a lot.

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Meegs July 13, 2011 at 8:52 am

Karma, I have to disagree with you on the view that it got out singlehandedly due to the FDIL’s decision to display it to others. It got out because the FSMIL was mean and stupid enough to write it in the first place.

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karma July 13, 2011 at 9:10 am

Louise,
We’ll have to disagree, I suppose. Telling one’s business is the fastest way for it to spread. If she didn’t want it known, she should have kept it to herself. (Apparently, someone in her friends group was not as closemouthed as she thought.) When a person tells her business, especially embarrassing business, she must be prepared for fallout and repercussions. There is a difference between “bottling” emotion and revealing a personal communications to outsiders.

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Amber July 13, 2011 at 9:26 am

I read about this, and gave a shrug. Unpleasant family members send unpleasant emails all the time. But I don’t blame the bride for sharing the email with friends and really close family. When a person is specifically targeting taking care of your illness (in this case, diabetes) as a breach in ettiquete, how can you hold that all in? There’s keeping it close, and then there’s an appropriate time to vent to people who care about you. Perhaps she should have said “I got this REALLY nasty email” rather than actually sending the email, but either way I think she had the right to complain about the horrid woman who said it is gauche to eat on a walk to keep her blood suger levels balanced or to inform FMIL what she isn’t allowed to eat for health reasons.

I mean, isn’t that what this site is? On one hand, it’s a teaching tool so that others avoid etiquette mistakes. On the other, it is an obvious tool for venting. And sometimes, yes, emails are shared in the full. The only difference between this site’s contributors and the FDIL is that names are changed to protect the innocent, but I’m sure more than one etiquette offender has stumbled across themselves on this site (or has been recognised by bystanders in the situations discussed.) If the FDIL had shared her story with ehell rather than with close friends (and remember she had NO intention of spreading it around beyond those friends), would she be any more in the right? Privacy online is a farce, no matter how many names are changed.

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Bint July 13, 2011 at 9:54 am

@Elf -the Daily Mail!!! Forsooth, that’s one dreadful paper indeed!

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wolfgirl July 13, 2011 at 9:59 am

Woah! I saw this when it first came out, but as people said it was clearly the editied version I read, without mention of the diabetes. Originally I thought that whilst the FMIL was clearly an unmitigated female dog, the bride sounded pretty chavvy/bad mananered too. Now it turns out she has a serious medical condition that the FMIL was perfectly well aware of. So there goes any last shred of an excuse the MIL may have had for her behaviour. And Im sorry but if someone is told me that my illness was “vulgar” (and mind you we are not talking about intimate discussions of IBS symptoms at the dinner table, just that she might require some more sustenance than a dainty cumcumber sandwich at 5o’clock precisely!) then Im pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to stop myself venting to a few friends. Unbelievable!

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Lola July 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

That poor girl was cursed with 2 families: her own, which apparently has failed to raise her to function well in a society, and her future husband’s who has so little sympathy for her predicament. God help them both (Heidi and Freddie).

As to the matter of forwarding email communications, I’m of the mind that, unless the email contains damaging personal information (social security numbers, medical or criminal history, etc.) forwarding on is fair game. Why should the recipient be responsible for maintaining the sender’s public persona?

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karma July 13, 2011 at 11:40 am

I dunno, Lola. I’ve seen some pretty harsh accidental damage done to multiple parties (in my field of work) as a result of forwarded emails. I think when an email comes into your possession, you ought to think twice about what you do with it. Once it leaves your inbox, well……..the story above is a perfect reason not to forward stuff that was intended for your eyes only (evil or otherwise).

Imagine how differently this would have all turned out had the FDIL not made others privy to this. Imagine that she’d showed her future husband, who incidentally is the other stakeholder in this, and the two of them had decided how to handle it. Delete it, fire an angry missive back, print it and go visit his mom to discuss it, cut off contact with her……whatever.

I bet cold, hard cash it wouldn’t have made it to The Telegraph.

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Lizajane July 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm

The FSMIL and commenters on the newspaper sites write about how tacky it is that Heidi makes it known that she has diabetes. I can’t find where it’s even talked about it the articles I read. Also, I don’t know how often Heidi actually brings it up, but if I’m in the presence of a diabetic, especially one who’s a guest in my home, I prefer to know that they have the condition. Having seen someone go into insulin shock, I was grateful to have an idea of what was happening.

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Louise July 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm

@ karma

“When a person tells her business, especially embarrassing business, she must be prepared for fallout and repercussions. There is a difference between “bottling” emotion and revealing a personal communications to outsiders.”

Outsiders? Since when are your friends outsiders?

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--Lia July 13, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Question: My mother often forwards mail from other family members. Usually it’s just chatty stuff. Sometimes it involves health matters or other things that I suppose (though I can’t be certain) they told her with the assumption it was a private conversation. I have asked her they’ve given their permission to have their private mail forwarded. She gets defensive and says their news is nothing to be ashamed of. I have asked her if she forwards my mail. She says no. I have asked her not to forward private mail to me. She does so anyway. What do I do?

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karma July 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Louise,

People “outside” of yourself. You don’t have to agree, obviously.

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Bint July 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Lia, I would just delete it and maybe tell your mother you will delete it. Or bounce it back saying you don’t want to read it.

However, if they’d told her on the phone and she had told you, would you mind so much?

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Anon for this July 13, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Lia–what do you do? If you really want to out your mother FWD the mail to the original sender. Perhaps if they know your mother is passing along their email they won’t be so open with her via email. Also, don’t trust her not to be spreading your news around the same way. I’d think twice before telling her anything even remotely personal via email.

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kelly July 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm

The future step-mother in law claims her dog now has mental problems because of the brides behaviour. That says it all.

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Another Alice July 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I have to say I disagree with E-Hell for equating the DIL and MIL’s behaviors. What this MIL said was not just about etiquette; she was absolutely cruel, saying that she “pities” her son to deal with the future daughter-in-law. Also, she sent the email THREE TIMES in one day! Quite frankly, I have no sympathy whatsoever for her. I don’t blame the daughter-in-law at all for sharing the email with her friends/family. Her father states she did so with the question of, “What should I do?” I can say with absolute confidence that I would be so shocked, I would have done the same thing. There is a huge difference between cruelty and lack of etiquette. The DIL lacked etiquette in forwarding the email, but I feel it was a minor breach that ended up getting way more out of hand than she ever wanted/expected. What the MIL said was horrific, cruel, and uncalled for. It doesn’t mean she “deserved” the fall-out, but as I said, an accidental indiscretion is a completely different animal than a well-planned attack.

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Ange July 14, 2011 at 4:05 am

I am entirely on the DIL’s side on this one. Not only is there the diabetes to consider but the other quibbles are quite understandable when you think about it. I can’t imagine the MIL would have been very welcoming if this email came out of the visit, I probably would have ‘slept late’ too. If I’m uncomfortable I remove myself from situations and can sometimes overcompensate behavior wise.

I don’t get the ‘my house my rules’ credo, would you not like your guests to be comfortable in your home? As long as my guests aren’t dealing drugs or anything of the like I’m fine.

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Mechtilde July 14, 2011 at 4:55 am

@ Lizajane- the full text is not reprinted in the newspaper articles, but other people have found it online.

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Lizajane July 14, 2011 at 7:17 am

What Another Alice said.

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Harley Granny July 14, 2011 at 8:50 am

While I totally agree that there is fault on both sides, does anyone else want to know what went on this particular weekend that prompted such an e-mail?

For all we know the FDIL was acting like a major prima donna, making demands and treating the FIL’s like servants. My husband is a diabetic but makes no demands and what a hostess or host serves. From what the FMIL listed she is correct in what she says. She at no time said the brides parents were poor…she simply stated that the bride and groom should live within their means. The horrors!!!
I’m NOT saying the FDIL did anything wrong during the visit but we’ll never know the truth.

That being said, the FMIL could have and should have approached it in a very different manner and at no time should the FDIL have let it go viral on the net.

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--Lia July 14, 2011 at 11:44 am

Anon and Bint– Thanks for your perspective. I guess I’ve known since my teens never to tell my mother anything remotely personal. I’m having to learn that even a well-written chatty letter is fair game too. Would I mind so much if my mother passed on news over the phone and in her own words? At least there, I have the option of stopping her mid-sentence and saying “I don’t want to hear gossip.” I’ve done that in the past, and it usually works for a few months.

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Enna July 14, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I was wondering when this was going to hit Ehell. I agree with my Mum: hosts are meant to make guests feel comfortable – that’s what being hospitalble is all about. I do agree with Admin that if someone is unberaebly rude then discussing it face to face might be the best option.

As a Diabetic myself I’m glad to say that I haven’t had these problems with a host. A firend of a firend was hosting a party and he asked me if I could drink as he was doing cocktails and didn’t want to give me something that could make me ill. Now this to me is a valid question – a host taking care of his guests and who might not have hosted for a diabetic before. He told me the ingrediants of the cocktail and I said what I will do is try it when I arrive as I’ll be able able to watch him make it and roughly gage how much I can drink. Even if I wasn’t diabetic checking drinking habbits is a good idea.

Another time a firend A was having a meal out at a Mexcian restruant, firend B mentioned to her that as a Diabetic spicy food maybe unsuitable for me, so Firend A asks me and I say, Mexican food is fine, rice dishes are good for Diabetics and I like medium curries so a mediumly spiced Mexican dish should be fine. I appricated the way in which firend A asked as it wasn’t patronising or bossy the way some people question what I eat, she was asking a valid quesiton about eating out.

As for the DIL, she may be sepcific about her food for her medical needs but not fussed what she eats so long as it fits in those pramaters. She’s giving her host the right information but allowing the host as much flexibility as possible – surely that’s enough for the hosting MIL? She may not say she has not enough food because she could be full and she may wait to be asked for a second helping so as not to seem piggy. It could be seen as rude just helping herself (I bet if she did MIL would jump on that).

As for “falling in line with the rules of the house” – okay that goes for sleeping arrangements, and no alochol if the host doesn’t drink. As for the pub joke gone wrong and causing offence – people do put their foot in their mouths at times. Getting married in a castle isn’t just for celebrities. My Mum’s cousin got married in a lovely small one for his second marriage and it was a non-religious, non fussy ceremony. What a great way to maintian British heritage by investing in a castle! Better then Church hogging.

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Enna July 14, 2011 at 12:28 pm

P.S sending an email – it can “accidentally” be forwarded on. MIL in the wrong here.

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Merry Mrs July 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm

I think the FMIL gave up all rights to cry foul that the email was shared when she sent it to DIL work. Business emails (except to doctors & lawyers) do not have an expectation of privacy. If DIL was out sick a co-worker may need to read her emails(I’ve had people check my inbox while I was a lunch if something was expected) Her boss and/or subordinate my have access.

Secondly I also believe some correspondence does not deserve privacy…..blackmail , threats , abusive , harassing letters , phone messages and emails. The perpetrator does not deserve to hide behind a veil of privacy. I think if the reports are true and the groom and his father were estranged since the groom WAS 8 for 16 years (BTW wouldn’t this be called abandonment?) and recently began speaking again. SFMIL may have possible considered this abusive ( to the groom also. , nothing like calling his bride a gold-digging , uncouth lout to strengthen that tenuous relative whit his dad)

Thirdly if you write a letter which conceivable will reduce the recipient to tears , then yes they may share it and ask “how do I respond?”

My house my rules …..

The rules can be ridiculous , it wont make you rude it may make you ungracious. The rules can not be impossible or life threatening. I can not consider a guest rude for calling 911 without asking permission , even though I expressly request they seek permission to use the phone. I can want all my guests out of bed at 6 am and not to retire until 10pm , I can not try to enforce this on and infant or a person with narcolepsy. I can not fault a diabetic who says ” I need more to eat or I’ll be sick” or “I can’t eat the covered in a honey sauce chicken may I have mine plain or some peanut butter, perhaps a slice of cheese” * I can fault one who says ” I want chicken because I don’t want any of the fish, eggs and beef you served”

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Enna July 15, 2011 at 9:16 am

With sleeping arrangements e.g. who sleeps in which room is fine. However expecting a guest to wake up early just because you do is rude unless the guest is really really late. There could be a number of explantions for this: some people are night owls by nature, others early birds. A guest might have had a bad night’s sleep due to being in a strange bed or may not be feeling to well. If a guest is sleeping really really late and there is no appranet reason for it, why doesn’t the host quitely to go in with a cup of tea/coffee to check the guest is okay?

As for eating whilst walking in the countryside – as a diabetic if I go hypo and don’t eat I’ll faint, if I feel a bit dizzy but not completely hypo I will snack. What does the FMIL what her FDIL to do? Go into a diabetic coma? When out and about there isn’t always a nice bench to sit on to snack. It does sound like this FMIL is very ignorant about people’s medication conditions but does not have the manners to ask FDIL about it, just assumes she’s being rude for the sake of it or her condition makes her rude which isn’t the case.

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Chris July 17, 2011 at 2:27 am

The FDIL did post a response online but I do not have the link. It is a reminder that there are two sides to every story. Most prominent: FDIL did admit to being short when announcing her departure from the pub. After the long walk, I can imagine her blood sugar was in trouble and that does cause mood swings. Close family would take that into account but you can imagine others rolling their eyes and thinking, “psycho…” depending on the drama of the display. Also FMIL wrote the email days after FFIL had a stroke so her emotions must have been on quite a rollercoaster as well. Add that to the estranged relationship between son/Dad and its quite a soup. They were both wrong in my opinion, but I am sympathetic towards both of them: the witch and the princess, because they aren’t completely either one of those. (Money is involved, too, by the way just to keep it really ugly. The son’s comment about that is telling.)

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Enna July 18, 2011 at 5:02 am

On the BBC news they were going through the newspapers and the DIL gave an interview saying the reason why she had slept in until about 10am is she had had a long journey to the MIL’s house the previous day. I wouldn’t say 10am is late nor early, maybe a bit late-ish but not late late.

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Ista July 18, 2011 at 12:55 pm

This weekend the bride to be rebutted the accusations against her being read round the world…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2015317/Carolyn-Bourne-email-Heidi-Withers-finally-breaks-silence-blasts-back.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

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bmyster July 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

When I first started using Internet connected computers in college, the newsreaders (think of them as pre-Web forums grouped by topic) of the day gave an excellent basic etiquette lesson. Before they sent it, they said something like:

What you send will be seen by thousands of people and costs thousands of dollars. Are you sure you want to send it?

While the latter is exaggerated, it was an excellent reminder, and made a deep impression on me—that anything you say on the Internet can and likely will haunt you for years.

While I understand we all make mistakes when we’re young, it’s a bit less understandable to make such an extreme faux pas when we’re older.

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Peg July 22, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I had mixed feelings when I 1st read the article about the FMIL’s e-mail. I had to agree with what the FMIL said but…..not how it was said. The comment about the BTB’s family’s lack of funds had now excuse.

Still the rest of Mrs. Bourne’s points were accurate, at least to some degree.

The version I read did not mention the diabetic issues which may or may not be a valid reason for some bad manners by a guest. I’ve been a diabetic for many years and never once had to ‘announce’ what I could or could not eat. It has come up QUIETLY when deserts have been pushed at me repeatedly. But for the most part, I think I’ve managed to be a good guest but then….this BTB is very young and has not had the time to learn all of the social coping skills.

But one thing I wished the B to be BtB had known is that this sort of thing is best kept within the family and not for etiquette reasons but for SURVIAL reasons!

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