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Remember “While you were out” notes?

If you worked in an office setting before phonemail and email, you probably encountered these.

The sight of one still sort of makes me cringe, even if it's just an online image.

About 30 years ago, I worked in a newsroom that used these forms. The city desk's administrative assistant was a woman named Shirley.

Shirley did not believe in the presumption of innocence. No, if an angry reader phoned the paper, Shirley assumed that the caller was in the right.

As a result, reporters assigned to the city desk would come back from lunch or whatever and be greeted by “While you were out” forms on which Shirley had written “You made a mistake” or “Deserves apology.”

I cannot remember if people said “WTF” back then. But Shirley's damning message summaries tended to prompt whatever was the 1980s equivalent.

Often, perhaps even most of the time, the reporter had not made a mistake or did not really owe anyone an apology. But Shirley kept right on handing up indictments even though she usually had precious little evidence.

This less than charming practice was brought to her attention. But I don't think she changed her ways.

Email and phonemail are not perfect. But they are just technology.

Shirley, on the other hand, was something else altogether.

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About this blog

Features writer Paul Turner is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review in the Features department. He writes "The Slice" column, which appears six times a week and produces general features stories for the Today section.

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