“Reply All” is Infuriating – and Yet It Keeps Us All Connected

Reply all. It drives me crazy in every aspect of my life. Recently, the New Yorker released a video of what “Reply all” looks like in our “real” lives. It is simultaneously funny and infuriating.

And every time I think that I’ve figured out the key to “Reply all,” I find that I get it wrong.

In the past, I worked for an organization in which mass emails were sent out, and 15 to 20 people were regularly “copied.” I understood why: there was tremendous overlap between departments and it was important to ensure that everyone knew what was going on (or consulted and informed, in RASCI “speak”). In the beginning, I would try to chime in – to ensure my voice was heard, to demonstrate that I was engaged, to try and make an important point. And then I realized that my voice was lost in the shuffle of 30+ emails on this one topic. So I stopped responding throughout the day. At the end of the day, I would read through the email chain. By that point, any issues or confusion had (mostly) been cleared up, so I didn’t need to do anything. Occasionally, I chimed in if my department was directly involved or affected. But mostly, I learned to be comfortable with my own silence.

I was very smug. I had this figured out.

And then I went to work for a different company. After one particular successful initiative in which we overshot our goals, I shared the successes with the senior leadership team. Crickets chirped. No one responded. I saw the VP the following day and I asked her, “Did you get the email I sent to the full team?” She replied in the affirmative. I went on to say, somewhat puzzled, “But no one responded?” And she claimed that “the culture within this company was not to respond unless necessary, as we all got too many emails as it is.”

Wise, but I was still uncertain of this approach. Over the years, when I hit “Reply” (or “Forward,” for that matter), I automatically erase everyone in the “Send to” window, to avoid accidentally hitting send before I am finished with the note. It also makes me pause to remember exactly who the email is being sent to, and to consider anyone else that needs to be copied. I’ve saved myself from a couple of big mistakes using this approach.

Now I just need to figure out how to get my friends to follow suit! I have a wonderful group of friends and we plan regular gatherings via email. When one of us is an organizer, we will send out the details. In the beginning, I was polite: “Please respond only to me if you’re planning to attend so that we don’t clog up our email boxes.” It didn’t matter. The “Reply all’s” came rolling in:

  • “Bruce Springsteen is playing that night and I have box seats. Sorry to miss you all.”
  • “I’d really love to see you, but my boss is making me attend a ridiculous work event. I’d much rather be hanging with all of you.”
  • “Shoot. I can’t make it. When is the next on?”

And that would start a whole other chain of when the next gathering will be – before we’ve even had the first one!

So I tried to be less polite: “DO NOT HIT REPLY ALL. JUST SEND A NOTE TO ME.”

And this is a sampling of the responses – that were “Reply all:”

  • “My hubby is having toe surgery that morning so I probably have to stay home to look after him. It’s his small toe so it’s not even that big of a deal.”
  • “Can we convene in NW DC? I’m not sure that I can make it to Capitol Hill during rush hour without being super late.”
  • “I’m not going to be able to get there until 7:30pm. Do you think y’all will still be there? Can you rally and wait for me?”

With a silent sigh promising myself to never organize another event, I responded to each email – individually – trying to lead by example.

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