The psychology of replying to all…it is all about the posturing

The doors to the commuter train are jammed up again, the bells are ringing and we are not moving. Sigh. It’s hot. It is 6pm and the work day has been long and brutal. The train staff start speaking to each other over the PA system. It is partly a relay of information regarding the door “unjamming” process and what they plan to snack on. I close my eyes and wonder why am I, along with hundreds of others, being subjected to this conversation.  This is the 21st century, right? Can they not speak to each other through closed off channels? There is no need for me to know any of this.  I don’t even recall or care what I ate earlier in the day. I close my eyes and slowly pull out my galaxy to check my emails. Yes, I am on my way home, but this is the only time that I have free to check my emails during the day.

100 new messages in 35 minutes. Is it me or is that insane? If this was twitter someone would be sent to twitter jail. In scrolling down through the emails, I note a big chunk are emails within a single conversation. This is what is oftentimes referred to as an email storm. Apparently, a team member had great news to share with us all and sent a group-wide email. To which everyone felt the need to reply to everyone else in offering their congratulations.  I am not necessarily an outright curmudgeon. I want to wish the person well and am momentarily happy by their shared momentous, joyous occasion. However, why must my inbox be flooded with 25 emails within the same conversation? In particular, why must my inbox be flooded emails that just say “congratulations. ” Really, my inbox is going to be flooded with one-word responses? If you are going to subject someone to your two-cents shouldn’t it be worth more than one word above 6 grade reading level? I know that what I am experiencing is not unique.  Did you know that 5% of all office emails are part of a reply all chain.  Although, when you work in a small non-profit, wanna-be family-like environment office it seems that % is way, way higher.

There is something about that “reply all” button that is alluring and intoxicating to many and infuriating to many more.  In a way, the reply all function is akin to getting vamped up in a tight red dress and hitting the latest hot nightclub in New York city where you go, get in and stand around talking with your friends. You are there to be seen by others and to watch.  You stand with hand on hip, cocktail at the lips all the while your eyes are darting about barely following the flow of conversation.  Yeah, you are really there to just enjoy the company of your friends. In the office, you hit reply all so everyone can know you are cool, sympathetic or a team player.  It is all about being “seen” as responsive. It is about broadcasting one’s presence. I blame the rise of social media for the overuse of the reply all button. In particular, the retweet button on twitter.  Part of one’s klout score is how often a tweet gets retweeted.  It is all about going viral and one’s words echoing through the universe. But the work world should be treated a bit differently, no? Do we need our empty words echoed in countless emails?

Maybe I sound a little jaded? Admittedly, it has been a while since I hit the nightclub scene but my flooded inbox with inane reply all conversations sure seems a bit like posturing to me. Do you really need to hit reply all when saying thanks? Waves of pointless emails inundating ones consciousness appears to be part of our daily lives nowadays.  A general rule of thumb should be that you hit reply all when you are confident people want or need to know your response. In other words one should use discretion and common sense and add something valuable to the conversation. Just saying “thanks” does not add much. What are you getting out of letting people know that you thanked the original email’s author? One’s estimation of your team player-ness will not be based on whether you let everyone know you said thanks. But perhaps you feel you have something to lose if people do not see that side of your communication?

Following in that vein, another odd component to this reply all phenomenon is what happens when you don’t reply to all. Rather, you just respond to the one person who started the email chain. At some point in an office conversation, perhaps at the watercooler or at a team meeting even, that email chain is brought up. Those that didn’t respond to everyone but instead just responded to the original email author make sure to note for all to hear that they did respond to the person individually.  Without fail, this happens.  It is almost as if some people feel guilty if they just respond one-on-one. They may come off as doing their own thing. Alas, posturing offline or online appears to be an inevitable result of the reply all email chain.

The reply all button can oddly and frighteningly also serve as a way to bring a metamorphic virtual gun to a knife fight.  Have you ever been on the receiving end or been caught up in the middle of a reply all cat fight? There have been times when measured professional disagreements between colleagues flare up as a result of 20 individuals being replied to. With so many spectators on the side lines it becomes a bit of a Roman Coliseum where someone is being sacrificed before the lions. At times the reply all spectators throw in some red meat of their own.  More often than not no one in that exchange feels good afterwards and several come out quite sullied, bloodied and overall worse for wear.   That is the peril of the reply all line. It should be used with extreme caution.

If you are about to hit the reply all button think about what it is you are about to incite or posture.

Can there be a pop up button reminder for that?

Remember when correspondence was one-on-one?

Remember when correspondence was one-on-one?

4 replies »

  1. In my career life, we were all cautioned to suppress our replies to these types of E-mails. If we had nothing of value to add to the conversation, we were encouraged not to reply, let alone reply all. Maybe the new tech should have a “read by” button, so those who sent the group E-mail do not feel ignored or slighted and they are the only ones whose inbox becomes full. Another bug bear from my working life was those who felt it necessary to always get the last word on the E-mail chain, you know the ones…if you reply thanks, they reply you are welcome, you reply OK and they reply no problem, you reply see you later and the reply thumbs up. I like to play a game with them to see how long this would go on. Cheers. Allan


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