In Defense of the “Reply All” Button: If You’re Bad at Email, Get Better


“You know that feeling: You hit Send — and your heart nearly stops,” reads an article in today’s Wall Street Journal. “You just hit REPLY ALL!” emails a panicked co-worker to her sloppy friend in one of the anecdotes used by the Journal to argue that the “Reply All” button is nothing but a headache and should be abolished, or at least guarded. “This shouldn’t still be happening,” the article says. Except maybe it should, to prove that email skills are important. Fighting for the honor of internet and email elitists everywhere, we’re willing to argue that the button serves a valuable purpose: it allows amateurs to show their true colors. It’s a trap and if you’re not alert enough, you’re going to get snagged. You probably deserve it. Oh, really, you’re a social media expert? Actually, you’re a fraud and now your whole office knows because you can’t use a simple button. Stop whining, stop acting like an old person and stop letting the machines win.

“After almost two decades of constant, grinding email use, we should all be too tech-savvy to keep making the same mortifying mistake, too careful to keep putting our relationships and careers on the line because of sloppiness,” the Journal writes in its set-up.

The conversation should end there. But there’s more bitching.

The internet is fast, and that’s part of what makes it fun, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be double and triple checking things, especially when they’re work-related. If you can’t work quickly and accurately, step away from the computer and hire an intern. If your intern screws up, fire them and get a better one. This isn’t that complicated. Observe:

That’s Apple Mail. Here’s Gmail:

All email services pretty much look the same. You press the button that says “All” when you want to send it to everyone (i.e. “All”) or you just press the “Reply” button if you want to send to only one person. When you select “Reply” or “Reply All,” the names the email is going to will show up in the otherwise blank “To:” field. If there are multiple names in that box, the email is going to multiple people. Does this make sense so far?

If not, you don’t deserve the brilliant technology Apple and Gmail have provided us with. (If you have Hotmail or Outlook, sorry, but it’s still better than the telephone or actually speaking with your boss!)

If you “hate how group emails multiply like rabbits in our inboxes,” as the Journal notes, maybe find a better group to email with, so you look forward to their correspondence. Part of what’s great (and awful and frustrating!) about the internet — super-immediate contact (or lurking) with a ton of people, ranging from strangers to best friends — is the endless ability to judge others. If they perform well on a group email chain, reward them with your friendship. If they don’t, use the “Forward” button to send the email to someone you do like, and share a laugh over it. If it’s for work, and you hate the volume of emails, remember that you’re getting paid and deleting is easy.

If you’re super prone to mistakes, maybe the proposed safeguards, like Gmail’s “Undo Send” or Outlook’s “Are You Sure?” warning, can help. But consider it like training wheels. Master your tools or young people are going to take your job. Don’t embarrass yourself. Think about this every time you send a message, and with more intensity depending on the importance of the person you’re corresponding with. Email takes skill and if you’re good at it, you will likely be rewarded. Email is art.

When you get the hang of “Reply All,” have a ton of fun with “CC” and “BCC.” But beware because these can be tricky, too, if you’re sort of dim. Let’s end on an anecdote that shows the best and the worst of email, when “BCC” and “Reply All” combine to create havoc — an internet tale demonstrating survival of the fittest:

Innocent College Friend (ICF) decides to move from the big city to somewhere more manageable. She has an apartment lease that she needs someone to take over, so ICF goes into her email contacts list and crafts a message to everyone she’s known for the past handful of years from different sectors of her life, 52 people in all: close friends, study buddies, mentors, professors, supervisors, etc. But instead of using the “BCC,” like an email pro, she puts them all in the “To:” field, like an email amateur. A classic mistake, but one that doesn’t sit well with veterans who value their privacy and respect others’ expertise.

ICF’s more mischievous email buddies decide to teach her a lesson about online etiquette, using the “Reply All” button. It starts out slowly, with innocuous questions about the specifics of the apartment, sent to all 50+ members of the chain, meant to annoy the ones uninterested. Over time, it devolves into a mess of inside jokes and puns and borderline harassment. (“I heard there were stabbings in this neighborhood. Is this apartment to die for?”) Strangers speak out in protest, begging to be let off of the chain, which by the end of the day has flooded their inbox with 75+ pointless messages.

Everyone learned a valuable lesson that day about the power of choosing the correct email buttons, “Reply All,” “BCC” and the like. ICF never jumped into the fray to apologize to her acquaintances for her rowdy email elitist friends and eventually the inbox madness subsided. But it’s also a safe bet that ICF never made an email mistake again. Lesson learned.

[via Pat’s Papers]