As you know by now, every three months this column delivers at least one practice tip that will be one of the most important you’ll ever get, and this is no exception. The tip is this:
Delete the “reply all” button from your email program.
If you can’t delete it, unlock the command bar and drag the button as far as possible from anything that even smells like a “send” button. You might want to hire someone to stand next to you with a hammer and smash your mouse hand if it looks like you might forget, but how you handle it is up to you.
The first risk is accidental use. Either by hitting the wrong button, or by failing to notice an email list was among the recipients, you will at some point send a message meant for only one person to many, many more. Like the summer associate who, in 2003, sent a message containing the phrase “I’m busy doing jack sh*t,” not to just one friend but to everyone in the group for which he was supposedly working. (On the plus side, he may have been able to use reply all to send his apology to the same people shortly thereafter.) Or the partner who, in 2011, managed to send an email saying, “Why are we both still at this firm?” not to just one coworker but to all of the firm’s 1000+ lawyers worldwide—many of whom probably then asked the same question about the two correspondents.
The second risk is intentional use, sometimes considered a form of temporary insanity. You will, at some point, use the “reply all” button on purpose to complain or to mock after another person has used it by mistake. You will do this without realizing that you are doing the same thing. I know you don’t think this will happen. It will. And things will very likely get rapidly worse.
This is because each “reply all” dramatically multiplies the number of people who may do the same dumb thing you just did. Someone may reply all to ask to be removed from the list though that is not the problem, and, if it were, only one person would need to be told. Someone may reply all to tell all that they should not reply all unless it is necessary to reply all, to which someone else will reply all to point out that the person just did the same thing, not realizing that he or she is doing it yet again. This can quickly cascade into an out-of-control chain reaction, leaving you standing there like Dr. Oppenheimer gazing on your creation with horror and muttering, “I am become Death, the destroyer of inboxes.” It is for good reason that such an event has been called a “reply allpocalypse.”
For example, last December, an innocent email about a holiday potluck in one office of a Utah state agency was sent to 25,000 state employees. The meltdown then began. “Please remove me from this list!” someone said, replying to all. “You don’t need to reply to all!” another added though he or she had just done that. “STOP REPLYING TO ALL!” a third ordered, apparently thinking that e-shouting would get through where reason had failed. And so on.
Is that the worst allpocalypse to date? Oh no. That record may be held (for now) by the hero who mistakenly sent a message to all 1.2 million employees of the UK's National Health Service in 2016. A sizeable fraction of that workforce responded as one would expect, and the ensuing reply storm generated an estimated 186 million useless messages, crashing the entire system and forcing the UK to leave the European Union. (Well, that’s no dumber than the real explanation.)
There are many other examples. And like a stock-market panic, traffic-jam honking frenzy, or invasion of Afghanistan, each episode eventually runs its course and fizzles out, bringing things back to normal until the day when another group of humans will temporarily assemble to do exactly the same stupid thing, having learned nothing at all from the past. So, do yourself a favor and protect yourself now by deleting the “reply all” button, moving it, or hiring the guy with the hammer. You’ll thank me later, once you regain the use of your hand.