An email with a long list of recipients can be an easy way to accomplish tasks by electronic committee. It can also be an infuriating way to gum up your inbox for days. Let's set some ground rules.
Although it is much maligned, the mass email can be a great way to disseminate information to a large group of people at once. This comes in especially handy when inviting people to a party, changing your address or phone number, or letting everyone on staff know when they can start taking summer Fridays (please, God, can we get that email?). It can also be helpful for group discussions when you're working on a project with several co-workers at once, especially when some of them aren't in the same office and physical meetings are impossible.
The problem isn't the "reply all" button, of course. It's the yahoos who are far too quick to use it to let everyone on a given list know how hung over they are this morning, that Mary Jane in accounting has the most bodacious rack they have seen outside of a porn movie, or that they "LOLed. Thanx ~~BYE!!~~" It's enough to make you want to quit computers altogether and go back to drafting your correspondence with quills.
We don't need to go that far. But we can drastically improve interoffice and interpersonal communications if everyone can agree to just a few simple guidelines.
Take a Minute and Evaluate: Before you hit "reply all" take a minute and ask yourself, "Does everyone need to read this?" The answer is pretty much always no. Sometimes all it takes is a split second for you to realize, "No one cares what I have to say on this topic, so I will keep it to myself." Please click "discard draft" instead. This is especially true when the original mass email is one that's intended to distribute information. If you get a message that the office will be closed on Saturday or the third-floor bathroom is closed for repairs, just read it, do what you want with the information, and then shut the fuck up. No one cares what you think about it, or whether this will make your life better or worse, so your two cents on the matter are entirely irrelevant.
Answer the Question: After a brief evaluation, sometimes the answer is, "Yes, I should reply to all," especially if the email is asking a question. A friend sends out a missive that asks, "What should we do tonight, guys?" You should probably respond, but only respond by answering the question. In this instance, proper responses might include "let's drink our faces off at [insert your favorite bar]" or "Shelly and I have to go to her stupid parents' house, but I heard there's a good concert at [insert place]." Those are good, solid, productive answers. If you waste space in our inbox by replying, "Hmmm...Good question," or "I don't know, I'm so lame now that I have a baby," we are going to have to reach through the internet and punch you.
Keep the In-Jokes to Yourself: The great thing about mass emails is that you can communicate with a great number of people all at once. The problem is that there's always that insecure asshole who feels the need to show just how close to you he or she is to the person who sent the email so he responds to everyone, "Just like that donkey that was wearing socks that we saw on the way to Mobile. AMIRITE!" We do not find this amusing. We don't know you or get your jokes, and now if and when we finally do meet you—we do have mutual friends, after all—we are going to think that you're an annoying jackass with bad taste in travel destinations.
Don't Just Say Thank You: If your thoughtful coworker emails the office and says, "Hey everyone, I tried out my new recipe for Lemon Bars last night and brought them for you to enjoy. They're on the table in the kitchen, help yourself," please don't email everyone just to say, "Thanks!" or "Yummy!" or "You da bomb." This is now a whole separate email in our inbox that includes just one word, or maybe two or three. We have to delete that email and that takes effort we'd rather spend cruising the sales on Gilt Groupe while pretending to actually work. You aren't telling us anything we don't know and you're not adding anything to the conversation, so just cram another Lemon Bar into your piehole and keep quiet. If you want to express your appreciation to the Betty Crocker wannabe in the next cube, then go over and say, "Wow, those were really good. Thanks so much," with your mouth and lips and real, out-loud words. This person slaved over a hot stove for you, the least you can do is say thank you like a real person.
Your Silence Is Your Assent: When it comes to group email discussions, Roberts Rules of Order apply. If someone starts an email saying, "We will be doing trust falls at the corporate retreat on Thursday." The first person possible should say, "That is a stupid idea." And then someone should quickly say, "I agree." This is like nominating something for a vote and then seconding it. There is no need for everyone on the thread to say that's dumb (which trust falls are), because those two people spoke for the masses. At that point, saying nothing is agreeing with the naysayers. But if, on the other hand, you happen to agree with the first person, pipe up, by all means. Once something has been nominated and seconded, the person who sent the original email must either restate his/her position ("The guys at HQ are forcing us"), or back down ("You're right. Let's all do shots instead."). Just like in a real meeting, you don't have to say "I agree" in response to every email that goes around. Everyone knows you're monitoring the conversation. Only share when you have something definitive or constructive to say.
Err on the Side of Replying to One: If you want to say something but don't know if it's appropriate for the whole audience, reply to the original sender only. This is perfect for in-jokes, statements that don't answer any questions, and monosyllabic assertions of agreement. Just tell the person who started the thread. That person emailed the group to share information and/or get input, so they won't care. It's the rest of the people on the list you have to worry about pissing off. If what you have to say is profound enough, then the originator will share it with the group. Leave it up to their discretion (which is already a bit questionable since they included so many oversharers on the initial email list).
Avoid the Passive Aggressive CC: Sometimes you send an email to one person and they respond by CCing their boss, assistant, best friend, ex-girlfriend, or some random person they met Saturday night at a bar. Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of a group email you never intended. This is especially bad if you don't know the third party. The only way to retaliate is to never reply all during this conversation. Just respond to the person who you originally emailed. This is the electronic equivalent of being at a party talking to someone and they say, "Let me introduce you to my friend, Joe." But you hate Joe, so you just keep your eyes locked on the original person hoping Joe will just get annoyed and go away. Over email it's even easier, because the original person will have to CC Joe again and again, which should hopefully send the signal that you don't want to communicate with stupid asshat Joe. If they don't get the hint, never email this person again. Even if it's your boss.
Take Preventative Measures: We really shouldn't have to tell you what the "Blind CC" function on your email is, but based on the countless communications we've received that could have benefited from its use, there must be more idiots in the world than we previously imagined. If you put all the email addresses in this field, they will stay anonymous and immune from the "Reply All." Explaining this is like having to tell a 30-year-old where babies come from, but you made it necessary. Please, in the future, use this or we're going to start giving your email address to Russian porn spammers in retaliation.