The Devil's Key

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Corporate e-mail is a funny thing. Sure, it's the stuff of great ideas delivered with speed, but it's also the domain of hopeless misunderstandings, shots across the bow, and somehow absolves us of the decorum required in face-to-face communications.

While volume and grammar are oft-cited grievances, my grumble is about 'reply all.' 'Reply all' is the devil's key.

At work, I get e-mails from people I don't know announcing that, say, Bob Smith has been promoted from manager to senior manager of Tier II support and then I receive 15 "reply alls" saying "Congratulations, Bob" and "Well deserved, Bob." Not to take anything away from Bob, but what compels people to send best wishes to Bob and CC all 6,000 of my company's employees?

My friend works for a large national bank. They apparently have a high tolerance for 'reply all.' She recently forwarded me an e-mail that had been circulating at her work. Someone had sent a message about a moderately controversial topic to a medium-sized group. The e-mail did a few rounds, with people weighing in, and adding others to the message.

Before you knew it, hundreds of people were on the distribution and you started to see responses like: "Stop replying all!" -- sent as a 'reply all.' And "Take me off this list!" -- also sent as a 'reply all.' And then: "WHY ARE YOU REPLYING ALL TO SAY STOP REPLYING ALL, YOU IDIOT?" -- in all caps, and sent as a 'reply all,' to which someone replied with a 'reply all': "YOU are an idiot, idiot." And you wonder why our financial system is in upheaval.


Just as we feel more comfortable cursing other drivers when tucked safely behind our own steering wheels, somehow pecking out un-thinking notes and hitting 'send' just seems okay. But maybe picking up the phone or forcing ourselves out of our offices to deliver our messages in person are better choices. It's pretty hard to call someone an idiot -- and darn-near impossible to hit 'reply all' while doing it -- when they're standing right in front of you.

With a Perspective, I'm Jamie Barnett.