Please don't respond to the entire mailing list

The impact of sending a personal response to hundreds or even thousands of addressees

There are many occasions when you receive an email where you are only one addressee of many, requesting your attendance, the submission of something, or just providing you with information. This could be an email to an interest group, a mailing list, but also to staff members of your department or university.

Be very careful when you respond to these emails and make sure that, unless your email contains substantive information that is important to people beyond the sender, you only respond to the original sender.

Careful with the reply-to-all button!

Too many academics just hit the “reply-to-all” button indiscriminately. Most of the time this “only” causes some annoyance to the other hundred (thousand?) people on the mailing list, aggravated when more than one person makes the same mistake. Sometimes however the effect might be more serious:

  1. Do you really want your whole department to know that you have a doctor’s appointment, your dog has died, or you are at home waiting for the plumber?
  2. Worse still, do you want the whole university to enjoy the quip to the sender about the great time you had in the pub the other night.
  3. Or more practically, would you enjoy having to create a new exam because sending it to your entire department instead of the department’s administrator had made it invalid.

Update 14 November 2016: A perfect illustration of the chaos that can ensue in large organizations by indiscriminant reply-alls is the estimated 186 million needless emails that led to a crash of the NHS email system.

Recalling the message makes it worse

And yes… you can “recall” an email to the entire list. But this:

  1. Annoys everyone not just once, but twice.
  2. Might actually make them more likely to check what that response was that you were so eager for them not to see :-)

But surely congratulations are ok?

Yes and no. Obviously, congratulating someone is a really nice thing to do, but you might want to consider whether everyone needs to know about this. You might disagree, but I don't think they do. In my view, congratulations are for the recipient, not for everyone else on the mailing list.

So next time you receive a mass email informing you of someone who graduated or received a particular honour, don't just write another "congrats from me too" or "great job" to the whole mailing list. This clogs up everyone's mailboxes and mainly publicises you, showing all your colleagues how considerate you are.

Even worse, it might just publicise your own achievements if you are someone who has one of these signatures that makes up 80% of their emails (See: How to promote your research achievements without being obnoxious?). Instead why not take 5 minutes to write the celebrant a personal email that's just for them? (See also: Changing academic culture: one email at a time...)

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