You know what the English language needs? A word for the hot, sickening feeling you get when you accidentally hit “Reply All,” subsequently broadcasting a private message to a much larger group. Maybe we should call it e-barrassment. Or forwardboding. Or Sents insensibility.
In any case, we asked you to share your best (or worst) Reply All horror stories and how you handled them with us by email or Twitter — and wow, did you come through. Clearly, people who’ve committed this act never forget it.
“OK, so I was online dating a lot,” Shirley Goldberg remembered. After each date, she liked to send a summary to her girlfriend. “On the day I hit ‘Reply to All,’ I had four emails open, one of them directed to the entire staff of my school. Somehow I got the emails mixed up.”
On this occasion, her summary read: “Met Bob yesterday at the diner for coffee. Nice guy but I’m not interested. He has an overbite and a lisp.”
The next day, the other teachers in the lunchroom shot her “quite a few meaningful looks.” One of them accused her of being a “dentalist.”
Then there’s the therapist Robyn Renée, who got her text-message threads confused. She wound up texting one of her therapy clients with a message intended for her ex-husband. (The client’s response: “I didn’t realize I made you so angry!”)
Bob Pyle and his wife both worked in the same Wall Street firm. One day, he corrected a bunch of typos in a document she had written — and accidentally shared his critique with 200 people in the company. “About an hour later, my boss came into work, passing my door on the way to his office,” he explained, and said, “Sleeping on the couch tonight?”
And Erin Weltzien was once part of a group chat whose topic drifted into complaining about a co-worker, Jen, flaunting her “newly enhanced breasts.” The subject promptly changed when the participants read, in the chat window: “This is Jen’s father! Please take me off this list!”
How to handle a bad Reply All
Over the years, the perpetrator/victims of Reply All accidents have developed some devious dodges to avoid reputational ruin.
When one hapless fellow invited family and friends to come watch him in a glassblowing demonstration, a bad cut-and-paste omitted the word “glass.” The result, wrote his wife, was “a shocking offer.”
Her solution: She made him resend a corrected version of the same message four times. Her hope was that the flood of identical emails would minimize the amount of attention attracted by the first one.
It worked. “Happily, we never had any responses to the initial rude offering,” she said.
Some people resort to deception. Janet Katz told people she was the victim of a computer virus. “I blame a small child — son, niece, nephew, whatever,” Roanne Martin said.
Sharyn Tom pointed out that you don’t have to defuse the fallout alone. “Enlist someone you have good rapport with to Reply All to your Reply All, and say something funny to cut the tension, like, ‘Great story, bro, we appreciate the update!’” she suggests. “The other person helps by taking the focus and embarrassment away from you, and pivots into humor or something useful.”
In general, though, the wisest course seems to be quick action and a huge helping of humble pie.
“I just call it what it is by sending yet another Reply All message like: ‘Well, that was awkward,’” Sheryl Moore wrote. “Usually that is met with kind and understanding replies.”
Or, as Cassandra Kiger put it, “You own it, make apologies, spend 48 hours in shame, and move on.”
Five ways to avoid Reply All nightmares
Most people endure a botched Reply All episode only once. After that searing experience, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again.
But you can avoid the fiasco in the first place. Here’s how:
Enter the address last. Jeff Branzburg has cultivated the habit of clicking Forward, not Reply, when answering messages. That way, the Address box of every reply starts out empty. “Compose the email, and only then go back and enter the address(es),” he says. This technique requires extra steps, but it guarantees you’ll never accidentally Reply to All.
Give yourself an “Oh no!” window. In some email programs, you can set up a freakout delay. Your email will wait 60 seconds (or more) after you click Send, giving you a window in which to realize your gaffe and stop the message in its tracks.
“The ‘oh no filter’ gives you enough time to correct errors,” Gerard Stijntjes notes. “I’ve shared it around at work and it is helping.”
If Microsoft Outlook dominates your email life, as it does in many organizations, you have three additional safety nets at your disposal:
Remove the Reply All button on your end. The Reply All button can’t ruin your life if it doesn’t exist, can it? In Outlook, you can move the button to a remote Siberian outpost on the toolbar so it’s harder to hit by mistake. (Here’s how to do it.)
The beauty of this toolbar surgery is that it doesn’t fully deprive you of the Reply to All function. When you really intend to trigger it, you can always choose the equivalent menu command. “Problem solved, as far as I’m concerned,” Andreas Molke noted.
Remove the Reply All button on their end. If you and your recipients are all using Microsoft Outlook, you can, weirdly enough, disable their Reply All buttons on messages you send. As @NYG_Steve notes, it’s your way of preventing other people from making Reply All gaffes based on your original message. All you need is the free NoReplyAll add-in for Outlook.
Undo send. Lara F. recommends using Microsoft Outlook’s Recall command, which magically deletes a message from the recipients’ Inboxes before they’ve opened it. Alas, it works only when you and you recipients are in the same company (using the same Microsoft Exchange server), you all use Outlook, and each recipient hasn’t yet seen the message.
In all other circumstances, this command winds up sending a second email that says, for example, “Casey Robin would like to recall the message, ‘My boss is a toxic, sniveling misanthrope.’” Unfortunately, that message may serve only to draw more attention to the first one.
What else is wrong with Reply All
The Reply All button should be considered armed and dangerous. In law firms and government departments, it can transmit confidential information to people who shouldn’t have it. In any company, its use can become a drag on efficiency and sanity. (Every time you send “Thanks!” and “You’re welcome!” emails on a thread of 850 employees, that’s 850 people who must manually delete those messages, usually quietly cursing your name.)
Things get really bad when a Reply All storm touches down. That’s when one reply to the entire organization inspires hundreds of people to Reply All with “Please take me off this list” messages, which triggers round after round of “Me too” and “Stop hitting Reply All!” (and “Out of Office” messages, each also going to everyone on the list). The quantity of messages explodes geometrically until the entire outfit is brought to its knees.
What email programs need, of course, is some kind of built-in protection against Reply All tragedies. Apple, Microsoft and Google should offer an option that produces an “Are you sure?” message before your message is actually sent.
Until then, be careful out there. You don’t deserve this kind of — what’s the right word for it? — humailiation.
In the next Crowdwise: Some of the things people say to grieving friends and relatives — “Well, she’s in a better place now,” or “Well, at least you still have other children” — don’t provide comfort, and may actually make things worse.
What are some of the worst examples you’ve experienced? And what can people say or do that’s actually helpful? Bonus points if you speak from experience. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.