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Ants in the Classroom, Reply to All

I was teaching a seminar in a ground-floor classroom for a favorite client, and I was charged with making coffee for the group. Setting up the coffee, sugar, cream, etc., I noticed quite a few tiny ants on the table. I swept them into the trash with a wet paper towel, but later there were more tiny ants, and more. There seemed to be an endless supply of ants.

When the seminar ended, I emailed my client to let him know about the ants. He emailed the maintenance department, requesting that the room be sprayed to eliminate the ant infestation. On this message he copied (Cc’d) me, his manager, and someone else I didn’t know.

From that moment on, I got emails (Reply to All) about every single step of the process: I was copied on the discussion of ants in other parts of the building. I was informed of when the room had most recently been sprayed. I got the confirmation of the work order to spray the room. I was notified when the room spraying was completed. I was copied on the thank you my contact sent to the maintenance department, and I believe I received a copy of the "You’re welcome, anytime" message the maintenance department sent back.

I taught business writing in that room twice a year. Do you think I needed to be Cc’d on all those messages? No, I don’t think so either.

My "ants in the classroom" experience took place several years ago, but it came to mind last week in a seminar discussion about email. One man admitted that whenever he received an email that required a response, he would Reply to All if other people had been Cc’d on the email. It did not matter whether he knew the people or knew why they were Cc’d. He would still Reply to All.

Other people in the seminar called this CYA (cover your _ss) behavior. The man agreed, but he felt Replying to All was required.

I understand his viewpoint, but I disagree with the requirement. When I reply in email, I reply to the person who emailed me–not to all the people who were cc’d. However, if I know them or who they are and I know that they would benefit from my reply, I will Reply to All.

Unless the person who sends the original message writes "Please Reply to All," I believe we can–and should–take the opportunity to reduce unnecessary email. Otherwise we will all drown in Cc’d CYA email. Even after the innocent ants have been eliminated, people will still be getting copies about their demise–people who don’t need or want to know about it.

Reply? Reply to All? What is your view?



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

4 comments on “Ants in the Classroom, Reply to All”

  • Hi Lynn,

    I have seen this problem many times when working in a large company. There have been hundreds of recipients on the list and people keep “replying to all”. Tens of emails keep going back and forth.

    In that situation I “reply to all” and request myself to be removed from the list or writers stopping to “reply to all”.

    Best regards,

  • Timo, the vision of thousands of unnecessary emails flying through cyberspace makes me shudder. Thanks for your suggestion of sending a Reply to All message opting out of future messages. I should have done that in the ants in the classroom scenario, but I thought each message would be the last one. It would also be practical if the person who started the communication would say “It’s not necessary to Reply to All.”

    Thanks for commenting.


  • When I work with arts groups who attempt to run “thinktanks” by email, I try to get them to use Google Groups or Facebook Groups to keep things manageable.

    This only works if notifications are turned off. I may suggest to both of them that they add an option to compile daily-digest notifications.

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