07/19/2011 01:13 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

Email Etiquette and the Perils of "Reply All"

Have you ever been puzzled by the ways that people use email? The global proliferation of email may have been one of the most significant advances in human communications, but the technology did not arrive with an instruction manual. As a result, email sometimes reflects both the best and worst of human behavior. Here's an example displaying both:

Our story begins when the production editor for a major online business journal (not HBR) mistakenly sent a blast email about "invoicing procedures" to all of the site's bloggers, approximately 50 people. The mistake was that all but a few of the bloggers produced their content for free, so the need for an invoice was irrelevant to most. Although it was an innocent mistake, this erroneous email set off a chain reaction of responses.

Moments after receiving the initial email, a few recipients used the "reply all" button to ask the sender what this message was all about, or to inform the sender that he had made a mistake. Another questioned whether the sender was really the editor, while still another wrote: "CALL ME IMMEDIATELY TO EXPLAIN."

Somewhere in this blizzard of emails, the production editor sent an apology, admitting his mistake. But the avalanche couldn't be stopped. By now everyone was using the "reply all" button: Several demanded (in the strongest terms possible) that they be taken off the distribution list, while others demanded (in the strongest terms possible) that everyone stop using the "reply all" button.

In the midst of this frenzy, one brave soul sent a note asking everyone to calm down, that the editor had clearly made a mistake, and that using Caps Lock (i.e. email yelling) was not necessary. Somehow this broke the tension so that the next "reply all" email was a humorous question to the editor asking if she could send him all of the invoices that the others were so clearly angry about. Suddenly the tone changed, and a dozen people tried to top one another's humor while others commented on the quality of the jokes. What had been a virtual mob became a social gathering of previous strangers now appreciating each other, suggesting that they get together, and truly enjoying themselves. In other words, it was the best side of email: not just communicating, but creating a network and community at the same time.

So what can we learn from this vignette? Here are a few thoughts:

First, remember that whenever you send an email to more than one person, you are creating a community. The mistake made by the production editor may not have been as much about the content as it was the format of the email that allowed for mass responses. The lesson for all of us is to be intentional about whether we indeed want the recipients of the email to engage with each other, or just with the sender. Both choices are valid, but it depends on what you are trying to accomplish with the email: One-way dissemination of information (in that case, hide the addresses) or group discussion.

Second, recognize that people make email mistakes and give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Just like in social situations, it's easy to jump to conclusions and get angry, often without much information. In this case, the editor indeed made a mistake and sent a message to many people for whom it was not intended. That doesn't make him a bad person, and getting angry about it doesn't help anyone. Instead, assume the sender's positive intent -- at least as a starting point.

Third, think before you respond. The current email culture almost forces instantaneous responses. To keep up, often we reply without thinking. Now if we did this in personal interactions, most of us would probably not have any friends. But somehow in the virtual world many people feel more comfortable blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, which can create a spiral of even more unintended responses. When you can sense one of these situations beginning, often it's best to either not respond at all or wait a few minutes to see if a "conversation" or argument is brewing -- and then weigh in with more measured input.

Finally, let's recognize that emails often convey emotion and are actually a reflection of our personalities. So think about how you want to be perceived, and whether your email personality is consistent with your real personality.

What other lessons would you draw from this example -- or from others that you have seen? How can we start developing some rules of email etiquette?

Cross-Posted from Harvard Business Online