Non Sequitur Fridays

Email Me Directly If You Want Me to Do Something

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Brendan Schwartz is co-founder and CTO at Wistia. His last Non Sequitur was about the art of the morning snooze.

Here's the secret to getting things done: don't email the group, email people individually.

I have a theory. The probability that a person will take action when receiving an email is inversely proportional to the number of recipients on that message. Said another way, the more people that are CC'd on an email, the less likely anyone on that email is to take action.

It makes sense if you think about it. When you see there are a lot of other people copied on an email, you assume that someone else will take care of it. And if it's an email prompting everyone on it to take action, there's no way the sender will know or remember that you were the one who silently ignored it.

BCC emails are the best to ignore. You know the type. They're mysteriously addressed to the same person who sent them and their tone is vaguely impersonal. Bottom line, when an acquaintance BCC's the entire free world to sponsor their half marathon, there's no way they'll notice that you didn't donate.

Really, you wish you were that stone cold. A more typical scenario is that you receive an email, and you're not quite sure how to respond. You let it sit in your inbox for an uncomfortably long time, glancing at it several times a day, feeling a unique combination of anxiety and guilt each time you notice it.

Finally, enough time passes that it would just be embarrassing to respond. Everyone else has already responded. Are you really going to be the jerk who replies two weeks late to the thread about going to that concert? The tickets are all sold out now anyway. There's no choice: the guilt turns to shame, and you archive the email.

Don't worry, this isn't your fault. You're human, after all, and you're subject (like we all are) to the social psychological phenomenon known as the bystander effect. The quintessential example of this (and what spawned this area of research in the first place) was the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964.

The New York Times famously reported on the murder with the headline: "Thirty-Seven Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." The story goes: "For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens."

This is a deeply unsettling. How could all these people witness a brutal murder like this and not do anything? At the center of the bystander effect is the principle of diffusion of responsibility. Everyone assumes that someone else will help and so no one ends up helping at all. In many situations (like cleaning up dirty dishes) this isn't a big deal, but in the case of Kitty Genovese, it played out to dire consequence. Quick side note, there's a fascinating article in the New Yorker about this murder and how some of the originally reported facts weren't entirely accurate.

The moral of the story? If you want me to clean your dishes, you better email me directly!

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