‘Reply All’ Etiquette Matters

An open letter to email users everywhere

Back Commentary May 1, 2015 By Christine Calvin

Dear All People Who Use Email,

This is just a little public service note to reiterate proper email etiquette. Numerous times a week, I’ll be in a conversation with someone who says, “Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you. I get about eleventy billion emails a day.” I often say the same. Yet if I were to weed out all of the unnecessarily forwarded emails and the eternally sinful replied-to-all responses, my inbox would probably be down to a tidy 36. The inappropriate use of one email feature in particular — the Reply All button — is harming your colleague’s productivity and causing harbored resentment. In fact, if you send unwarranted replies to me, I promise to plot against you.

Here is how email responses should work:

Scenario: A colleague lands a fancy new job and sends a farewell email to the whole office.

Reply all? No Appropriate response: Reply only to the person who is leaving.No one else is interested in your personal remarks. I do not care about the lovely time you had together at the watercooler or how much you will miss g-chatting with them from the next office over.

Scenario: An associate invites you and three others to enjoy a bottle of wine while you hash out a marketing plan to help out the small business you’re all supporting pro bono.

Reply all? Yes Appropriate response: Reply courteously to everyone. Scenarios like this are the entire reason Reply All exists. Your thoughtful associate is trying to organize a get-together so you can help a local business, and it would be helpful to her coordination efforts if you let the small group know if you’re in or out. If you don’t respond, the others might think you’re not going or that you don’t care, and then they might bail out, too, and no one will get anything accomplished. But if you respond promptly and let everyone know that you’re looking forward to the meeting and that you’ll bring a bottle of Chimney Rock, they’ll be more likely to RSVP. Then you’ll all attend and generate some great ideas, and your associate’s efforts will not be for naught.

Scenario: You’re BCC’d.

Reply all? No! Appropriate response: Say nothing. Why? Because you’ll break the circle of trust. BCC emails denote one of two scenarios: Either you are being let in on a secret or your opinion is not important enough to be warranted. Either way, if you reply to anyone but the sender, you will out yourself as being sneaky or over-involved.

Scenario: You receive an email containing a rhetorical question or statement. Example: Your receptionist reiterates how tired she is of cleaning up the dishes in the kitchen.

Reply all? How could you possibly conclude that reply all is the best use of anyone’s time? Appropriate response: Silence. No one is asking for your opinion. And clean up after yourself.

Scenario: Someone sends an office-wide email asking for suggestions for April Fool’s pranks.

Reply all? Sure! Appropriate response: Something short and clever, no more than three sentences. Sometimes email threads exist just because they’re fun, but believe me when I tell you that you’ll kill the value if you’re not funny. Replying to everyone is your call, but if you have to sit there thinking of something witty, don’t bother. These aren’t suggestions. These are hard and fast rules. Follow them, and together we can reduce our inboxes to 36.


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