Email Etiquette: Reply-All Email Fails

Michael Brenner

We’ve all been there. With billions of emails sent every day and ubiquitous access to our in-boxes from many different devices at any time of day or night, there are bound to be a few instances of poor email behavior.

One of the biggest culprits is the Reply-All button. Reply-All lives in plain sight in our email clients, just sitting there every single day, waiting for its chance in the spotlight. However, the instances that appropriately call for Reply-All are few and far between.

Remember, hitting Reply sends a message just to the original sender who sent you the email. Hitting Reply-All sends your email to everybody who was included in the To: and cc: fields of the email to which you are replying. There are times when it is appropriate for just using Reply and times when it is appropriate to use Reply-All. Here are some general guidelines to help distinguish these situations and avoid any embarrassing faux pas.

When to use Reply

You should use the Reply option for the vast majority of your emails. Of course, if you are the only person receiving the original message it will not matter which reply button you use, since both option send to only the original sender.

Is the conversation private? Use Reply. Do you have a question that is meant for just one person in the group? Use Reply. Is there something in your message that you do not want others to see? Use Reply. Is there confidential or sensitive information in your message? Use Reply. Are you talking about somebody else that received the first message, but you do not want him or her to see what you write? Use Reply. (This one should seem obvious, but unfortunately it is not for many people.) Was the original message sent to dozens or hundreds of people and you are a decent human being who does not want to flood inboxes with a message that is not relevant to the majority of people on the thread? Use Reply.

When to use Reply-All

Pretty much never.

This advice might be a bit of an exaggeration, but in truth, situations where Reply-All is the appropriate choice are few and far between. When you use Reply-All, consider if you really need to be using it. If the message you are sending is important enough that you would retype it and send it individually to each person on the email thread if you had to, then Reply-All is probably an appropriate choice. Imagine that everybody on the email list is standing together in one room. Would you shout to get every person’s attention and then say the content of your email so everyone can hear? This is essentially what you are doing when you Reply-All, so if your answer is no, then Reply-All is probably not warranted.

Damage control

Even the most savvy email users make the mistake of hitting Reply-All from time to time. That’s okay; it happens to the best of us. There are a few things to consider to minimize the impact of this.

  • Use technology to help you be your best email self. Gmail has an amazing feature called Undo Send. When you enable it, all emails that you send are held for a few seconds (you can set the amount of time) before they are sent. This gives you the option of clicking “Undo Send” if you realize there is an error in your message or that you have accidentally sent a funny gif to the entire company when you had intended to send it only to your work best friend. Other options include hiding the Reply-All button in Outlook entirely or using a third-party service that acts as an intermediary, allowing you to delete your emails after they have been sent.
  • Understand how listservs work. A listserv is a way to send an email to a large group of people without typing in everybody’s address. It will appear that only one person is receiving the email, but in reality the email is distributed to everybody. Replying to a listserv (using either the Reply OR Reply-All button) can be the same as replying to everybody on the list. If you see an address that is something like allstaff@yourbusiness.com or theteamlistserv@yourbusiness.com, be very careful how you reply. Some listservs allow any recipient to reply to the whole group, while some only give this permission to certain people.
  • BCC and self-control are your friends. BCC is a very effective way to manage Reply-All abuse before it happens. If you need to send a group email, such as an announcement that everyone needs to read, but you do not want people replying to the whole group, then enter everybody’s address into the BCC field. This way, recipients will only be able to see themselves (and the sender) on the message and not the other recipients. And of course, when in doubt, ask yourself, “Do I need to be Replying-All to this?”

Thoughtful email behavior can make for a more pleasant and productive workplace. Reply-All misbehavior affects us all. Be part of the solution.

Is your Inbox out of control? See 4 Strategies To Get Control Of Your Email.


About Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author of  The Content Formula and the CEO of Marketing Insider GroupHe has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael shares his passion on leadership and marketing strategies that deliver customer value and business impact. He is recognized by the Huffington Post as a Top Business Keynote Speaker and   a top  CMO influencer by Forbes.