Is it Ever Appropriate to “Reply All”?

We’ve all been there. An email—an important one or not—hits your inbox addressed to you and a list of 50, or 500 or 5,000 other people.

One of those other recipients hits the “reply all” button to add their two cents. Then a few more. Soon another person chimes in to say they shouldn’t have been on the original email. Then another pipes up to chastise everyone else for using “reply all,” apparently unaware of the irony of using “reply all” to argue against it. By the time the storm is over, you’ve wasted valuable time receiving, reviewing and deleting perhaps dozens of messages.

You may have noticed a very similar pattern of irrelevant, time-wasting messages applies to internal social channels as well, as reply-all is the default in social messaging.

Is “reply all” ever a good option?

Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman says “reply all” is not the way to answer questions:

When you are on a group message being asked a question, respond specifically to the original sender. This spares everyone else on the list from the irrelevant non-answers and snarky messages. The responsibility lies with the original sender to notify others on the list when a need has been filled.

David Grossman, CEO of communications consultancy The Grossman Group, points out that an accidental “reply all” is fraught with peril, referencing  this story about an executive who accidentally sent a message about a potential employee dismissal via “reply all” including the employee she was discussing. That slip of the finger led to a lawsuit.

Yet the Houston Chronicle’s business section advises that there are some cases in which “reply all” is warranted. “It is perfectly OK to reply to everyone when you are capable of providing a definitive answer to a question that will benefit everyone on the recipient list,” writes the Chronicle’s Jason Gillikin.

More often, reply all is legitimately used to include members of the Cc chain, in accordance with the sender’s original intent of keeping everyone in the loop.

Likewise, it’s a good idea to curate the recipient list when you do hit “reply all.” Weeding out the people who wouldn’t be interested in your response is more polite, Gillikin advises, and be sure to exclude any large distribution lists.

So, what’s a responsible communicator to do? Email is too valuable and proven of a targeted communications tool to stop sending it, and social channels are often too noisy by default.

One option to head off unwanted “reply all” chains is to use the blind carbon copy (“BCC”) option.  As TechRepublic notes, when Reply To All is clicked, BCC recipients won’t be included.

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