Tullio Facchinetti

Reply-to-all: this is the way

by Tullio Facchinetti

Categories: article lang_en article_en

This article originates from the need to explain the importance of using the “reply to all” when replying to emails, which seems to be one of the most hidden secrets of a good and effective group email communication.

I have written these considerations to my students so many times. This fact has stimulated the writing of a post so that I can provide the link in future occasions.

Why preferring the reply-to-all

When an email is sent to a group of contacts, the sender usually wants to inform all recipients and keep them all updated about the content of the message. Otherwise he should have written to individuals, or he could have used the trick to send the email to himself and put the recipients in BCC. This latter approach is useful to send an email to many recipients, while permitting a reply to the sender only. But let’s keep the focus on emails sent to many recipients, where “everybody can see everybody else”.

When an email is received that was sent to multiple contacts, a reply that is sent only to the sender generates difficulties in the communication, since it compromises the goal of keeping updated all the original recipients.

An email sent to multiple recipients should be considered as equivalent to a message on a group on Telegram, Facebook, Whatsapp, or other fancy platforms geared towards group communication. If the communication is made to the group, the replies should also be sent to the entire group.

Obviously there are situations where an individual answer is preferable. For example, when you don’t want to “disturb” the whole group for an information that is relevant to a specific individual only, or the reply contains confidential information. However, these cases can usually be considered as exceptions.

Example of situation

A typical case is when I send an email to a set of recipients, and one of them replies to me only, so without doing reply-to-all. This forces me to either 1) forward the email to all contacts who did not receive it, or 2) to re-add all contacts to my next reply. This tedious work is necessary to keep all recipients aligned about the email thread.

Reply-to-all as default in the mail client

The typical default action of common email clients is to reply to the sender only. In this case, it is well understandable that the replier can easily miss the reply-to-all. In fact, if the reply-to-all action needs to be selected explicitly at every new reply, it becomes very likely to forget or to overlook it.

Luckily, all the email clients that I am aware allow setting the reply-to-all as their default reply action. Once the client is configured, there is no more risk of forgetting the reply-to-all.

As a solution to all the problems, I thus suggest to set the reply-to-all as the default option in the email client. After doing this:

  1. You don’t forget to include all the recipients in the communication.
  2. You don’t have to think every time about what kind of answer, single or collective, should be given: it is almost always to be sent to everyone!
  3. Organizational and logistical inconveniences, due to lack of sharing of information with all interested parties, are wiped out.

What about mistakes?

A possible complain regarding the above solution goes like “with the default reply-to-all, I risk answering everyone even when I wouldn’t want to”.

The answer is that the problem does not actually arise. In fact,

  1. When you get used to the fact that the default action is reply-to-all, you automatically pay attention to do private reply when needed.
  2. In the era of chats and groups of Telegram, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc., it is now normal to write “collective” communications.

Personally, in all the emails exchanged in recent years (recent statistic: more than 40,000 emails), it has rarely happened to me to have given a private reply to a collective email.

Ultimately, in the typical case, the inconveniences and organizational delays due to not doing a reply-to-all are overall more relevant than a collective reply sent by error.

In fact, as already mentioned, when you receive an email sent to multiple contacts it is precisely because the sender aims to keep all recipients informed. Otherwise the mistake is from the sender, who would be better off using the BCC approach or send individual emails.

Addendum: one sender speaking for more interested persons

I often receive emails from a single person who speaks for one or more other persons too.

For example, a student asks for an appointment, in which he want to come with two colleagues. But the email is sent to me by the student without including the other two students as recipients.

With this organization in the communication, I can reply to the original student only, which increases the probability of missing information among all the interested persons. This should thus be avoided, and it would be better off sending an email to all the interested persons right from the beginning so that, by adopting the “reply-to-all - this is the way” approach, everybody will receive the necessary information.


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