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A Reply vs. Reply to All Scenario–You Decide

I received an email from a reader that began like this: "Recently I was berated by a person for not continuing his Reply to All format."

We should not be berating one another. We all have the goal of being efficient with email. So in the interest of efficiency and getting along with our colleagues, I am offering a typical Reply vs. Reply to All scenario. Please read it and decide which fictional character you agree with. Perhaps we can learn from one another.

Scenario: Six people are on a team to plan and staff their company's trade show booth. They have had two meetings so far, after which they have emailed and Replied to All, with everyone getting lots of emails with long threads about the booth plans.

Two team members, Paula and Brian, are responsible for booth signs. Paula did research on sign pricing, and she emailed her research to Brian without copying the team. Brian replied to Paula to ask a question, and he copied the other team members. Paula replied to Brian–not to all.

Brian is annoyed with Paula. He says they should be copying everyone on the team on everything they do so that people are in the loop.

Paula thinks they are drowning in email. She says they should only copy the entire team when everyone needs the information.

With whom do you agree? Why?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

38 comments on “A Reply vs. Reply to All Scenario–You Decide”

  • In a scenario like that, they should use an internal newsgroup or something like Google Wave. But if they don’t have that, and they’ve have all agreed that they would “keep everyone in the loop” then they should Reply to All. I hear that “drowning in email” excuse ALL OF THE TIME and it drives me crazy. If you don’t want to read an email, the delete key works very well! You can also manage your Inbox better, using Rules and Personal Folders. Don’t ditz the technology simply because you haven’t bothered to learn how to use it.

  • Every message counts, and so does good planning. As soon as the team members have assignments and divide their efforts, they should agree on a time to get “back together” by replying to everyone. Imagine life before e-mail: Paula and Brian would have gotten together, done their work, and then met with their team again. Now imagine that instead, every time they talked they had to gather up all the team members. Why can’t e-mail work the same way? I like Paula’s reasoning, “only copy the entire team when everyone needs the information.”

  • I tend to agree with Karla. There are many ways to improve the way emails are presented and handled by Outlook. Some people don’t even bother to create folders and keep piling the Inbox.

  • I agree with Karla and Jeff. An old truism of technical writing is to include details needed by any one of your readers, because readers who don’t need them can skip over. Similarly, group members who don’t need a particular e-mail message can quickly scan and ignore it.

    The trouble with “reply all” is that it’s so easy to forget and just click “reply.” Setting up a group list (I use Yahoo! groups) avoids that trouble and adds an official nature to group messages. It’s easy enough to cancel a group after the project is ended, if desired.


  • I agree with Paula, and for the same reason Jeff mentions above–well said, Jeff!

    In a business environment, we are all resources. All email has to be processed by a person. Even if the email is ultimately deemed irrelevant and deleted, resources (time, mental energy, etc.) have been used.

    Just like I think twice before printing, I think twice before Replying to All.

    Great post, Lynn!

  • Agreed with Paula, Jeff and JJB. My company tends to overkill the ‘Reply to All’ function. I find it annoying and wasteful of my time.

  • Copying every team member on every email is a waste of time and resources–for everyone involved! Set up regular check-in meetings or conference calls, compile a list of all of your questions (for specific people and/or the group at large), and address it then. If you must have a one-off conversation–here’s a crazy thought–try calling the person! We are way too dependent on email to do the job of good old fashioned communicating.

  • Thanks for your input, everyone. It seems as though more people are in agreement with our fictional Paula than our fictional Brian.

    Karla, I use rules and folders in Outlook, but I am not sure how I would set up rules for this specific fictional project. Would the rule be that any message with the words “trade show” goes in my Trade Show Booth folder? If you see this question, please respond.

    Lester, did you mean to agree with Karla AND Jeff? They seem to have opposing views. Thanks for mentioning the Yahoo groups.

    I admit that I am on the side of the fictional Paula. Don’t email me unless the information is must know or should know for ME. Nice-to-know information is sucking away my efficiency. I do have to read it before I delete it–just in case it includes must-know info.

    Thanks for joining in.


  • The problem here is really that e-mail’s the wrong tool for the job. This ad hoc team should use SharePoint, a Google Docs account or some other collaboration workspace. This kind of software keeps all the relevant info in one place, organized as needed, so that all six people on the team have access to all the pieces of the project.

    In e-mail, each member of this team is individually responsible for organizing, retaining or deleting the info as he/she receives it, resulting in redundant effort, clogged e-mail boxes and hurt feelings from people who fret about being left out of the loop.

  • I agree with Paula’s approach. If everyone had been tasked with researching pricing, it would be appropriate for all to know. But only she and Brian given this task, thus they are the only ones who need to be kept in the loop at this point.

  • Surely the point of delegating different tasks to everyone is to give different people responsibility and share the workload. If you are copied in on every single detail you might as well do the job yourself.

    Keeping everybody in the loop should apply to the major decisions, not minor ones.

  • Diane, it sounds as though a collaboration workspace would keep the fictional team on track without sinking them in email.

    Nic and Liz, thanks for mentioning dividing up tasks and delegating. The efficiency of those actions is lost if everyone is roped into the discussion.


  • Dear sir or madam
    In this contemporary information society we are constantly bombarded with information. Therefore it is essential to develop and use a filter else wise we would all be sending money to Nigerian princes.

    Furthermore how is the sender to know with absolute certainty what the receiver will find ‘essential or significant’?
    Good day

  • Cheers,

    I liked Pauls’s thinking.
    As a result of “drowning in email” our precious time is sucked away.
    All in all, emailing should be performed only if the information that is sent is essential . Thank you all.

  • It is true that emails have become too much for most people; however,it is a very efficient tool of communication.

    I do agree with Brian. Firsly, they are operating in a team environment, and any discussion relevant to the planning process should be made available to all members of the group. secondly,If the other members don’t like the email, they can easily ignore it.

    I hope that this comment will shed light on the issue at hand and restore the team spirit.

  • I agreed with Paula. Because Brian & her are responsible for booth signs, they should work on the final product first, instead of sending insignificant e-mails. One last e-mail can be sent for viewing and commenting on the booth signs for approval by all team members.

  • Thank you, Peter, Adina, Dorothy, and Zarina. Because you commented within a few minutes of one another, I am guessing you were completing a class assignment.

    I am glad you thought about the scenario and took the time to comment.

    Good luck with your business writing.


  • Indeed, Lynn! The class is the Business Writing component of our Dip courses in Office Admin/Accounting Clerk/Med Reception. Might you suggest other threads that raise similarly interesting pro/con questions to do with office correspondence? Enjoying your blog!

  • Let’s be honest here, shareware like Google docs and SharePoint are the new Email. In this day and age when shared documents are easily accessible, it does not make sense not to utilize the technology. I am in a creative writing group, and when we started, google docs and such did not exist. It was extremely difficult to keep all that we were writing organized and together and a lot of times we would find ourselves frustrated when trying to communicate or share our work- not to mention locate things that we had written that were hidden within massive email threads. I cannot tell you how many hours I have wasted looking for a plot line or a piece of character information that was buried in a pile of replies. Since we’ve started using gdocs, it has made even our hobby much more enjoyable. Documents are easy to find, information arrives instantly and can be changed and edited by all who have access to it. I can only imagine how much easier team projects in the office would be if others were taking advantage of these useful tools.

  • I agree with Paula.
    Having tons of messages that are not relevant to your part of a project and are just clogging up your Inbox, is annoying and unnecessary.

  • I agree with Paula as Her and Brian are the ones responsible for the booth signs. I believe that they should communicate with each other until they have all of the final details and then they should send out an e-mail to the whole team with all of the information they need to know.

  • Team Brian all the way!
    A few emails aren’t really imposing, and can easily be deleted or ignored, but having access to all of the information, if the team so chooses should be an option.
    Google Docs, Sharepoint, and google wave all seem like affective tools as well, although I have never used them, so can’t speak to that.
    All in all, the team members should have access to the information, whether through email or another program.

  • I would have to say that I’m kind of torn with this. I can clearly see Brian’s point;they are in a group and as a group should work together in all aspects and keep one another up to date on their progress or decisions. But on the other hand, Paula poses a good point. People wouldn’t want to receive an email(s) with information that’s meaningless, pointless or irrelevant to one’s self. With that being said, I am leaning more to Brian’s point. I would rather be informed and have the ability to choose whether or not I want to read the emails sent to me than not receive one at all. It takes no time to scan and delete or read and reply. It becomes more of a hassle trying to figure out what’s going on with your group than it is to be kept in the loop.

  • I would have to agree with Brian.
    If a group of staff members are a part of a team, they should be sharing information even if it may seem irrelevant at the time.
    They are working on the same project so one team members information may reflect another members information.
    If team members receive all e-mails, it only takes a few seconds to decide whether or not the message is of importance.
    In conclusion, there is no ‘I’ in team. Thanks.

  • After reading the scenario we as a group have agreed with Paula that it is unecassary to email everyone regarding the signs as Paula and Brian were the only team members responsible for booth signs. Rather than overloading other team members with excess information regarding the signs, they can simply inform them with their final decision when all details are finalised. Excess information creates more work and wastes time and can also cause the reader to skip through important information which may cause problems in the long run. Replying to all members with every detail is unecessary as it can cause confusion regarding who is doing what.

  • Hello, Tammy, Katie, Jennifer, Kelly, Patty, Wendy, and Rona. I enjoyed reading your comments.

    The more people in business I talk with, the more I recognize that people are drowning in email. You are correct that it only takes a few seconds to glance at and delete an email. But if we multiply that gesture by many times a day, the seconds build into minutes. Also, depending on how people read their emails, each message may break their concentration.

    Keep studying business writing! Your solid skills as writers can open many doors for you.


  • Time is of the essences when working in an trade shows/business environment. In the scenario presented, the facts of the matter was that two team members, Paula and Brian, are responsible for the booth signs. In addition, Paula says, “they should only copy the entire team when everyone needs the information.” It’s a matter of priorities, I too agree with Liz Tucker’s comment.

  • I agree with Brian. I believe that in a team plan, having everyone having knowledge of the progress of others can be beneficial, as I do not believe that group projects should be done with members working in an island by themselves or limited members of a group.

    Sometimes different tasks in a group are interrelated with other tasks. Thus even though different tasks are assigned to different people, having knowledge of the progress of other tasks in an assignment, can aid the planning of other members with different tasks in a group.

    Moreover, some people also work better off knowing how others in a group are doing, and having the progress of others would be beneficial to such members.

  • Paula was right because she was following their agreement about separation of duties. There were no reasons to discuss research with others because they were not informed on particular work. The best way here is discussing booth signs with Brian. And when they found the best solution they could make a report to others and discuss together.

  • I definitely agree with Paula! When considering the fact that Paula and her partner’s task is to discuss booth sign prices amongst themselves as partners, I agree that the “reply-all” should be used after their findings and final propositions are ready to be shared with other team members. Also, Paula’s business writing strategy is still keeping all members “in the loop” about their work progress just with one or two meaningful emails as opposed to twenty emails full of messy brainstorming ideas. I believe that Paula’s way is more organized and less overwhelming for everyone who is working hard to achieve optimal results.

  • I agree with Paula, as the original e-mail was only intended for Brian’s inbox regarding her research into the costs of the signage, which her and Brian are responsible for. At this stage of the process the other team members do not require this information, wasting other members time and energy reading irrelevant e-mails, which could be better utilized focusing on their roles in the project.

  • I agree with Brian because if we are in the 21st century, we have to take advantage all the new technologies, and it’s better to have every think written. This way we don’t forget and we are always updating of the issues.
    The people who are not interests in the subjects can always delete the email without reading. It doesn’t too long.
    Doesn’t look right if I’m in the meeting and if I don’t get all the information I can’t do my job correctly if I had to make a decision of some issue.
    So, is never too much reply to all….

  • Thanks for your comments, Bryan, Gideon, Pavlo, Angela, Mark, and Florbela, and for thinking about the situation.

    Florbela, I have to take issue with your “never too much reply to all.” I led an email class yesterday of 16 professionals, and virtually of them almost yelled that they were sick of Reply All messages.

    Many people at work really are buried in email, and they want to receive only the messages they need.


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