How to Solve the "Reply-All" Problem?

(Photo: Jon Gosier)

E-mail has been around long enough for most of us to fall in love and hate and love with it at least a few times. Problems arise and are quashed, or dealt with. Innovations come along; customs evolve. But one grisly bad habit won’t go away: the “reply-all” dilemma. You know what I’m talking about. Someone sends you a group e-mail. Maybe it’s your company’s marketing boss, or the head of your bowling league, or the parent-teacher liaison in your kid’s school. And even if that e-mail was meant to be simply explanatory, or to garner responses only to the sender, inevitably a few of the people on the receiving end simply hit “reply all” and suddenly your in-box starts to fill up with a chattering storm of crap. Sure, you could mark all those senders as spam but then you might miss something important later. Sure, you could politely tell people not to use “reply-all” when it’s unnecessary but plainly they don’t think it’s unnecessary, and you’ll come off sounding like a jerk. Sure, you could just deal with it and chalk it up to a downside of a great invention. But does anyone have any better ideas?

Jeremy Taxman

How about a simple pop-up that says "are you sure you want to reply to everyone on that list?" ?


When sending an email to a mass audience I B.C.C. all recipients, effectively disabling the reply all capability.

Bryan Lindsey

I'll take the passive-aggressive approach and send the link to this post in a group e-mail to everyone at my workplace. The fallout will be the inevitable passive-aggressive replies to all.

Barman Roy

'Reply All' is an extremely useful (and sometimes necessary) feature. So it doesn't make sense to completely do away with the feature. That being said, how and when the feature is used depends solely upon the sender and there is nothing to do apart from depending upon his/her judgement. Unfortunately, some people are stupid enough (in other words, deliberately ignorant) to understand the difference between 'Reply' and 'Reply All'. On a similar note, some people are still ignorant about difference between 'To', 'CC' and 'BCC'. There is nothing to do except make them aware of it and explaining what a nuisance this reply all can be at times.


I usually finagle the reply function to those that are relevant to my response. I will also include those who may provide further insight, but do not necessarily have a direct ownership of the matter at hand.

So two groups
1) Those I expect a response from
2) Those who may contribute to the topic

Its exclusive, but you won't piss anyone off and it divests the message from being "spam" for really anyone.


This might only be the case with Outlook, but I usually create rules that place Reply All conversations into a separate folder automatically. You can then prioritize which emails to respond to. Although this doesn't eliminate all possibilities, it really cuts down on "repeat offenders".


People should have to solve a math problem before hitting Reply All.

Roger Dooley

In my experience, many, if not most, Reply All emails to large lists are misfires. Gmail is already smart enough to ask if you forgot an attachment if it sees "attached" in the message, it could prompt for confirmation if Reply All is used on an email with more than a preset number of recipients. (One problem: distribution lists, like "Marketing & Sales," that look like one address but actually go to 100 people. Easy enough to control in a corporate environment by using a list naming convention that would trigger the confirmation step.)

There's a flip side to the problem - failure to hit Reply All. When a small group is discussing a problem by email, it's easy to hit just Reply by accident and leave out the rest of the group. This usually triggers another email saying, "Ooops, sorry, forgot to include everyone..."

Paul Hodgson

Don't use email, there are plenty of ways to communicate with groups of people that are more powerful and flexible than email. Message boards, wikis, threaded chat clients, facebook groups etc are all alternatives that can give you much more control over how the message is consumed and responded to.

This Guy

They should have originally called it "Reply Everyone." There is still time to re-name it!


I add "kindly reply privately" and then take note of who pays attention. If they don't pay attention to that, they may not be paying attention to the important content of the message!

Bill R

The Delete Key it is fast and painless Unless you are George Jetson and pushing one more button makes your work day hell. Seriously checking email is much easier then working in a rice paddy.

Garth B

If you're using Outlook, you can set up a rule which will automatically delete all of emails from that thread based on the specific subject heading. This is only ideal if it's a unique subject heading, otherwise it will delete any following emails with the same subject heading which aren't related to the "reply all dilemma".

Here's how... In MS Outlook, right click on an email from the group email, then select "Rules>Create rule..". Tick the "subject contains" dialogue box and then tick the box that says "Move the item to the folder" and select the "Deleted Items" folder. Then click OK to finish.


Facebook has the nice "unfollow" feature. When engaged, it stops notifying a user when others have contributed to the thread, picture, status, etc. You don't get irrelevant notifications, but you can still see the up-to-date thread if you want to check up on it. "Reply All" keeps these messages *woven* with the same thread; pun most definitely intended.


Let's assume we're all reasonably aware e-mail users (first wrong assumption). The sender can avoid crap storms by bcc'ing. Putting the list in the "to" or "cc" field instead implies that (s)he thinks there may be replies worth sharing. As to the recipient who thinks (s)he has a reply worth sending to all, (s)he has to make the conscious decision of choosing "reply to all", which is not the first choice (reply is). I think the crap storm prevention tools are all there... Since whatever you say you will be judged anyway, why not explain these basic principles in an e-mail addressed to the first "reply-all'er" and the sender, for future reference? They may be more inclined to consider what you're saying if you don't embarrass them by replying to all yourself.

Matt L

I'm a lawyer representing governmental entities in Oklahoma and this problem is of particular relevance and more of an annoyance in that setting because a blast email sent to the membership of a governing body can become a State law violation (Open Meeting Act) if someone on the body hits "reply all" and sends a communication to the rest of their members. The way I solve that problem is to BCC people on the blast emails - it protects them from themselves. If they hit Reply All, it won't go to the rest of the body and will only go to me. If replies are expected and intended to go to more than just myself, I'll put the relevant parties to receive replies in the TO or CC line - so if they hit "Reply All" it will go to those parties and myself only. If it is important that there be an indication to the recipients as to who the email is being sent to, I will put in the body of the email who I am sending it to. But the BCC feature cuts off the "Reply All" concern. But it can only be effective if the Sender uses it.



Proper use of BCC solves this problem. Most of the time my email frustrations are lack of being included in important email chains


I don't think reply all is a problem, what is a problem is stupid email clients that include your own email address in the circulation list, which then sends you your own email. #dumb


Flag the conversation as a flame war. This would shunt all responses to the trash, except further messages from the original sender (who would be more likely to pass along those important on-topic items we don't want to miss)

Dean Monti

It's an interesting problem. I try to reply only to the sender, whenever I can. Or I immediately begin to narrow down the group. Who of the larger group really needs to know my response? If the groups is any larger than, say, 5 or 6, I will rarely respond all, unless it's necessary. Sometimes, if you get the jump on this first, or early, you can avoid a lot of extra mail in your inbox.
If you can sidebar a chosen few early, even better. "Betty: you, Erin and Jennifer can meet with me about this to get details on (specific task)." You occasionally risk "exclusion" because you can't know for sure who wants to be kept in the loop. But that doesn't happen very often. Most people are glad to be looped out if they can.