Silencing the 'reply all' beast

Do you work with a "reply all" maniac?

Mild-mannered and pleasant in face-to-face conversation, he or she morphs into a compulsive communicator when offered the chance to hit that little envelope icon at the top of a group e-mail.


Among the species frequently observed in the American office:

The Go-Getter

: He can't resist a chance to show his team spirit, say, by hitting "reply all" and sending a heartfelt "Congrats, Pete! Well deserved!" to all 150 people who just received notice of Pete's promotion.

The Lemming: Once the "reply all" snowball rolling, she can be relied on to keep it going, if only by parroting the last thing that someone said. Signature lines: "Thanks!" and "Me too!"

The Wit: Whenever the boss sends out an e-mail, he has a funny retort. A funny retort he thinks 3 dozen of his nearest and dearest co-workers desperately need to hear.

"Reply to all" topped the list of office e-mail annoyances in a recent survey, but still the offenders roam free, confident that they're simply being their polite, witty and/or supportive selves.


For help, Office Hours turned to Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of "Send: Why People Email so Badly and How to do it Better," who suggested cutting off the avalanche of unwanted information at its source.

"We believe – and this is very important – that the responsibility actually lies with the sender," Schwalbe says.

"If you're sending an e-mail to a lot of people, put 'Please reply all' or 'Please don't reply all.' "

That, of course, assumes that the original sender can distinguish between a 'Don't reply all' query such as, "Which kind of sandwich would you like at the company retreat?" and a "Reply all" query such as, "Does anyone have directions to the company retreat?" But we're willing to make that leap of faith.

Whatever you do, Schwalbe says, resist the urge to respond to an avalanche of "reply all" e-mails with your own "please stop replying to all" e-mail.

"That never works. It's a disaster," says Schwalbe, who once ran across a case where excessive "reply alls" triggered a "please stop replying to all" e-mail, which in turn triggered so many "reply all" e-mails, pro and con, that the company's server crashed.

Schwalbe suggests a radical alternative: Get up from your desk and talk to the chronic offender face to face.

E-mail is too stark and toneless for this delicate mission, he says. In person, you can be friendly and flattering and then quickly slip in the request for a tad less information. You might say, "We love your wit, you're such a card, everyone in the office loves you but, in the future, maybe it's best just to reply to the person that e-mails you."


So what do you think? Would that work? If not, what might?

Have you had any luck taming the "reply all" beast?

Office Hours appears weekly in TribU. If you have a work-related question — and remember, no question is too serious or too silly — send a note to Nara Schoenberg at