When we talk, it is generally obvious if an answer is expected or not; by email, this is not always so clear: on the one hand, you want to acknowledge reception of the message in question; on the other, you don't want to disturb your correspondent and force them to open an email that just reads something like "Thanks", "Thank you", "OK", or other non-actionable statements. Put in other words, you can't always use real world interactions as a guide to knowing whether replying to an email is necessary or will potentially be perceived as an annoying time-waster! This tutorial will give you some pointers to help you know when to Reply to an email or not, and will cover the etiquette of the "Reply to All" command. Our next email etiquette tutorial gets a bit more specific, and tells you whether reply to professional emails after business hours, on weekends, or during vacation / holidays.
Since we cannot lay an ironclad rule telling you whether to reply to a particular email or not, let's start with the factors that will determine whether or not to reply, aside from the subject at hand (content of the email conversation, and its relative importance).
These and other points help you determine if a reply is expected or required based on "social" aspects of the exchange; let's now talk about email etiquette and replies based on the actual content (and context) of a message.
Let's now look at the "Reply to All" command (sometimes simply labeled "Reply All", which is and does exactly the same thing). As you know, you can send an email message to multiple email recipients; if any of them hits the "Reply" button, that email will only reach you. So, for "group emails", hitting Reply to All will send your response to both the original sender, as well as all the To and Cc recipients he/she included initially.
Tip: reply to all won't send an email to undisclosed recipients (anyone whose email address was in the Bcc field).
Courtesy becomes even more important when your reply is about to be sent to a potentially very large number of people, potentially including some superiors and executives who were simply included as "Cc" recipients. Only use "Reply to All" if everyone needs to receive your email: if false information was included, and jeopardizes the actions involved in the project (be courteous in correcting it!), or will otherwise have significant damages.
Whether you are correcting someone or replying to a group, the best is to handpick the recipients; if you are extremely careful not to accidentally send a blank email, the easiest way is to hit "Reply to All", and delete the email addresses to which you don't want to reply.
By definition, group emails include some redundancy: as long as they are only occasional, and limited in scope, don't worry too much about replying or not replying, and to whom. There are often no definite ways of knowing if a response is needed or not, and if all should be included in it or not! Our etiquette guidelines are pointers, not absolute rules.
Bore others or protect your back? In doubt, always do what's best for you and/or your team - if a reply can be used to confirm -in writing!- your understanding of an agreement or actions to take, by all means fire that email away!
How much time can politely pass before you follow up on an email? Most of the time, reply to emails as soon as you can, if only to be able to file the message as "done" in its filing folder, or delete from your inbox, really, which is a "todo list" of sorts.
If you cannot respond immediately to an email, consider sending an reception confirmation: "Hi X, I got your email and will reply in details as soon as I can!" This buys you a bit of leeway, and if your reply time was quick (within 15 minutes of receiving the message), you will impress your colleague / contractor / customer by following up so efficiently - even if you have not yet addressed the content of the email.
Caution: the standard keyboard shortcut for responding to emails is "Ctrl+R" - make sure that you avoid pressing "Ctr+Shift+R"; that keystroke will "reply to all!"
Sometimes, people will make your life easier by closing an email with the "RR" acronym: this unambiguously tells you that a response is not only expected, but required.
If, on the one hand, the email sender's message closes with "EOM" (End of Message), you'll know that no response is necessary; in fact, email etiquette dictates that in that case, replying would actually be inappropriate! (The same way that not acknowledging an RSVP would be rude - RSVP literally stands for "Please Reply", in French.)