How to respond to an email you were copied on by mistake

Sometimes people put your name on emails by mistake — and as a result, you see something that wasn’t intended for you. Naturally, the simplest thing to do is delete it. But we’re all curious, so we don’t often do what we “ought” to do.

Here’s some more realistic advice on what to do when you receive that mistaken email.

When they typed your name by mistake

I’ve gotten lots of emails intended for other Joshes — generally, people I have nothing to do with. I’m sure this has happened to you, as well. Email address autocomplete makes it easy to make this mistake.

If you’re copied by name in a conversation you have nothing to do with, send a quick and discrete note to the sender to let them know they sent something to you by mistake. Then delete the email.

Sometimes such emails are gossip-worthy. For example, you could get inside information about an upcoming merger, a change in a company’s valuation, a project they’re working on, or the like.

While it would be tempting to share such information (or buy and sell stocks based on it), I’d still recommend deleting the email and doing nothing further. You don’t want to get in the middle of an insider trading investigation, or be accused of violating privacy laws. Even if the problem is someone else’s fault, it’s not worth it to become embroiled in the consequences.

And consider that these “mistakes” could also be a ploy by scammers to manipulate or entrap you.

When you’re included in “Reply All”

People often hit “Reply All” when they shouldn’t. As a result, you see a message that was intended only for the original sender.

Since such a message often goes to dozens or hundreds of people, there’s no need to respond. Trust me, the original sender knows they hit the wrong button, and they know everyone is reading their personal message to the sender. (Often, they’ll follow up with an apology for copying everyone on the embarrassing message.)

There is a special place in hell for people who feel the right way to respond to a “Reply All” message is to send everyone on the list another reply about the Reply All message. Our inboxes are full enough without this sort of inadvertent viral idiocy.

By the way, I recommend developing the habit of always hitting “Reply” rather than “Reply All.” If you actually meant to reply to everyone, that’s pretty easy to fix. But if you replied to everyone when you only wanted to send to one person, that’s a big mess that’s hard to clean up.

When you inadvertently see something that concerns you

What do you do when you see an email about you, but that was supposed to be sent to someone else?

For example, I received this email regarding a project I was bidding on recently, in the middle of a long chain of replies:

FYI. I don’t think Josh would keep us on our original timeline after all. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s wise to introduce him to Xxxx — but we can discuss.

It was clear that the sender was attempting to forward my email to a third person, but replied to me instead.

There are three possible ways to respond to this, but two of them are going to get you in trouble.

  1. You could respond quickly, directly, and emotionally. “You’re completely wrong here, I can’t believe you said this about me.” While that may be satisfying in the moment, it won’t accomplish your objective. Yes, it was their mistake, but you’ve shown that you’re defensive and emotional, and that’s not going to change anything.
  2. You could ignore the email and say nothing. But eventually, the sender is likely to figure out that they sent the email to the wrong person. Then they’ll assume you’re too meek to stand up for yourself or comment on an email about you, or that you’re content to sneakily gather information about yourself that you’re not supposed to know. That’s not going to help you at all.
  3. You could calmly point out the mistake to the sender and allow the sender to move on. “Hey, Sarah, I think you forwarded this email to me when it was meant for someone else. It’s a natural mistake. By the way, here is some more information that might help you before you make a final decision on this.”

Option 3 is best — it acknowledges that you saw something, allows you to respond simply and rationally, and doesn’t make a big deal about it. You have been invited into the conversation, even if it was by mistake, and this gives you the right to respond.

One more thing. Respond only to the sender; do not copy anyone else. And do not forward the email to anyone. Embarrassing the sender by sharing their mistake with other people isn’t going make a positive impression on anyone.

Extortion

Of course, any time you receive something you’re not supposed to know about — and perhaps, no one is supposed to know about — you could blackmail the sender.

Go ahead and fantasize about doing this. That’s all in good fun.

But blackmail is illegal. So don’t do it.

3 responses to “How to respond to an email you were copied on by mistake

  1. Thank you! As a person ‘Emily Harris’ I am regularly receive emails meant for others named ‘Emily Harris.’

  2. Many email clients let you remove the Reply All button from the toolbar and I typically to that. You can usually get to Reply All through a right-click or via the menu when you need it.

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