No good deed goes unpunished, part 2

Sometimes you're better off keeping your fool mouth shut.

When I reply to a question on an internal discussion list, often with a clarifying question rather than an answer, it will occasionally happen that the person I replied to will send a response directly to me rather than including the discussion list. This is bad for a few reasons.

  • I was just trying to help you ask a better question. I didn't sign up to be responsible for the answer. I have an actual job whose description does not include "Solving your personal problems."
  • Sending the response directly to me means that others on the discussion list miss out on the answer. (Assuming I even know the answer.) It also prevents the answer from going into the discussion list archives.
  • Sending the response directly to me means that if I happen to go on vacation or am otherwise unavailable, you won't get an answer to your question. Other people on the discussion list can't chip in with their advice since you didn't include them on the reply.
  • Sending the response directly to me creates an implied obligation on me to reply. I didn't sign up for that.

When somebody does this, I typically forward the message back to the discussion list with a message like "I wish they'd fix that Exchange Server bug where the discussion list keeps getting deleted from the 'To' line." This is a little joke that I use to avoid directly accusing the person of removing the discussion list from the 'To' line intentionally.

I used to write some variation of "It's that annoying Outlook bug again..." but Jensen Harris asked me to stop because they were actually getting bug reports filed into the Outlook defect tracking database that went, "Outlook is deleting discussion lists from the To line when people reply. Raymond says so, so it must be true." The poor Outlook folks had to keep explaining to the people who submitted these bug reports, "No, Raymond was making a joke (at your expense)." To take the heat off the Outlook team, I switched to blaming Exchange Server. I have no idea if the Exchange Server team has their own collection of analogous bugs. They haven't asked me to change my joke, so maybe it's not a problem for them.

Comments (33)
  1. gkdada says:

    BTW, gimme your email ID so that I can send MY take on this DIRECTLY to you. (more blame on Exchange)

  2. Tim Dawson says:

    I feel the same, and would add good old fashioned fear of intimacy to the list.

    Well, perhaps not fear of intimacy, but if it’s someone you don’t know, and suddenly you’re one-on-one with them instead of in the open, group-help environment, it can just feel awkward. And it’s often someone you don’t know, if you’re accustomed to helping random people with programming topic on the internet.

  3. Clearly the Exchange team has a sense of humour.  "You had me at EHLO" :)

  4. I thought outlook had so many bugs that I’m surprised they even notice this one.

    Take heart – this means somebody over there is doing their job :)

  5. jesse says:

    You really are one of the world’s biggest douchebags.

  6. foxyshadis says:

    I guess it’s a good thing blog comments don’t have an option to send only to the poster, and not the blog.

  7. Wang-Lo says:

    Contrariwisely, I have seen persons post a question to a discussion group with a final paragraph like:

    "Please email answers directly to me as I do not visit this group very often."

    Flippin’ cheek!  If I know the answer, I post the correct information to the discussion group.  Then I send an incorrect and dangerous answer directly to the email addy.  Maybe somebody will learn to use a discussion group for the free exchange of useful information, not as his private think tank.


  8. Ralf says:

    To avoid misunderstanding, perhaps you should preface your observations with:

    "Note that I am only suggesting an alternate way of asking this question in the hopes of improving triangulation on a solution. Instead of email, replies to this message should be posted to the thread so that others may benefit. By reading this EULA you are automatically bound to its conditions. Violations of this agreement (or its intent, no matter how vague) shall be prosecuted to an extent limited only by my imagination and abilities, tempered by mood and/or current blood alcohol/caffeine levels."

    Works for me.

  9. I swear when I saw Raymond’s post No good deed goes unpunished, part 2 earlier today I almost ruined

  10. Hamilton Lovecraft says:

    "Group X asked me to stop doing the thing that made them look bad, so I started doing it to group Y instead."

  11. Cooney says:


    Perhaps, instead of a disclaimer that they won’t read (rule 1: users don’t read), just respond to the direct response with "Dunno, perhaps you should ask this list. I hear they know about that stuff".

  12. AC says:


    "just respond to the direct response with "Dunno, perhaps you should ask this list. I hear they know about that stuff"."

    Nope, doesn’t work well at all. If that group doesn’t respond or have a good answer the person will still reply to you directly again, as if you’ve taken it upon yourself to get their problem solved.

    Sometimes the results of trying to be helpful aren’t worth it.

  13. microbe says:

    It so happens too when you reply to someone’s question in private and the guy forwards it to the entire list..some people think that’s rude.

  14. Some people don’t realize the negative ramifications of taking a QA session private.  They aren’t obvious, especially when you are preoccupied with fixing a difficult problem.

    I wish they’d fix that bug where knowledgeable developers give sarcastic answers to misdirected but honest questions.

  15. Rich says:

    I usually do this to avoid cluttering the list with extra chatter.  I’d post a summary on completion, though.

  16. Norman Diamond says:

    No good deed goes unpunished, part 2

    Nothing new, that happens to anyone foolish enough to do good deeds.  The overwhelming majority of examples are unrelated to the following, but nonetheless the parallels were striking.

    I was just trying to help you ask a better

    question. I didn’t sign up to be responsible

    for the answer. I have an actual job whose

    description does not include "Solving your

    personal problems."

    I was just trying to help your company make a better product.  I didn’t sign up to be responsible for the policy decisions.  I have an actual job whose description does not include "Solving your products’ problems."

    Sending the response directly to me means

    that others on the discussion list miss out

    on the answer.

    True indeed.  So sometimes I post publicly.  I still get reminded though, defects in a certain company’s products and documentation get labelled as my personal problems and millions of customers miss out on possible improvements.

    It is true, we’re in 100% agreement, it’s just that the obvious parallel jumped right up while reading.

  17. silkio says:

    just set your reply-to to be the list email.

  18. Cheong says:


    "Please email answers directly to me as I do not visit this group very often."


    I’ve seen it frequently at a BBS I visit, where I’ll usually just ignore the question as I don’t like them.

    And I received personal email asking for followup after answering question too. Usually I’ll just answer on the board unless flamewar is involved – which I prefer to do it without polluting the discussion.

  19. Neil says:

    I know people who send a copy to both me and the list "because they don’t know if I’m subscribed to the list". They don’t seem to understand how I found their original message, and why I can’t find their reply the same way. Now I seem to recall this is OK when all of the sender, recipient and list use the same Exchange forest, but for other lists and newsgroups it’s just annoying. Oddly Exchange doesn’t seem to be so clever when it comes to including external contacts on internal lists – when someone CCs them on a reply they still get two copies.

  20. Ignas says:

    Maybe outlook has fixed this bug, but a lot of mailers do send the answer to the person directly (and not to the list) when one clicks reply (google mail is one of these) google mail sends a reply to both the person and the mailing list if you click "reply to all", and yes at least a few of other mail clients do the same thing.

    Double messages probably annoy users of the other class of buggy mail clients: the ones that can’t tell that two emails with the same message ID are actually the same email and should not get displayed twice.

    I have seen a lot of occasions of people posting the mail into a discussion (and apologizing) because  they sent it directly to someone by accident first. So i would blame it on the consitently bad UI not users.

    As for the "send it to me directly", in many cases that means "send it to me directly too" a.k.a. add me to cc. and not "I don’t want anyone else to know the answer". Being smug to ones who are not subscribed to the list and don’t want to lurk in there for a month is not a good thing to do ™.

  21. BryanK says:

    just set your reply-to to be the list email.

    GAAH!  No, no, NO, PLEASE don’t do this!  See:

    There are, unfortunately, poorly implemented mail programs that lack separate reply-to-author and reply-to-group functions. A user saddled with such a brain-dead mailer can benefit from Reply-To munging. It makes it easier for him or her to send responses directly to the list.

    This change, however, penalizes the conscientious person that uses a reasonable mailer.  <…>  We should not penalize the conscientious to coddle those who run brain-dead software.


    (See also the links under that.)

  22. When replying to lists I generally have a newsposting from email address. Any mail sent to this address get’s an auto-reply stating that the mail box is unattended and that replying to the list is a good thing so that the knowledge can be shared.

  23. macbirdie says:

    Hmm, ? ;)

  24. ender says:

    GAAH!  No, no, NO, PLEASE don’t do this!  See:

    Luckily, my e-mail software lets me work around the mailing lists that follow this stupid advice. It happened way too often that I sent a private reply when I actually wanted to reply to list, and I never accidentally sent to the list when in fact I wanted to reply privately.

    (Is it really that hard to add an option to the mailing list settings to let the users choose for themselves if they want proper Reply-to headers or not? Of the many mailing lists I’m subscribed to, only one has this.)

  25. J says:

    "I usually do this to avoid cluttering the list with extra chatter.  I’d post a summary on completion, though."

    If you’re trying to diagnose and solve a problem, the messages concerning the diagnostic steps can be invaluable for someone who comes looking for a solution later, though.  :(

    It’s good that you’d post a summary, however.  The worst threads are "Does anyone know how I can do xxxxx?", followed by "Nevermind, I figured it out."

  26. Brooks Moses says:

    Another reason you missed (which might be true for you, but not for me): sending an answer in private means that we miss out on the opportunity to have other people on the list check the answer to make sure it’s correct and doesn’t miss something obvious.

    For me, though, it really just reduces to the fact that the reason that I reply to messages of that sort in the first place is because I wish to add to the community, and in my opinion answering messages on the list/newsgroup/forum adds to the community.  Replying to messages privately doesn’t, except in rare cases.

  27. Brooks Moses says:

    Ack!  "Might not be true for you, but is for me" is what I meant in that parenthetical!

    I’ve probably learned more from having people correct or amend my answers than I have from asking questions.

  28. Puckdropper says:

    My rule of thumb is that if it originated on the list it stays on the list, unless it involves semi-private data such as contact information, or unless it’s clearly completely personal.  Brad and Randy might be fascinated with what happened to Mark after Home Improvement, but Jesse, Danny, and Joey don’t really care.  (Obviously this must be on  Names are from TV shows to protect against implications of intent.)

  29. ::Wendy:: says:

    I have experienced a similar challenge at work.  I choose not to humiliate-embarress the sender by publically asking the question.  I write directly to the sender telling them the problem:

    1) it is impossible to answer the questions in the email without the answers to these questions (Raymonds questions)

    2) please add this information to the email thread so eveyone access it

    This means the people on the distribtuino list

    If the person does not add the information to the mail thread THEN I shift to the poblic route of asking the question in the thread,  and I double it’s impact by making it clear that I have already asked for this information to be shared in a separate threat.

    Just seems a bit more polite to the person who may not know how to effectively use email yet in this corporate contex.

  30. AndyB says:

    Some email clients/ lists do only send to the author if they click ‘reply’ instead of ‘reply to all’ so it is possible they are replying accidentally, instead of replying to you intentionally.

    I’d always write back and say, Im sorry I only discuss this on the discussion list. Its honest and straightforward and makes the person aware of the issue from your point of view, and gives the (implicit) solution to his problem of obtaining an answer. It also acts as a gentle reminder if he has accidentally replied to you instead of the list.

    Now, people who insist on receiving replies directly to them… just don’t get them.

  31. Miral says:

    I semifrequently request that people CC me directly when replying to queries I’ve posted on a list.  Mostly I only do that when the list is so busy that I’d tend to miss the reply otherwise.

    I never request that people only send the message to me, rather than the list, though.  I know how useful list archives are.  And in fact I quite often ignore private queries to me as well, when they’ve clearly originated from the list (eg. by using an email address that I only use for that particular list).

  32. Ilya Birman says:

    Raymond, this is sweet :-)

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