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When Should You Use CC and BCC?

How to know when to use CC and BCC in email.

By
Stever Robbins
February 23, 2010
Episode #122

CC and BCC are great tools to work less and do more. They save typing, and you think they keep everyone informed. They don’t. They make everyone work harder to figure out why the heck you CCd them, and what in the world you expect them to do in response.

When Should You Use CC and BC?

CC stands for “carbon copy.” Long ago, telephones had real dials and were wired to the wall. (I know, who can believe it?) Calendars were printed on paper, and you had to wind up your car!

Your boss Mike would ask you to send him a copy of your report. You called to your secretary, “Sally honey, could you make sure to send Mike a copy?”

Sally sat down at her Hermes Manual Typewriter and grabbed some carbon paper. She put it between two sheets of regular paper. As she typed, the typewriter letters would make a fuzzy copy on the sheet behind the carbon paper. If you wanted three copies, she would use three sheets of paper with two pieces of carbon. The fuzzy copies were called “carbon copies.” You knew your worth as a human by which copy you received. If you got copy #3, the super-fuzzy copy, you knew you were scum, and would have to sell your kidney to make your payment on your wood-panel station wagon.

CC’ing People Used to Be A Lot of Work

The next day, you asked, “Please send Melvin Senior a copy as well.” “Yes, sir,” she said, “right away!” eager to be of service. Beneath her bouffant, however, her 160-point IQ was planning the perfect murder—yours. Because that extra copy meant typing the entire report again by hand.

Sending carbon copies was a lot of work, so you didn’t send one without very good reason. You would think it through in advance. Let’s think it through together.

Don’t Use CC to Deliver News

Melvin is being promoted to a window desk. You send an email. “Melvin, congratulations! You’re now an Assistant Assistant to the Supervisor. You get the window cubicle Bernice currently uses.” You CC Bernice so she knows what’s going on. A few minutes later, Bernice comes storming towards your office. And the facilities people said you were paranoid to order those flame-retardant extra-thick office doors.

Anything that will affect someone’s job, social status, workload, title, or emotional well-being should be delivered directly, not as an offhand carbon copy. Even better, give the news in person so you can change your delivery as you see their reaction.

Don’t Use CC to Tell Someone You’re Done

If you’re CC’ing someone to show you finished something you promised, stop. Your job is doing what you promised, by the date you promised you’d do it. If you want to let someone know your report is done, email them directly. “My report on Interdimensional Wormholes as a power source for our Next Generation of Vacuum Cleaners is done. I’ve attached a copy for your review.”

Don’t Use CC to Cover Your Butt

Some people use CC to cover their butts. Bernice demands you tell a customer that you’re changing their payment terms. You’re afraid you’ll lose the customer. You send Bernice a message saying so, and CC your boss. Now when the customer leaves, your boss will know it was really Bernice’s fault and if only they’d listened to you, everything would have worked out. Does this sound familiar? If you have 8-year old kids, you’ve been on the receiving end of this a dozen times. “It was KC’s fault!” “Was not!” “Was too!”

Send Direct Email When You Want to Deliver a Message

Instead of CC or BCC, send a separate message. First send your message to the main recipients. Then forward a copy to the people you were tempted to CC. Introduce the forwarded message by telling them why you’re sending the copy, why they should care, and what they need to do in response.

You can CC people when there’s a multi-person conversation and you want to e-mail everyone who is taking part in the discussion.

Don’t CC Bernice on your message to Melvin, instead, forward her a copy with a proper introduction. “Bernice, help! Here’s the message I just sent Melvin. We need to give him your window cubicle because his scalp condition is grossing out his current cubicle-mate, and it only responds to direct sunlight. To spare his feelings, we’re telling him it’s a promotion.” Now, instead of being angry, Bernice—who as a kind, sensitive, enlightened being, cares deeply for her fellow man—will be only too happy to switch cubicles.

This is more work for you, but much less work for them. It forces you to think through why you’re sending the message, and whether they’ll find it useful.

When Should You Use CC?

Decades ago, when Mike asked you for a copy of your report, you sent it. That’s appropriate. CC anyone who asks to be sent a copy. Or if there’s a multi-person conversation, it’s fine to CC everyone who is taking part in the discussion.

Email is a new medium and we’re still learning to use it. Use CC and BCC very sparingly. If you must send copies, send them as separate messages with appropriate introductions. I have written extensively on how to write email that makes everyone around you worship your awesomeness as a communicator.  See all of my episodes on e-mail right here.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

RESOURCES:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typewriter – Pictures of typewriters
http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4438.html – Stever’s tips for mastering email overload

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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