Three email rules and the bcc courtesy

Bcc: (“blind carbon copy”) has been with us since the beginning of email (as in this great ARPA email standard from 1977).  Even before email (yes, there was such a time), written office memos would be sent to recipients without letting others know they were on formal copy.  While it’s difficult to uncover the original intent of the bcc: email field, consensus seems to be that it was created for mass emailings to large email recipient lists.

So, how do we use these fields today?

While email tips and tricks can seem like small potatoes, we’re all overwhelmed by our Inboxes and like it or no, email is integral to how we communicate and, consequently, to how we build relationships.

Sadly, people routinely miss the opportunity to be “good emailers” (psst have you signed the Email Charter?  If not, you should and be sure to sign up for their mailing list.), so I thought I’d share three simple email tips that feel like table stakes to me – plus a bcc: bonus for kicks:

  1. Have as few people as possible receive an email.  This is not the same as copying people to make sure no one gets offended.  Just like a good meeting, the best emails have exactly the number of people needed to make a decision – no more.  (and last time I checked, you almost never want seven people to make a decision).
  2. Use the subject line to communicate something.  People are generally terrible about this (e.g. email chains that go on for weeks titled “RE: question.”)  Write specific email Subject lines and don’t be afraid in your reply to re-title emails you receive (e.g. take that RE: question email and turn it into “June 5th breakfast details [Re: question].”)  Occasionally I’ll even dip into the convention-breaking practice of letting someone know that I’m emailing just them to help a note stand out from the crowd (e.g. “Pankaj – June 5 breakfast”).
  3. Differentiate between the To: and Cc: fields.  To me, the To: field means “I expect a reply from you” and Cc: means “I don’t expect a reply from you but you do need to know about this.”

So what do we do about bcc:, that murky backwater of email etiquette?

Recently I’d been evolving to the conclusion that bcc: should be avoided altogether.  It feels sneaky (by definition the recipient doesn’t know you’ve done it).  And even if you don’t care about that email moral high ground, there’s the practical risk of the bcc: recipient replying all, which is never a good thing.  So “secret” bcc: is off my list of good email practice.  If you need someone to see a note you can just forward it from your Sent mail.

Lately though I’ve started to observe a use of bcc: that increases email peace and harmony. It works like this.  Say a (small!) group of people is copied on an email introduction:

e.g. Christine is being introduced to Joaquim by Alejandro.

Alejandro writes an email to Christine and Joaquim, maybe others are copied for some reason.

Now, Christine and Joaquim both want Alejandro to know how much they appreciate the introduction AND to communicate that they’ve not dropped the ball.  So naturally they ‘Reply All’ on this note, which is all well and good until 17 emails go back and forth and poor, well-intentioned Alejandro (and maybe a score of other folks) is copied on this whole mess for weeks on end.

The new-and-improved way to handle this is for Christine to respond to the note like this:

 (moving Alejandro to bcc:)

Joaquim, it’s great to meet you.  How about we find a time next week to meet – maybe next Thursday morning?

Voila!  Alejandro is in the loop for this one step and is satisfied at his successful email introductory prowess, and as a bonus he’s off the hook when Joaquim inevitably replies that he’s going to be deep-sea diving off the coast of Papua New Guinea next Thursday so maybe he can talk to Christine when he’s back stateside.

(you get the idea)

Happy emailing.

3 thoughts on “Three email rules and the bcc courtesy

  1. “bcc:” For those of you born in the middle 1960’s and subsequently, let me inform you that the “bcc:” usage goes back at least to the invention of the typewriter in the middle of the 19th century. The routine was, your secretary (yes, we actually had secretaries or were secretaries back then) would type the letter using carbon paper so that the file had a copy, and there were enough copies to send to all recipients. The photocopier had not been invented yet. (Anything over about 6 or 7 carbons produces the same kind of blur as photocopying something too many times.) The “cc:” people were shown on all copies. Then, to take care of the “bcc:” person or persons, those copies were rolled into the machine one at a time and the “bcc:” part was typed on that page alone, which produced a blurry letter with that one statement coming through very sharply.

    The difference of course was that you couldn’t just hit a button that said “Reply All” or any button at all really. To reply, you had to turn around and have your secretary type the reply. To do this you had to give some thought to just who-all, if anyone, got copies, and to whom all this information would be disclosed. This process, while it does take longer, what with the mail and all, resulted in fewer (not no, fewer) unthinking inconvenient disclosures.

    Why were people blind-copied? Why are they blind-copied now, for that matter? There are any number of reasons, all of them obviously involving concealment. You want someone to know about this communication, but you don’t want the other recipients to know that. This seems legitimate: this is a letter we’re talking about, not a court paper submitted under oath.

  2. I actually use bcc quite frequently–when I’m sending out mass emails to lists I’ve personally cultivated (ie, for parties with friends, other events) so others can’t “steal” my email list. It’s not that I don’t want others to see to whom I’m sending the email, it’s just that I want to protect others’ privacy and decrease the number of emails they get.

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