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Carbon copying without getting your fingers smudged

The CC and BCC fields are mostly ignored by casual email users, while more intensive users rely on them perhaps a little too much. The middle ground is, as usual, the safest bet.

The acronyms stand for Carbon Copy and Blind Carbon Copy. On these days of pocket email, the origins of these terms seem almost entirely forgotten. They refer to the copies gotten from a typewriter by applying a carbon paper while typing the text – an extremely analog technique that basically lives on only as a digital term. There have been efforts to backronym these designations: Courtesy Copy and Copy Circulated among them.

But getting down to the mechanics: when you add recipients to the CC field, they all receive the message and get to see each other’s addresses, while the addresses are kept invisible in BCC. In this post we try to examine the subtleties of the use of each of these devices, and tackle some better and worse uses.

CC

At first glance, there’s nothing distinguishing the CC field from the TO field. On both cases the recipients of the email get to “see” each other’s addresses. The main difference is intent. By adding them to the CC field you’re stating that a reply from them is not expected, but that you wish to keep them in the loop anyway.

Bad use – Adding your boss merely to keep him updated on your work. Chances are he won’t read it anyway, and merely copying him does not spare you of any responsibility. On the personal field, consider that unless someone will want to be part of the conversation, they can always receive a summary of events as a different email at a later date.

Good use – For those occasions within a work group when it’s necessary for the recipients to follow every stage of the work. In such cases, adding them as CC will let them know at once whether it’s that area of the project that is not directly relevant to them. On the personal side, there’s always that correspondent that takes a long time before giving feedback. Adding them as CC will let the other recipients know that they shouldn’t expect immediate engagement from that person.

BCC

Despite being a measure meant to ensure the recipients’ privacy, the use of BCC may end up crossing some ethics lines. The very principle of sharing a message with parties unknown to the rest of the participants is problematic.

Bad use – When trying to keep someone informed of conversations without the other party being aware. Macchiavellian moves aside, it's probably more ethical to forward the relevant emails or compose new ones regarding what transpired.

Good use – Institutional, mass-distribution messages. Newsletters and job offerings go without saying, but you can also count in memos or PSAs in this scheme – preventing the sprout of conversations where merely an update would have sufficed.

Overall, the politics of CC-BCC distinctions aren't much different from a party. Not everyone wants to be an audience to your conversations, and there's got to be some care when repeating someone else's comments. These may be digital functions with origins in analog.