The Do's and Don'ts of the Email CC
Let’s say you’re at a party. You’re talking to your co-worker Dave. You’re having a nice back-and-forth—about work stuff, the softball game next week, what that smell is …
As Dave is talking to you, he sidesteps over to Susan, all the while maintaining eye contact with you and speaking to you. He taps Susan on the shoulder and beckons her over. So now it’s you, Dave and Susan. And Dave continues talking like Susan’s not even there. He’s just saying out loud everything you were saying before Susan got there. Even the stuff about Susan. And she’s not saying anything. She’s just standing there, looking blankly at the space between you and Dave.
That’s what CC’ing is like. But that’s a particular type of CC—the “discreet-insertion CC.” All of a sudden a name appears in an email. Why is that person here? Where did they come from? What is their agenda? Why is their presence not being acknowledged? This is surreptitious. Distrustful. Irritating.
Contrast this with the “overt-insertion CC,” which involves acknowledging that you’ve added someone to the email thread. It’s like the above scenario, only Dave says, “I’m gonna bring Susan into this.” Still surreptitious, but less so. And 28 percent less irritating.
Also of note is the “responsibility-minimization CC.” It says: “By involving someone else, I am making myself less culpable should whatever we’re emailing about go sour.” On the Spectrum of Irritation, this falls between the above two types of CC’ing.
The most aggressive approach is the “defensive CC.” It says to the other party: “By involving this particular person, you are not going to so easily get away with what you think you’re getting away with.” That this is irritating is irrelevant. The important thing here is that you seem vaguely sociopathic.
But the worst CC is the “blind CC.” It’s a move straight out of a spy novel. “Go over there, behind those boxes. Just wait. They’ll come in, we’ll talk, and you’ll hear everything! And they will never know.”
The blind CC says to the CC’d, “I trust you with this information. In fact, I trust you more than I trust the person I’m betraying.” That’s the problem: It’s sneaky. And the 438th rule of business states, “If you benefit from the sneaky behavior of others, at some point the sneaky person will use the sneaky behavior against you.” Your emails will also be copied to someone else without your knowledge.
THE EFFECT ON THE COPIED
Sometimes you’re Susan. You’re the one who’s been brought into the conversation against your will. If you’re only the third or fourth person on the email chain, then you have an obligation to acknowledge that you have been pulled into the conversation. And if you have any questions as to why that is, you have an obligation to inquire about what kind of contributions the CC’er hopes you can make. This is an investment. It says to everyone involved: “I want to be of help here, but if I cannot be of any real help, and I have been CC’d for ulterior motives, then please think twice about ever CC’ing me again.” It also says: “It may have been a mistake to CC me, because I am the kind of person who forces you to spend a lot of time explaining why I was CC’d. You irritate me, I will irritate you tenfold.”
To force someone to communicate is to push them onto a stage and tell them to dance. Or to see them dancing and then pull other people into the room to watch them. The ethical problems are obvious: You’re changing the terms of discourse without the other person agreeing to do that. CC’ing denies your colleague a choice. Also, it lessens the importance of the CC’er, and it forces the CC’ees to deal with a problem that they didn’t ask to deal with.
The reason you’re doing the CC’ing is less important than the effect it has on communication—both in the short and long term. The CC suggests you don’t fully trust the person you’re dealing with. (Which, of course, you don’t.) A healthy skepticism is an important virtue in business.
But communicating that skepticism in such an obvious way changes the terms of communication. It says, “You and I can’t do this on our own,” or “I won’t let you do this on your own.” When someone inserts a CC, I am immediately less inclined to communicate openly with that person. It degrades our relationship.
The ramification of CC’ing is that your office becomes a place of checks and balances. Which it is. But that dynamic shouldn’t be so overt. The extended email thread is too often used as cover and as a kind of study guide for people not as familiar with the subject as you. (Here you go. Study up!) It has become a replacement for actually talking to people and making sure they understand a problem. It’s totally annoying. Also, it’s a cynical act—which is even worse.
KEY TECHNICAL MATTERS
CC’ing always communicates something. It says, “I don’t think you and I are going to be able to do this alone.”
If you CC someone in the middle of an email thread, that person’s identity and presence must be announced.
Never copy someone on an email as an oblique threat.
Never copy someone on an email as a way of amassing support.
Never copy someone on an email as a way of making them feel like they’re a part of something when they’re not.
Copy people on a “need to know” basis.
Rule: The number of people who “need to know” is always overestimated.
The BCC is a nefarious tool that says more about the sender than any of the message’s recipients.
Two CC’s: sometimes. Three CC’s: rarely. Four CC’s: never.
10cc: A ’70s English art rock band.