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Email etiquette 101: Using Bcc vs. Cc

Do you know when to use Bcc vs. Cc in business emails? Email etiquette is important. That’s why we’re here to break down email recipient fields for you.

20 January 2020 · 7 min read

3.9 billion people use email in 2019, which is over half the world’s population. It’s no surprise that email dominates communication in the workplace. Did you know, the average American worker receives 126 emails per day!

Email etiquette is essential in today’s professional world. A well-composed email requires a formal salutation, a personalized signature, a clear subject line, and thorough proof-reading, to name a few features. However, today we’re going to focus on one critical aspect of how to start an email - placing recipients in the proper fields.

Recipient fields are a little more complicated than you’d think. When you go to write a new email, there are three recipient fields – TO, Cc, and Bcc. Here at B12, we’re here to define each of these and explain when and how to use them. By wielding these fields correctly, you’ll ensure smooth communication with every email you send and avoid embarrassing email blunders.

What is the “To” field?

The most straightforward recipient field is the “To” field. It’s meant for the main recipients of your email. Your message should directly concern these recipients. Furthermore, you can expect a reply or direct action from “To” recipients in response to your email. You can include multiple people in the “To” field, as long as they all meet these criteria.

Keep in mind that all recipients of the email, even if they’re “Cced” or “Bcced,” will be able to see who is placed in the “To” field.

When should you use the “To” field?

Use the “To” field to address the primary person your email is intended for.

For example, if you write an email asking about the status of a project, place the projects’ main contributors in the “To” field. By doing so, they will know they’re expected to respond or take appropriate action. They will also receive all future email replies included in the email chain.

As another example, if you are writing directly to a client, place their email in the “To” field. While you may share this email with coworkers by “Cc-ing” or “Bcc-ing” them, the email’s primary recipient is the client. Thus, they belong in the “To” field.

What is the “Cc” field?

“Cc” stands for “carbon copy.” When you place a recipient in the “Cc” field, they’ll receive a copy of the email. However, it’s implied that they aren’t the direct recipient. That’s why “Cc” is commonly understood to mean “courtesy copy.”

The primary purpose of the “Cc” field is to keep someone in the loop, even if a message doesn’t directly concern them. “Cc” recipients are not expected to take action or respond to the email, but they can if they want to. They will also receive all associated email chain responses. Like with the “To” field, all recipients will be able to see who is “Cced.”

When should you use the “Cc” field?

Here are some examples of appropriate uses of the “Cc” field. Use it when you want to:

Keep someone in the loop: Use “Cc” to keep someone updated on important information that doesn’t require their immediate, direct response. For example, allow management and other concerned parties to remain informed on the status of an important project.

Enhance an email’s urgency: By “Cc-ing” higher-ups in the company, the “To” recipients will understand that the email is important. For example, you might “Cc” your boss when requesting that a client sends over time-sensitive information.

Temporarily take on a coworker’s tasks: When you do work that’s usually done by someone else, like for a coworker that’s on vacation, keep them updated on their works’ status by “Cc-ing” them in all relevant communications. For example, “Cc’ them on emails between you and their clients.

Introduce two of your contacts: When you introduce two people via email, you can use “Cc” to provide them each others’ emails. Thus, they can introduce themselves to each other and communicate in the future.

When not to use the “Cc” field?

While there are many reasons to use the “Cc” field, practice discernment before you click send. “Cc” is often used much too liberally.

It’s tempting to “Cc” people on all matters that loosely involve them. However, spamming coworkers with irrelevant email chains is not recommended. It can waste their time and reduce the significance of future emails. Overusing “Cc” may even cause people to ignore your emails going forward.

Unless it’s truly appropriate to use “Cc”, consider sharing information to relevant parties in person or within a forwarded email. Add context as to why the info concerns them.

Here are some more situations where you should avoid using the “Cc” field:

If you’re calling someone out: If your email is meant to embarrass someone or call them out publicly, hold off. For example, it’s in poor taste to “Cc” your boss an angry email towards another coworker where you point out how they messed up. Handle such interactions in private.

If you don’t have consent to: If your communication involves multiple parties, you should get their approval before “Cc-ing” someone new within the email chain. Otherwise, you risk providing the “Cc-ed” recipient access to private or classified information without proper authority.

If your Cc recipient list is long: If you notice you’re “Cc-ing” more than 5 or 6 people, consider using “Bcc” instead. Including too many people’s emails can be distracting. It can also harm the recipients’ privacy, especially if they don’t already know each other.

If you expect a response: As we’ve explained, the “To” field should always be used if you expect a direct response. “Cc-ing” sends the message that your email is simply a courtesy. Thus, it’s misleading to “Cc” if you want a response.

What is the “Bcc” field?

“Bcc” stands for “blind carbon copy.” As the name suggests, “Bcc” keeps the recipients’ emails hidden. Thus, the BCC list is a secret to everyone but the sender.

Bcc functions differently in relation to email threads. While “To” and “Cc” recipients will receive replies going forward, “Bcc” recipients won’t. They’ll only receive the initial email. Thus, you’ll have to forward any future emails that may concern them.

“Bcc” functions this way because it’s usually intended for impersonal, mass emails that don’t warrant a response. Also, it wouldn’t be appropriate for another recipient to send an email to a list they didn’t know about and didn’t create.

However, take note that when a Bcc recipient “replies to all,” their recipient status will suddenly be exposed to the rest of the recipients. If you believe a “Bcc” recipient may respond, consider using “Cc” instead to ensure transparency.

When should you use the “Bcc” field? This “Bcc” field is best used when you want to streamline your email’s appearance and keep recipients’ from seeing each others’ emails. While this sounds a little shady, it’s not meant for devious purposes. It’s primarily meant to protect the privacy of your recipients.

Use “Bcc” in the following circumstances:

When sharing a company newsletter: When making use of your newsletter ideas in a company newsletter, keep your email list private by using “Bcc”. Otherwise, it will expose your subscribers to each other without their consent.

When using an extensive mailing list: “Bcc” is great for sending an email to a large mailing list. For example, if your email addresses the entire student body of a college or all employees of a large company, “Bcc” is preferable. It also prevents a long list of emails from distracting from your email’s content.

When your recipients don’t know each other: “Bcc” protects the privacy of recipients. This is very important if your mailing list is made up of strangers who don’t know each other.

For impersonal emails that don’t warrant responses: When sending an impersonal email, “Bcc” is suitable. For example, if you send a business announcement, like updated contact information, a new website promotion, or an announcement about a new CEO, use “Bcc.”

To expose something nefarious: On very rare occasions, “Bcc” can help you expose problematic behavior. Like with “Cc”, this should be done with extreme discernment. However, if you’re dealing with a problem that warrants HR’s attention, you could “Bcc” them in an email that exposes inappropriate communication taking place at work.

To sum it up, the best applications of the “Bcc” field are impersonal emails that are being sent to a large email list of people who don’t know each other. By using Bcc, you respect their privacy and avoid frustrating email chains.

When not to use Bcc?

When using “Bcc”, you should avoid any applications that could be interpreted as shady, underhanded, or inappropriate. As a general guideline, avoid using “Bcc” if:

The message is personal: Using “Bcc” in a personal email can easily cross the line into inappropriate territory. With personal matters, transparency is imperative. Otherwise, you’re essentially allowing digital eavesdropping to take place.

You’re emailing coworkers: In general, it’s best to avoid using “Bcc” at work when emailing your coworkers. It doesn’t look good on you and will reduce your coworkers’ perception of your workplace integrity. Keep things transparent by sticking with “CC” and “To.”

A reply from the “Bcc” recipient would be awkward: If you “Bcc” someone, it’s always possible that they’ll reply. If this could be detrimental, avoid it. For example, don’t “Bcc” your friend when recommending them to your boss for an open position. If they were to thoughtless reply “thank you,” intending the message for you, you’d suddenly be in a very awkward position.

Summarizing the To vs. Bcc. vs Cc guidelines

When reviewing the differences between these fields, use these general guidelines:

  • If you expect a direct response or action, use the “To” field.
  • If you want to keep people in the loop in a transparent way, use the “Cc” field.
  • If someone is not meant to be a direct recipient, use “Cc.”
  • If you want a “To” recipient to know other important people are aware of the correspondence, use “Cc.”
  • If you want to maintain an inclusive email chain, use either “To” or “Cc.”
  • If you are sending an impersonal email or one with a large mailing list, use the “Bcc.”
  • You want to protect the privacy of recipients who don’t know each other, use “Bcc.”
  • If you want to share an email with someone secretly, use “Bcc”, but exercise ethical discretion when doing so.

Choose the right recipient field every time

Now that you understand the differences between these fields, you can assemble emails with intention, courtesy, and proper etiquette. You’ll ensure your emails appear professional and respect recipients’ boundaries and privacy. You’ll also avoid any awkward email blunders that could hurt others or harm your reputation.

For more digital marketing best practices, check out B12’s resource center. B12 designs beautiful, professional websites backed by AI and provides professional SEO services.

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