Know The Difference Between 'To' And 'CC' In An Email

You would think that everyone knows how to use email by now, but it has a lot of basic etiquette rules that people still don't follow. Productivity weblog GTD Times points out a simple one: knowing the difference between "To" and "CC".

One of the most important strategies for dealing with inbox overload is making your messages easy to act on. In fact, this is one of our top email values. GTD explains how these two fields can help you achieve this goal:

Be discerning about your use of To: vs. Cc:. Why? Ever receive an email where it's unclear who has the action because everyone is in the "To:" field? We designate the To: field for who has the action (could be multiple people). Cc: is simply for their information — with no expectation that they will take action on the email, other than receive it. Personally, I find I am much more conscious about what I am asking for, and from whom, when I clearly delineate between who has action and who just needs to receive the information. And, I appreciate when that distinction is made for me in return.

If you're good about your email, you've already been doing this for years. But do your coworkers? If not, a simple heads-up on the etiquette surrounding this feature could really help you out. While you're at it, you should let them know whether you expect them to reply all too.

Email Best Practices for Teams [GTD Times]


    Would newcomers to the workforce even know what a carbon copy is in the literal sense? Not trolling, it's just pretty obvious etiquette when you know what it is, so I'm just curious if it's one of those circumstances where the origin of something has been forgotten.

      Well yes, more than likely.

      Hence the term courtesy copy which requires no knowledge of of anything, really...

        My line of work puts high importance on accuracy, so I have this thing against backronyms. 'Carbon copy' is a widely used phrase in normal life (eg. "Oh that new Honda? It's practically a carbon copy of the old one"). If I heard anyone use the term "courtesy copy" I'd correct them. I know plenty of dumb people, but nobody so dumb that they couldn't understand what 'carbon copy' means.

    Personally I have an email rule that diverts anything I'm CC'd on to a special "CC only" folder and also blocks any desktop notifications and sounds. If I'm expected to take action or read it, I should be on in the To field. It's served me particularly well, and saves me a good deal of time in dealing with emails in order of priority.

      Sounds ideal in theory. Just like the road rules are ideal in theory. But, you've got to take into account that not everyone follows the rules -- if someone's tailgating you, and you deliberately slam on the brakes for no reason other than to "teach them a lesson", then you're definitely in the wrong as far as the law is concerned, even though it was the guy behind you who broke the rules.

      Likewise, one day your boss might "reply all" to an email thread you're CC'd in on, and ask you to do XYZ by [insert deadline], but didn't bother to move you from the CC list to the To list on that reply. When that deadline goes whooshing by, you are most certainly the one in trouble - not your boss - for not actioning an email you were CC'd in on.

      I'm not saying we should throw this form of email etiquette out the window -- I'm just saying it's important to know that while 99% of people follow it, you need to be able to handle the 1% that don't.

      End rant

        Believe me, I understand that not everybody is going to "follow the rule" (in this case my personal, arbitrary email rules) and it's not like anything in my CC folder gets ignored, or not read, or even marked as read before I've had a chance to look at it. It's just a reflection that I can assume anything in the folder is lower priority and look at it when I've got a spare minute.

        This is simply a tool, and an effective one, to help me manage my workflow. It's not for everybody, and there are things that slip through the cracks. That said, has anything slipping through the cracks ever meant that I missed a deadline, or failed to respond to an action? Not in the 18 months since I implemented the rule, no. I'd say that's a pretty good indication that it's a successful experiment.

        Your results may vary.

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