You’d think such a simple and long-lived feature of email would be better understood and better utilized, but the sad truth is many modern professionals don’t really understand how the “CC” function works.
Here at EmailAnalytics, we’re committed to improving everyone’s ability to email effectively, so we thought we’d take the time to put together a succinct, yet comprehensive guide: What does CC mean in email, when should you use it, and when should you avoid using it?
Table of Contents
CC for Email: The Basics
Let’s start with the basics. “CC” stands for “carbon copy,” and functionally represents a copy of an email sent to another addressee. If you include the email address of another individual in the CC line, that person will receive a copy of the email you send to the people in the “To” field.
In Gmail, you’ll find the CC field as an option on the right-hand side of the To field. Click it to open a new line for CC recipients.
You can add up to 100 CC recipients in Gmail. Please don’t ever do this.
Note that there’s also an option for “BCC,” or “blind carbon copy.” We dig deeper into BCCs in this guide to BCC in email; for now, understand that this feature works much like the CC feature, but the recipients will not be visible to anyone else on the email (including other BCC recipients). It’s a way to copy someone without advertising the fact that you’re copying them.
Finer Points on the Mechanics of CC
There are a few more things to note about the mechanics of CCing someone. When you CC a person, or several people, all those addresses and names will be visible to all other people included on the email (in the To field, CC field, and BCC field). This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Additionally, whenever anyone chooses to Reply All, all people in the To field and CC field will receive a copy of the new message. CC’d people will have the option to Reply or Reply All, like a direct recipient. CC’d people often end up in the middle of extended email threads, whether that was the intention or not. In all cases, a direct Reply will only go to the person who drafted the message—regardless of whether they started as the sender, a direct recipient, or in the CC line.
It’s also worth noting that people can be selectively removed from the conversation if it begins getting out of hand. This will not delete any previous messages from their inbox.
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Why Use CC Instead of “To”?
CC’d people get the email just like people in the To field, and have all the same power and visibility. You can also add multiple people to the To field. So why would you ever use CC instead of To?
Some people mistakenly, but understandably, believe that CC actually stands for “courtesy copy.” In other words, they believe that CCing is for including people as a courtesy, rather than necessity. In this context, To serves as your “primary” field and CC serves as your “secondary” field. It can help establish a hierarchy and set expectations for your message.
Let’s take a look at some appropriate and inappropriate ways to use this.
Appropriate Times to CC Someone in an Email
These are some of the most common and appropriate ways to use the CC field for an email:
- Keeping someone “in the loop.” CCing is useful for keeping someone “in the loop” about a project. For example, let’s say your boss asks you about a specific client and asks you for an update on their disposition. Later that day, you can send an email to the client asking them how they’re doing, and recapping some of your successes—CCing your boss will keep them informed that you’re communicating with your client, and of the client’s reply (assuming they Reply All). Just be careful here; as we’ll see, you can keep someone “in the loop” for bad reasons, too.
- Introducing new people. The CC field is also incredibly useful for introducing people, or sending over contact information. Here, you can use the To field for your main recipient, and use the CC field to introduce new people to them. This way, your introduced parties will all be notified of the exchange.
- Representing a team. If you’re trying to represent an entire team, it’s helpful to CC your other team members. This is especially helpful if you’re introducing a bunch of employees to a client for the first time, or if you’re making a meaningful announcement.
- Showing that you don’t need a response. The To field is often used as a subtle way to indicate the primary parties responsible for an email; in other words, you expect a response from them. Including someone in the CC line tacitly implies that you don’t require a response from them. It’s an easy way to let people off the hook.
When Not to Use CC
There are also some ways you could breach etiquette with your use of the CC field. Avoid these approaches:
- Copying up. “Copying up” is the practice of intentionally CCing someone’s boss or supervisor in an attempt to make them look bad. For example, you might point out a mistake they made, or ask them a passive aggressive question. Even if you’re in an uncomfortable situation, this is generally regarded as bad form, and could make you appear petty or manipulative. If you ever find yourself in this position, it’s usually better to deal with the person directly, or in extreme cases, their supervisor directly. The passive-aggressive CC is never necessary.
- Forgoing consent. If you’re introducing people, make sure you have their consent to do so; not everyone is okay with you sharing their email address to strangers.
- Wanting a response. If you expect someone to answer a question or respond to your message, include them in the To field to let them know they’re a primary recipient. The only exception here is if the email thread develops in a new direction, in which case, call out the CC’d person by name or start a new thread with them as the direct recipient if you want a response.
- Expecting an extended discussion. If you’re about to start a long discussion, understand that every CC’d person is going to receive an alert every time there’s a new message in that thread. If they’re not an active participant, it’s only going to annoy them. Keep the participant list to a minimum if you’re anticipating an extended back-and-forth.
- Inflating the group. Similarly, it’s best to avoid using the CC line if you’re only using it to inflate the apparent size of your group. It’s ridiculously easy to add people to the CC field, so some people use this as an excuse to tack on as many possibly relevant parties as they can think of. In almost all cases, reducing your number of recipients is the more efficient choice.
What to Do If You’re CC’d
If you’re the one included in the CC field, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- You probably don’t need to respond. In most cases, people who are CC’d aren’t expected to reply to the message (or to the thread, unless called out by name).
- Your information is shared, perhaps intentionally. Everyone on the thread can see your name and email address.
- Your Reply All will go to everyone. If you hit Reply All, your reply will go to every email address that’s publicly visible.
- Not everyone knows (or follows) standard CC practices. This is by far the most important rule in this section, and maybe in the entire guide, so I’ll repeat it: not everyone knows or follows standard CC practices. Accordingly, you can never be 100 percent sure that you belong in the CC field. You could have been CC’d by accident. The person could be expecting a reply from you. The sender might have no clue what CC is actually for. Take this into account when engaging with others, especially if you don’t know their email habits well.
General Rules for CC Etiquette
If you’re ever confused on whether a situation calls for the use of CC, keep these general principles in mind:
- Use CC sparingly. It only takes a click to add someone to a CC line, but that doesn’t mean you can abuse the feature. Try to limit your use of CCs to when they’re truly appropriate.
- Use CC only for good. You can use the CC field to embarrass, reprimand, ego-boost, or be passive aggressive, but don’t be that person. Think: how would [insert wholesome role model here] CC someone?
- Understand the better options. To and BCC fields are better in many situations. Learn how to use them well, and don’t just default to CC.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.