f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

July 26, 2008

email etiquette: use Bcc for groups, please

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 8:51 pm

black envelope Twice this past week, an otherwise-thoughtful person sent an email to me and dozens of other people, putting all of our names in the “To” field. Like many of you reading this now, neither Sender stopped to think that they were invading the privacy of recipients who did not want to share their email addresses with one or more of the other addressees — and who rightly want to make that choice for themselves. Even worse, because the Senders requested or expected the messages to be forwarded to many others, they set the stage for much broader privacy invasion and unwanted spamming. (In addition, they created a great risk of swamped In-Boxes by asking recipients to “Reply to All” and not just to the sender).

After trying to diplomatically explain this problem to many correspondents over the past decade using return email, I’ve finally remembered that I have this little soapbox for exposing and explaining (kvetching and correcting).

Summary: (explanations and instructions below):

  • Sending Original Email: Do not send an email message to a group of persons by putting their names in the “To” field unless you are certain that each recipient has already shared his or her email address with every other recipient and will not forward their addresses to others. Instead, use the Bcc field [from “background/blind carbon copy”]. Each recipient will receive a personally-addressed Bcc copy, with the email address shielded from the other recipients.
  • Forwarding: If you are going to forward an email that has the addresses of prior recipients in it (the address is there, even if you only see the name on the To or Cc line), first remove all prior email addresses. [Yes, you can delete anything that you see in your email window, the same way you delete any text in a document.]

– share this email with this short URL: http://tinyurl.com/BccGroups


Lucky for all of us, Judith Kallos has thought about this netiquette problem, and hundreds thousands of others, and shares her knowledge with clear and lively prose, at NetManners.com, plus two weblogs [E-mail Etiquette Matters and the Business Etiquette Blog], as well as in several books. Her goal: “Using Technology to Communicate with Knowledge, Understanding and Courtesy!”

Therefore, rather than my turgidly judgmental preaching, here are some of Judith Kallos’s lessons for those who answer “yes” to the question: Do you send or forward emails with everyone’s email address in the To: field?

Email Etiquette Info Courtesy of NetManners.com

Her Essay “Courtesy #1” offers the minimal online basics you need to know “in order to be taken seriously in your online communications,” and advises:

On those rare occasions where it is necessary to send a group of people the very same email, as a courtesy to those you are sending to, please list all of the recipients email addresses in the BCC field. (Blind Carbon Copy – from the old days when typewriters used carbon paper to create identical copies of a document when it was being typed.)

When an email address is designated in the Blind Carbon Copy field, the recipient will get a copy of the email while their email address remains invisible and protected from the view of the other recipients of the email – some of whom they may or may not know. Never expose your contact’s addresses to strangers! If you are not sure how to BCC in your email program, here are site resources that may help you learn the features of your software programs:


Long lists of email addresses at the beginning of any email is an immediate sign that the sender is either a novice/Newbie – or doesn’t care to respect other’s privacy. None of which, as I am sure you’ll agree, are complimentary perceptions!

Email addresses are like [private] phone numbers. Only the owner of the email address or phone number is the one to authorize who they want to have it and make it public to. Many folks prefer to decide for themselves who has their email address.

By sending mass mails to a list of folks, you have made that decision for them – and that is a breach of assumed privacy when communicating with you. Let those you correspond with determine for themselves who they will make their email address known to – do not make that decision for them! By listing handfuls of email addresses in the email headers for all to see is inconsiderate of each recipient’s right to privacy.

[Note from Prof. Yabut: If you think it’s important for recipients to know who else is receiving a particular message, type out the names of those recipients and include them in the text of the message, not in the To field.]

In her piece “5 Rules of Forwarding Emails,” Ms. Kallos tells us how to be truly thoughtful when clicking Forward. (Please read and practice all five). Relevant to our current issues, Judith says:

1. Don’t forward anything without editing out all the forwarding >>>>, other email addresses, headers and commentary from all the other forwarders. . . .

5. If you must forward to more than one person, put your email address in the TO: field and all the others you are sending to in the BCC field to protect their email address from being published to those they do not know.

This is a serious privacy issue! Do not perpetuate a breech of privacy started by other forwarders who included their contact’s addresses in the To: or Cc: field by continuing to forward those visible addresses to your contacts! Remove any email addresses in the body of the email that have been forwarded by those who brush off the privacy of their friends and associates.

If you’re not convinced that Email Privacy Etiquette is important, please read Judith’s manifesto, “Don’t Brush Off Email Privacy!” She says, in part:

Through my email etiquette site, www.NetManners.com, I get inquires on a daily basis from folks who have been on the receiving end of such email and there are two issues they ask me about:

  1. How do I let this person know I don’t appreciate them publicizing my email address to people I don’t know? What were they thinking!?
  2. Is it O.K. to email all the other people whose address is in the To: field along with mine about my business or service?

So as you can see, your contacts not only do not appreciate their email addresses being made public without their permission but there are those that assume they can then spam those addresses because they are visible! By not respecting your contact’s privacy you are in fact opening them up to additional unwanted email.

Because Judith knows part of this problem is that the Bcc option is not easy to find in some programs, she includes step-by-step instructions for using Bcc with the most popular email programs.

[Note: If like the f/k/a Gang you use Firefox’s Thunderbird, just Click the To: button and then click Bcc from the menu.]

Many thanks to Judith for helping us to communicate online effectively and courteously. I hope we’ve convinced you to use Bcc and to delete prior email addresses to help preserve the privacy of our correspondents. If you need more incentive, remember that you’ll be helping to foil spammers (and stalkers), who just love getting such “live” email addresses. As Judith says,

“Show you ‘get it’ and respect your contact’s privacy! Wherever Bcc: may hide, find it and use it!”

– Make the NetManners “Email Etiquette Pledge

p.s. You can find similar advice here and there. Although there can be shady reasons for using Bcc, commentators (like this one and that one) who issue a blanket condemnation of Bcc use as unethical have simply not thought through this issue.

afterwords (October 18, 2008): Although it’s been around since 2001, I just ran across an excellent article today, “Bcc in Mac OS X“, by Damian Gallop.  Damian explains the problem of using To or CC for bulk e-mail:

It’s a semi-serious issue for two reasons. First, there truly are consequences. Once you make it onto the Big List that gets resold on the internet for $99 continually, you’ll rue the day you decided to treat your email address casually. The second reason is that ultimately the whole thing is out of your direct control. When you share your email address, you trust people to use it with respect.

p.p.s. As long as I’m covering email pet peeves tonight, let me mention two more:

  1. Please don’t overuse “Reply to All.” Send replies only to persons who really need to see your response. Concur: EmailReplies.com; and Michael Hyatt.
  2. Don’t use Blank, Generic or Unenlightening Subject Lines: As Chris Parillo put it: “Use a relatively descriptive subject line. I find it really annoying when someone sends me a message with just the word ‘Hi’ in it. That tells me absolutely nothing about the message’s content. I’m not suggesting that you sum up your life’s story in one sentence, but I do recommend that you use words that will describe the general purpose of your e-mail.” The folks at Purdue U. were a bit more formal: “Be sure to include a meaningful subject line; this helps clarify what your message is about and may also help the recipient prioritize reading your email”

empty bottle
a few words
I would like to take back

……………………… by John Stevenson – Quiet Enough (2004)

Thanksgiving Day
the emails come
with tunes

mother’s email
X’s after
the :-)

………………… Hilary TannUpstate Dim Sum


  1. […] Let me introduce to you David Giacalone over at Harvard Law. His Blog is one of the Top 100 list of the best websites by lawyers for lawyers. A lawyer and poet known for his “breathless punditry”, David helped get the word out about the importance of using the BCc field in his posting: email etiquette: use Bcc for groups, please. […]

    Pingback by Business Email Etiquette Blog — July 28, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  2. I meant to include this other version:

    buried deep
    in the cc list
    my email

    Roberta Beary

    Comment by Roberta Beary — August 4, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  3. I concur with you as I am now again receiving numerous email, due to someone sending out mass emails To all of us and telling us to “reply all” I sent an email to the person who first sent this email, informing them to usethe Bcc, but would liketo copy and past to the Bcc column all these emails, but was unable to do so. Do youy have the method of doing that,

    Comment by Bruce — February 6, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

  4. Hello, Bruce, If you click “Reply All”, you should then be able to convert each of the names on the list from “Cc” to “Bcc”, by clicking on the “Cc” or the icon next to it and choosing “Bcc” in the menu. I hope you make a few converts.

    Comment by David Giacalone — February 6, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  5. BCC: = BLIND carbon copy … as much as I don’t like SPAM (reply-all w/o BCCing it), I really think that if you are going to publish something you should do your homework …


    Comment by Patrick — February 23, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  6. Patrick, you are correct that BCC can stand for Blind Carbon Copy, but BCC is also the acronym for Background Carbon Copy [with a quick Google of the term, I found it here, here, and there], not to mention Blind Courtesy Copy. People in different countries and regions refer to the “BCC” concept in different ways, but the meaning of the action is the same.

    Comment by David Giacalone — February 23, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

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