Writing tip: Email to multiple addresses—To, Cc or Bcc?

When you send an email to a number of people, should you put the addresses in the 'TO:', 'Cc', or 'Bcc' field?

It's all very simple, but recently I had to explain it to a technophobic friend—and I found that difficult. So in case you too need to explain it one day, here's what I told her.

Explaining TO, Cc and Bcc to my friend

When you send an email to more than one person, you have three fields for their email addresses.

Option 1. The obvious place, labeled 'TO:'. You can put one address in that slot (called a field), or many. Some systems insist one address goes in this slot; others let you leave it blank.

Option 2. Add Cc: this means Add carbon copy, or copy this letter to the following addresses. Anyone can see who you sent this email to.

Option 3. Add Bcc: this means Add blind carbon copies, i.e. send these people the same letter, but don't let them see any of the other addresses. Only you can see who you sent this email to.

At stake when you choose an address option are 3 things.

  1. Protecting privacy: it's not wise to share people's addresses without their permission. It may not be legal. It can certainly cause embarrassment.
  2. Visual clutter: all the other email addresses are listed above the message. Sometimes you can't even see the message until you scroll down.
  3. Spam filters. Spammers and other baddies love the Bcc field, because they can send spam to hundreds of people at a time, who think they are being addressed personally. Consequently, one systematic way of blocking spam is to block all emails sent to addresses in the Bcc field. I believe many workplaces, especially in government, do this

Background: communicating with technophobes
My friend Diana is in the late stages of MS and keeps in touch with friends and family primarily through her blog. Diana writes a poem or message in her head, tells it to a helper who publishes it and emails me.

I then email 48 of Diana's friends and families, alerting them to a new blog entry, giving them a link and encouraging them to contact her. However, most of these lovely people are elderly luddites who need someone to hold their hand.

For reasons of privacy and clutter, I have been using the Bcc field. But the question arises: are these people receiving my messages? It's pretty important, because this is the way they will learn about Diana's death one day.

So I emailed them all (Cc), asking whether they had been receiving my regular blog alerts. Most said yes: lucky for me. And them.

One person does get blocked by a Bcc filter, and that's easily fixed. Five people have never replied to my emails over the years; three have their reasons, and two are just slack.

Yes, this communication system is almost as cumbersome as the way we corresponded with my sister in Nepal in the 1960s. This required a runner to carry letters by hand for a 10-day hike over the Himalayas. We sent those letters in blind faith, which was duly rewarded. So I will carry on sending blog alerts into the ether.

Diana's blog: Living with multiple sclerosis

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May 20, 2019 • Posted by shanto


Feb 20, 2019 • Posted by Office 365 Migration Support

Another very strong and powerful post I’ve read some of your previous posts and finally decided to drop a comment on this one. I signed up for your newsletter, so keep up the informative posts!

Office 365 Migration Support

Jul 16, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Hi Barb
I think you and I have both given accurate explanations—they are two halves of the whole. In this particular situation, I’m going to put all the addresses except for one in the Bcc field. Nobody will see the other addresses, nor will they know I have sent the message to other recipients.

As I said, using the Bcc field is easier to do than to explain. Perhaps I have misunderstood your comment. If so, my apologies.

Jul 21, 2012 • Posted by Lucy Smith

Another reason to use the Bcc: field if you’re sending to a list of people is that, I believe, some types of malware will read emails and use the addresses it finds in the To: to send spam from.

Jul 13, 2012 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Absolutely! Yet another privacy issue with Bcc.

Jul 16, 2012 • Posted by Barb Kempnich

My understanding of BCC is that this is for sending a copy to someone, but not letting the other recipients know you’ve done that. This is the opposite of what’s described in this blog ‘send these people the same letter, but don’t let them see any of the other addresses’. When I just did a test, all recipients get to see the addresses in the ‘To’ and ‘CC’ fields. The only place where the BCC recipient is shown is in the copy in my ‘Sent items’ folder.

Jul 13, 2012 • Posted by Alistair McAlpine

Bcc can be disconcerting to some email recipients. They may feel uneasy that your message has been sent to other unidentified people.

One way around this is to reference the other recipients by name (not email address) at the end of the email.

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