Be Courteous and Don’t Respond: Understanding the CC Function in Emails

The Literate Self
4 min readNov 13, 2020
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Recently on Twitter, there was a thread naming processes and machines that are no longer in use like video cassette tape rewinders. The thread made me think of how the language used to describe certain processes lives on in current times, even while most people don’t recall the connection. One such example is the CC function in emails. CC is a term that originated with the creation of carbon copies — a process for replicating documents before toner and ink printers. To get an exact copy of a written document, one would place a sheet of carbon in between two sheets of paper. Whatever was written on the top paper was etched onto the bottom paper.

If you are of a certain age you might not remember carbon copies. But for those of us who entered the workforce in the 80s and early 90s, carbon copies were a new technology.

In today’s world providing the exact same content to more than one person through email is so seamless that it is often missed. Misunderstanding the role of the CC function in email can lead to avoidable conflicts and confusion.

What Does it Mean to be CC’ed on an Email?

The store receipt is a useful analogy for understanding the role of the CC function. Store receipts, particularly ones from CVS or Safeway, are generally disregarded listings of purchases. There are many memes that poke fun at the long stream of unwanted coupons in a CVS receipt. The store receipt is good to have, but most people will never use it after their purchase unless they need to return an item.

Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

The CC line in an email is similar to receiving a receipt. Persons listed in the CC line are given information as a courtesy with the expectation that they won’t need to do anything with it. However, should a need arise, such as a co-worker falls ill and is suddenly unable to follow through on the task, colleagues who have the information can step in and complete the task.

Who Should Be on the CC Line?

The CC line should be limited to those who most need and can act upon the information if necessary.

Colleagues Who Support Your Work: Include colleagues on emails that are significant to the core of your responsibilities. Organizations often have colleagues that support one another when either is on vacation or out sick. Providing colleagues information in advance ensures that they can step in without being flustered and feeling un-informed.

Supervisors and Management: Include your direct supervisor on emails that could result in personnel or high-level issues. If an issue must be escalated, the manager or supervisor will already be aware of earlier communications.

Should You Reply When CC’ed on an Email?

Just like the unwanted coupons of a CVS receipt, we all have more emails than we need. Sometimes the overabundance is because people respond when it isn’t necessary. If you are CC’ed on an email, you should not be expected to respond. Your responsibility is simply to read the email and make note of the information for future reference.

If you have a question about or need clarification on information in the email, do not hit reply all. Instead send a direct email to the person who initiated the communication and share your concern, correction, or question. The person who initiated the email can then send an email to the entire group with the correction.

Why Can’t I Simply Reply All?

Let’s go back to the receipt analogy. Imagine you have a Safeway receipt and you want to return an item. When you arrive back at the store to return an item, you will be directed to the customer service desk — the designated person will handle the return. If there was an issue because the advertised price did not match the price you were charged, the customer service representation will share that information with the necessary store employees.

Similarly, when you notice an issue with an email, the right process is to go to the person who initiated the email and explain the issue so that he or she can then inform the others. Following this process can eliminate the spread of misinformation that can result from too many voices engaging in making sense of the issue.

Lastly, responding to a CC’ed email can signal a lack of etiquette and cause confusion by burying important information in a chain of emails. Unnecessary responses are like two random CVS coupons on each side of a 20% off coupon that a person doesn’t realize they have until it is already expired.



The Literate Self

Writer, educator, and scholar. I write about equity and justice issues (local & global) in education with a particular focus on writing and contemporary texts