CC, BCC, Reply All: Email Etiquette?

Here’s the proper email etiquette for CC, BCC, and reply all:

In general, you use CC to include someone who you don’t expect needs to respond directly to an email.

BCC is to include someone when you have a reason to hide their inclusion from the rest of the email list.

Reply all should generally not be used as it tends to lead to spam more than useful communication.

So if you want to learn all about how to properly use CC, BCC, and reply all when writing an email, then this article is for you.

Let’s jump right in!

CC, BCC, Reply All: Proper Email Etiquette? (All the Info)

What Do the Email Terms CC, BCC, and Reply All Mean? (4 Things)

Young female executive with hand on her chin,  going through the emails in her laptop

Email etiquette is more important than you might realize, especially in professional settings.

Yet, it’s going to prove rather difficult to master etiquette unless you have a strong understanding of the different mechanisms you can use to send emails.

In total, there are a lot of different ways to interact with email—it’s a major part of the digital world after all.

But, we can zero in on three specific terms, what they mean, and how they work.

Those are CC, BCC, and reply all.

By explaining the mechanisms of each, I can prepare you for etiquette with a stronger knowledge base and an improved ability to reason why etiquette is so important.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how to send emails.

#1 To

Woman using computer on table with new email message on laptop

The first thing to understand is that you can address an email to any recipient you choose.

This is the “To” field, and it’s where you can figure out who the email is for.

Undoubtedly, you have used email before, and you know how to address an email.

What I want to focus on right now is that you can put multiple recipients in the “To” field.

In fact, you can put a ton of recipients in that field.

The other three address options we’re going to discuss exist for the purpose of emailing multiple people quickly and efficiently, but the “To” field works just fine for that as well.

Here’s the thing that really separates this from other fields (especially the CC field).

The “To” field is for the people you are directly addressing in an email.

If you need to send an email to everyone in a work team, and you’re directly talking to all of them, then this is the way to do it.

“To” is for direct, deliberate communication.

#2 CC

Woman checking her email in a meeting

CC stands for “carbon copy.”

For those who aren’t old enough to remember, carbon copies were a tool used to make fast, reliable copies of paper statements.

Technically, the technology still exists, but it’s not used nearly as much as in the past.

The way a carbon copy works is that you have multiple sheets of paper.

The top sheet is just regular paper that you can write on normally.

Below that is a sheet of carbon paper.

This is paper that has a layer on the bottom that, when pressed, can leave behind an ink-like residue.

Under the carbon paper is another regular sheet.

The way it works is when you write on the triple-layer setup, your pen or pencil will press the carbon paper with enough force that everything you write is immediately copied onto the bottom layer.

So, you can write something once, and you get two copies.

These days, carbon copies are still used a lot with checkbooks (so you can keep a copy of all of your checks) and receipt printers, so you and the merchant each get a copy.

What does this have to do with email?

Well, the CC line is named after carbon paper for a reason.

The purpose of this email is to make copies of things.

When you send an email, you can add other people to the CC line.

When you do, they get an exact copy of the email you send.

What’s the point?

The point is that you’re using this feature to provide information to people, even if the email isn’t directly addressed to them.

A good example would be if you work on a team and want to ask the boss a question.

You might CC your fellow team members so that they can all see the question and the answer (the boss would use “reply all” for that, but we’ll get to that in a bit).

The CC allows you to include extra people in an email even if they aren’t directly participating in the conversation.

That’s the real point.

There is one other important aspect of the CC line.

Anyone on the CC line is visible to everyone else who receives the email.

If you are CC’d in an email, at the top of the email, you can see all of the other recipients (from both the “To” and “CC” fields).

Your name will be included among them.

#3 BCC

Young female executive typing on her laptop at the office

This brings us to BCC.

It stands for “blind carbon copy.”

The BCC line is built the same way as the CC line and used for the same purpose with one key difference: the blind part.

Anyone included in the BCC line will not be visible to other recipients.

If you are BCC’d on an email, you will still be able to see the full list of “To” and CC recipients, but none of them will know that you also received a copy of the email.

As you might imagine, this is used for the sake of discretion.

If you want someone to get a copy of an email, but you have good reasons to keep that knowledge from the other recipients, then BCC is appropriate.

It’s also worth noting that BCC recipients are not aware of each other.

Only the sender of the email knows who is on the BCC list.

#4 Reply All

Colleagues working together while sending updates to other team via email

Last in line, we have reply all.

This button is both simple and powerful.

The reply all button allows you to respond to an email, and it will automatically send to everyone who received the email.

This allows you to very quickly respond to everyone on the email list.

Reply all has the most complicated etiquette of these different email options, but we’ll get into that in the etiquette section.

What you need to know right now is that reply all includes the entire mail list, with an exception.

In order to maintain the blind part of BCC, BCC recipients cannot hit reply all.

Additionally, when someone in an email chain uses reply all, it won’t send to the BCC recipients.

If it did, then the new sender would be aware of BCC recipients.

Because of this, you need to think a little carefully about how you use reply all and BCC together.

It’s possible for BCC recipients to end up missing important information, and to keep them in the loop, you might have to constantly forward reply all emails to the BCC list.

It can be a pain, but it ultimately works.

What Is the Proper Email Etiquette for CC, BCC, and Reply All? (3 Situations)

Blonde woman with glasses focused on her work on her laptop

Now that you know how each option works, we can get into the etiquette surrounding them.

For the most part, the etiquette is pretty simple, but I’ll cover the outlying ideas so that you can really make informed decisions when it comes to managing your professional email account.

#1 CC

New email alert on laptop and phone

CC is the easiest of these tools to use, and it has the simplest etiquette.

If you’re sending an email, and you want to loop someone in the conversation with no expectation of a response, then put them in the CC line.

Really, the thing to think about with CC is whether or not they should be in the “To” field.

The primary difference is expectation.

If you think that the person should or likely will respond to the email, including them in “To” makes a lot of sense.

If you just think that having a copy of an email is useful for them, then put them on the CC.

Here’s an easy example (and we’ll discuss more examples of everything later).

Imagine you are trying to figure out a project timeline with your work team.

You think that your boss might appreciate having a copy of the timeline, even if they don’t need to chime in directly.

It makes a lot of sense to include them in the CC line.

#2 BCC

Woman with glasses intently typing on her laptop late in the evening

In some ways, BCC is easier to understand and use than CC.

If you want to include someone on the BCC line, then you clearly have a reason to hide their presence from the rest of the recipients.

In such a case, it makes sense to use BCC as opposed to “To” or CC.

In terms of etiquette, you typically include someone on the BCC line because you think they should have a copy of the email exchange, but you’re afraid that putting their name on the CC line might impact the outcome of the conversation.

Think of the previous example about discussing timelines.

If you think that CC’ing your boss on the timeline email will cause some people to be nervous or overly ambitious with timelines, then you can BCC them instead.

They still get the information, and you’re not worried about team members being weird since the boss is included in the email chain.

#3 Reply All

Left hand of a woman on the keyboard while other hand holds project designs

Here’s the general rule for the reply all button: don’t use it. Seriously.

Any time that you might want to reply all, you could reply just to the sender and CC anyone who you think should be included.

And, that really highlights the etiquette here. 

If it’s not worth taking the time to CC each individual who you want to include in the conversation, then it’s probably not necessary to hit reply all.

You could just reply to the sender instead.

This is especially important for large organizations.

If you are ever on an email chain that includes more than a dozen recipients, then the reply all button can be a nightmare.

Imagine if you work for Amazon, which has many tens of thousands of employees, and a VP sends out a happy holidays email to everyone.

Hitting reply all on that spams the whole company, and it’s not important, and it’s never acceptable to do so.

With that in mind, allow me to outline the very few times when it might be ok to use reply all.

First up is when you are the highest-ranked individual in the email chain.

If someone asks a question, and you think everyone should see the answer, then reply all is a reasonable choice.

Second is if the email chain involves fewer than 10 people.

In that case, if you have a question or comment that really is worth adding every single member to the CC line, then it makes more sense to use reply all.

Reply all will keep the whole conversation in a single email chain, and that makes it easier for everyone to keep up.

If your reply all will impact more than 10 people, though, you should strongly consider other means of communication.

What Are Good Examples of Email Etiquette for CC, BCC, and Reply All? (3 Cases)

Pretty and chic lady at her workstation sending emails on her laptop

I included some brief examples above, but we can really dive into real-world applications of these email tools and how they look from the standpoint of etiquette.

To that end, I have a better example for CC, BCC, and reply all, each listed below.

#1 CC

Woman typing on laptop in meeting room

I already gave you one solid example of CC etiquette, but there’s an even better, clearer example that should really drive the point home.

Let’s say you are on a team at your job, and your team has a meeting.

You get charged with keeping notes for the meeting.

At the end of the meeting, the boss asks you to ensure that everyone has a copy of the notes.

In this case, the best choice is to address a meeting notes email to your boss and CC the rest of the team.

There’s no need for anyone to respond; you’re just making sure that everyone has a copy.

This is the quintessential purpose of the CC button and a perfect example of how to use it.

#2 BCC

Young businesswoman working and in good spirits at her office desk as she quickly sends out good news to her team

BCC is trickier, but I have another example for you that should make sense.

Let’s say that you are a project manager (meaning you are the boss of everyone involved with the project), and your project and team are up for a review.

That means someone above you in the company hierarchy is reviewing your work as a team.

The reviewer asks to be included in any team emails so that they can get a feel for collaboration and communication.

You’re worried that seeing a reviewer on every email will make the team stiff and/or nervous, so you take the obvious solution.

You continue business as usual with the team and BCC the reviewer at every turn.

They get the information they need, and your team behaves normally.

#3 Reply All

Confident young woman with short stylish haircut working on her laptop in a coffeeshop

Lastly, I’m going to give you an example of why you should always hesitate before hitting the reply all button.

This is a situation that came up in a previous job of mine, but because of nondisclosure agreements, I have to change some of the details.

Let’s say you work for a large company with around 30,000 employees.

You have a new product launch coming up, so the director of product launches sends out an email to the entire company.

That email explains the timeline of the launch and what is expected from each department.

It’s not a huge email, but it’s aiming to ensure that every single member of the company understands what is coming and what part they play in all of it.

One person reads the email, intends to hit “reply” but accidentally hits “reply all.”

They actually have a meaningful question, but it still shouldn’t be a reply-all question (as absolutely no question is a reply-all question in this context). 

This reply all then hits all 30,000 employee mailboxes.

One employee sees the problem and wants to ensure that no one else misuses the reply all button, so they use reply all to tell everyone as much.

Another person responds to this email in kind, and before you know it, you have a cascade of reply all emails.

Everyone in the company is flooded with hundreds of emails before it all dies down, and it wastes the time and energy of everyone involved.

Reply all is a menace here, and if you’re the one who hit the button accidentally, make sure that you don’t apologize with an additional reply-all message.

That’s a mistake.

If your message is going to reach people who you do not regularly, or directly communicate with, you should not be using the reply all button.

That’s a very safe rule of thumb.