Hulehan Says: E-Mail Etiquette “Bcc:” and “Reply All”

 Look, I know that e-mail is a fairly new thing…wait. No, it’s not. I accept that some of our non-traditional developmental students struggle with technology, but I think if you’re working in a professional setting in which e-mail is the primary method of communication, you ought to familiarize yourself not only with the technological aspects of it but also with the general rules of etiquette.  Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to this because I actually teach e-mail etiquette to my students. I don’t know, but this is one of my biggest pet peeves: ineffective or inappropriate use of the Bcc and Reply All functions.

With that said, here’s what “Hulehan Says” about e-mail etiquette in regards to their use (Please note the disclaimer first!):

  • As a general rule of thumb, if the number of recipients exceeds 30, you should list all the e-mail addresses in the Bcc field, not the To field.

Here’s why: It’s simple. No one wants to have to scroll through 85 names to get to your message. This is especially true in today’s mobile age, where many people are frequently checking their e-mail on mobile devices with small screens. It’s just annoying. E-mail should be relatively short and simple in general. In fact, I always tell my students that if someone has to scroll to read your message, it’s too long. You should revise that message to read simply “Dear So & So, Can we set up a meeting to discuss X, Y, and Z?” Because if you have more than one screen’s worth of message, your message warrants a telephone call or face-to-face meeting.

  • If the message is purely informative and doesn’t require a response, use the Bcc field for your list of recipients.

For example, I often need to send reminders to my advisees (who have numbered anywhere between 50-100 depending on the semester). I need to simply convey information to them, not engage them in conversation. I just want to remind them of important advising information: the who, what, where, when, and why.  They don’t really need to respond to me, and they certainly don’t need to respond to one another.  And listing them all in the To field where they can see each other indicates otherwise, which brings me to…

  • If you do not want the recipients to Reply All to engage in a group conversation, pick the Bcc field instead of the To field for your list of recipients. Not doing so invites them all to start replying to the group.

The other day I sent a message to about 5 of our math instructors asking for their input. I wanted them all to share with one another, so they’d all benefit from one another’s ideas. So I put all their names in the To field, and even specifically wrote, “Please Reply All to share with the group, so we can all benefit from each others’ responses.”

In a separate situation last week, I needed to send a message to my entire department (over 30 people) to remind them of a particular piece of information. There was no need for response (see point 2 above), and there wasn’t any need for any of them to engage with one another, so all their addresses went into the Bcc field. In fact, I didn’t want to have any accidental Reply Alls, which brings me to…

  • Use Reply All cautiously because it can generate TONS of unnecessary e-mails.

Look, we all get gobs of e-mail every day (or maybe that’s just me), so the last thing we need is our inboxes getting bogged down with unnecessary messages. So some basic things to remember: No one needs your simple “I agree” or “I disagree” unless the sender has specifically asked you to respond with that…and chances are, even if he/she made such a request, she didn’t intend for you to share it with the whole group (unless she specifically asked).  If the message is strictly informative, do not Reply All.  If the message is not a specific invitation to engage in an on-going group discussion (see example of math instructors’ e-mail above), don’t Reply All. Ask yourself: does everyone in the list need to know this information? If not, for goodness, sake, don’t Reply All, just reply to the sender. If you’re not sure, default on the side of caution and reply only to the Sender; if he/she thinks everyone should know, he can share your response.

  • As a rule of thumb, don’t Reply All if you don’t actually know All.

Nobody wants a bunch of responses from strangers.  If you wouldn’t have been willing to independently e-mail these people, don’t group respond to them. To be blunt, they don’t know you and probably don’t care what you have to say. This drives me back to Bcc

  • If all your recipients don’t know each other, use Bcc instead of To

So here’s the thing: if you want to invite 20 of your friends to a get-together, and they all know each other (presumably because you all always go to the same get-togethers), put everybody in the To field.  They probably want to see who else is invited and even Reply All, so everybody can see who is or is not going and why or why not or establish carpools, share a babysitter, whatever. For the workplace, the same rule applies: if all your recipients do not know one another, put their addresses in Bcc instead of To.

Somewhat related (I would be remiss if I didn’t point this out): many of these same rules apply to group text messaging (or Facebook messaging even). Group text messages are only appropriate when everyone knows one another. And when you want everyone to engage in a conversation with one another.  If that’s not the case, be a good friend and send separate messages to individuals. When you send a group text, it encourages people to Reply All (many people don’t even know how not to Reply All and do so accidentally, which is why this is your problem). And your friends don’t want a bunch of texts from people they don’t know.  As my friend Russ points out, that eats up people’s text allowance. And also, to be blunt again, people don’t care about what strangers think/say–even if those unknown numbers happen to belong to people you know. Finally, if you get one of those inappropriate group messages and have a reply, be a good friend and don’t Reply All. Start a new and separate message and reply only to the sender.

I’m sure I forgot to mention something, but this is a good starting point. Just in case you need to know…not that you do–but maybe you have a friend who does…


Filed under My Opinion

5 responses to “Hulehan Says: E-Mail Etiquette “Bcc:” and “Reply All”

  1. Russ

    I don’t include my in-laws in group text messages to my parents concerning info about my daughter. It is much easier for me, as the sender, to send two separate messages so each group can feel comfortable interacting about the subject.

  2. Russ

    When someone has clearly sent an e-mail to a group mailbox accidentally, it is acceptable to ignore the message. It is not acceptable to “reply all” and ask the sender to “take you off the list”, or “please stop replying to all.” Nothing is worse than getting 100 e-mails in 5 minutes while everyone takes a turn asking to be “taken off the list”.

  3. This is such a good reminder for many! I personally am giving you a high five over the internet. 🙂 I cannot stand when people use the email reply inappropriately. It don’t receive them all that often, thankfully. My biggest complaint is the text message mass text. My mother does it ALL the time to me and my siblings. Then my brother never writes back–ever–but gets all the texts. My mom always “forgets” that she shouldn’t do this but never fails and there the thread goes. I wish there was a way to leave the thread, like you do in a Facebook message thread and leave the conversation, but my phone at least doesn’t allow that to happen.

  4. Pingback: Is this wrong? Yes. | Wider than the Sky

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