Emma: I find cc’ing to be a particularly insidious habit. Not too long ago I was working on a project. I had sent edits to the designer I was collaborating with, but when he emailed out our work for one last review, the edits weren’t there.
Annoying? Kinda. A problem? Not really.
I typed a quick email back — “Hey, it looks like XYZ changes didn’t make it in. Can you update?” — and was about to hit send when I noticed that I had cc’d our boss. I had cc’d our boss without even noticing and was about to hit send. It was the same feeling as driving to the store and not remembering how you got there, only for tattling.
Andy: Oh, that’s so terrifying. The part of your brain that operates by habit had kicked in! (And welcome to the segment of The Bent in which I talk about science without fact-checking my sources. I’m pretty sure this bit comes from The Power of Habit.) The habit part of the brain uses starting and ending points to enter loops of action: you get in the shower → you get out; in between you’ve shampooed and conditioned and body washed, all of it without really triggering your brain to do each next thing.
Emma: This is what I’m talking about! Cc’ing can be part of an unthinking loop. Thankfully, I noticed before I hit send.
Andy: And quick PSA — everyone go set your undo email feature to the 30-second max right now, just in case.
What happened next?
Emma: Oh, you know: I un-cc’d our boss and sent the note to just the designer, who was very apologetic — it was an oversight on a busy day — then updated the work, and we went on our merry ways. But it’s stuck with me as a cautionary tale. Cc’ing gone wrong: it could happen to you.
Andy: How often does it go right? I’m talking specifically about this sort of “power cc’ing” that’s actually a low-grade threat: Look buster, you want to try that with your boss watching? I think the bulk of power cc’s are simply unexamined reflexes, like yours was. I can’t imagine you set out to throw anyone under the bus.
Emma: No, I was not, like, gleefully rubbing my hands together.
Andy: You were just trying to get something done. But a power cc has consequences. It ultimately says: I don’t trust you to take care of this without someone more important than me eavesdropping on the line. You’re undercutting the very relationship you need to build.
Emma: I’m also thinking of that episode of Reply All where they discuss the professor who wrote a mean tweet about a New York Times op ed journalist. The journalist fired back with a personal letter to the professor accusing him of unsportsmanlike conduct. Naturally, he cc’d the professor’s boss.
Emma: When the professor posted this ridiculous cc’d letter on Twitter, the journalist went on the defensive: “I also copied his provost on the note… I want to be clear, I had no intention whatsoever to get him in any kind of professional trouble,” he explained on MSNBC. “But it’s the case at the New York Times and other institutions that people should be aware, managers should be aware, of the way in which their people, their professors or journalist interact with the rest of the world.”
I think it’s such a clear-cut example of how silly cc’ing can be: It feels so natural and right and justified, but the second you try to defend it, you look like an asshole.
Andy: Totally. Here’s my personal policy on cc’ing: I’m okay cc’ing order forms, billing documents, confirmation codes, travel plans — anything someone may need to reference, but doesn’t need to take action on. These are things often sent by automation. I’m adding humans eyes to file it away.
I’m generally not okay cc’ing escalations, unanswered emails I want a reply on, or asking semi-related questions on a large chain. I’m not saying I won’t ever do it, but I’m going to take a long pause and make sure I have a good reason.
Emma: Let’s do a little test. For the rest of the month, you have to do the following exercise every time you cc someone: Write a complete sentence explaining why they are being included on that email and what they need to do.
What on earth would I have written to my boss when I nearly cc’d him on my email to that designer? “Hi, I’m including you because I wanted this guy to know that I’m annoyed at his mistake and to feel embarrassed. No action from you necessary!”
Andy: Someone please make this a plugin! It’d be like that old Google Mail Goggles plugin where it made you do a math problem before you could send an email after a certain time of night. The simple question — why? — short circuits the unexamined impulse to cc and send.
Emma: Report back in a few weeks and tell us how many cc’s you’ve cut out of your life.
Andy: Congrats in advance! It will be the same number of times you’ve avoided looking like an asshole.
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