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The e-mail CC is the defining struggle of our cognitive age.

Even the name of an e-mail CC is weird. CC - carbon copy.  When was the last real live carbon copy created? And who came up with the blind carbon copy - BCC - a truly bad idea in the annals of digitally mediated communications if there ever was one.

How much cognitive energy do you spend each day deciding who should be included in the CC line? Every single e-mail generates the potential for CC faux pas. The sender of an e-mail must balance the the drive for inclusivity with the dictates of efficiency.

If we CC too narrowly we run the risk of not sharing information with colleagues and stakeholders that may, in the future, be necessary for the work to proceed.

If we CC too broadly we end up spamming our colleagues inboxes, while simultaneously decreasing the odds that they will attend to future important messages.

We CC for good reasons. We want to keep our colleagues (and often our bosses) in the loop.  However, a CC line that includes anyone in a leadership position may stifle ongoing e-mail conversation - as the recipient will now be more cautious in their response.

We include people in our CC line to show that we are in the loop of conversation. The CC can backfire, however, as a CC inclusion can make it seem that we can’t make decisions without the approval of somebody else.

All of us get way too many e-mails. We wish that we were not included on so many CC chains. Yet, at the same time we universally complain that we don’t hear what is going on. We all want less e-mails but more information. We want to be consulted - but at the same time we want the folks that we work with to be autonomous, proactive, and independent.

I have a theory that CC recipients grow in inverse proportion to the size of the organization. The smaller the organization, the more people on the CC line. This is because at a small place there are stronger norms for inclusivity and consensus. Everyone at a small college feels as if they have a personal stake in the running of the place - and e-mal CC behaviors reflect this shared culture. Do you buy my theory? Is anyone empirically testing this hypothesis?

The thing with the CC line is that you can’t really win.  You are either going to CC too narrowly or too broadly.  The mythical Goldilocks of the CC is just that - a myth.  We are doomed to CC poorly because we are flawed communicators and imperfect colleagues. Despite our best efforts we will fail in our CC decisions more often than we will succeed.  The wise amongst us (not me - but maybe you), accept our CC inadequacies, and are willing to spend less mental energy wrestling over the CC line.

Can you share any good CC stories?


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