BCC is evil, and a cry for help to email makers

Once upon a time, a long long timBCC is Evile ago, when I was very young, like, 11 years old, I used to sometimes BCC people in emails. For me to use BCC required two conditions to exist:

  1. I sent something to person X, but I also wanted person Y to be aware of me sending the information to X and-
  2. Either one of the following:
    1. It was important to me that X isn’t aware that Y knows about it or-
    2. I thought it wasn’t important that X knows about Y knowing about it, and I didn’t want to add Y to a conversation whereby he’ll start receiving reply-to-alls.

Quite trivial, I know, that’s the purpose of BCC.

When I started working for my previous boss, one of the things he explicitly told me was “never use BCC as long as you work for me, and I recommend that you never use BCC at all, ever”. I thought I was smart, so I asked “is it because sometimes when people are BCCd they reply-to-all, embarrassing the original sender?” – “No”, he said, “it goes much deeper”.

And then he told me something that sticks with me since, one of the smartest things I’ve heard. He said “When someone sends you an email where you’re BCCd, your brain tags that person as someone who sometimes BCCs people in emails. So next time he sends you an email where you’re NOT BCCd, your brain will wonder whether he BCCd anyone on this email that he doesn’t want you to know about. As a consequence, your brain will automatically tag this person as someone who may have something to hide, and you’ll develop a concern for the level of honesty and transparency of that person. With time, you may grow not to trust him. Don’t be that person. If you send someone something and you want me to be aware of that, just forward me the email after you send it, and do that with everyone else.”

Beyond agreeing with his point, what I loved about this analysis is that it was based entirely on the perception of the other side. One of the most important things in product management, in marketing, and in fact in anything, is the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and be able to imagine his train of thought, both conscious and unconscious. If you’re smart enough, you’ll be able to understand what the major pitfalls in your behavior are, leading that person to think bad thoughts about you (or your product).

So I’ve never used BCC since, I tell this story to all my employees, and I forward many emails after I send them. Which on my iPhone is a huge pain (because of the time it takes the Sent Items folder to sync before I can forward).

Which leads me to the purpose of this post: please consider this a cry for help to all those developing mobile email clients, web email services, desktop email clients, email-related browser plugins, etc:

Please give me the ability to add to each email a list of people to whom the email will be forwarded after it is sent. Want a cool idea? Give me the option to replace BCC with a “forward-after-send” option, so I can use the existing BCC field in the email client, but some plugin or other magic will pull out the BCC and forward the email to each person in the BCC box after the email is sent. But wait! Will such a feature defeat the purpose and make forwarding an email after sending it “the new BCC”? In which case the whole story I told above will start being relevant for forward-after-send as well? I don’t know, we’ll have to try. In the meanwhile, please help. I’m in pain here.


Thank you,

A devout email user


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  • Tal Slobodkin

    A. completely agree with the analysis
    B. The only use case I still use BCC is when I want to intentionally take people off a mailing list, and make sure everyone knows that. A good example is when someone introduces me to someone else but clearly is not interested in staying in the loop, I’ll just write ‘Thanks James, moving to bcc to avoid additional email thread’.

    Best – Slovo (bcc the internet)

    • http://roadler.com Roee Adler

      This is a slippery slope… Today you move someone to BCC, tomorrow you’re into drugs, man.

  • http://www.sillyfeatures.com Uri Gilad

    A. Completely disagree with the analysis – here’s why: There are tons of “non-nefarious” ways to use BCC, who are not related to “wanting to hide something”. A couple come to mind:
    1. I want to send a mass mail (not necessarily spam) to a bunch of people, and I want to enforce them to reply to me only. Happens often (for example, invite to my sons birthday) – I don’t want people to start an email chain here – it’s a notification, you may want to reply, and I don’t want you to reply to all, all are not relevant.
    2. There is an ongoing thread about some problem, slowly spreading to a (large) bunch of people, I want to take ownership, and move to a smaller forum, while notifying the others that they have been delegated and giving them a chance to re-add themselves if they want. I move Roee to BCC, say “Roee, I’ve moved you to BCC, rest: here is my solution…”. Roee will receive this email and may reply all and say “and don’t forget to… ” thus adding himself back. This actually happens quite often in big companies (two i’ve worked for) where no one is sure who can take care of a complex issue.

    B. Don’t confuse evil with lack of attention or plain ignorance, ever. Jumping so quickly down the path of “this person has something to hide”.. well – that’s the slippery slope.

    I use BCC often, and I am not ashamed. :-)

    • http://www.sillyfeatures.com Uri Gilad

      Hmmm – seems like my #2 above is Identical to Slovo’s.
      Roee – let’s talk again when Soluto passes the 100 people mark.. ;-)

    • http://roadler.com Roee Adler

      Like I told Slovo- it’s a slippery slope… :)

  • http://www.userdriven.org Bruce McCarthy

    Um, what’s the difference between BCC’ing someone and forwarding them the message after? In either case, it’s clear to the second recipient that you were hiding their knowledge of the email from the first. I don’t see why they would tag you any differently.

    Also, an alternative interpretation a person might make when being BCC’d is that you and they have a close and loyal relationship, more-so than with the person or persons visible on the thread. Obviously, one can’t control for that, but it is certainly possible. I wouldn’t hesitate to BCC my wife, for example, and I doubt she’d be suspicious about me for it.

    • http://roadler.com Roee Adler

      I beg to differ. Forwarding an email is a clear act of FYI, whereas BCC can be different things. My point is, that whatever your assumption on how the person on the other end perceives your use of BCC, you may be wrong. As long as you’re never wrong, and everyone you BCC always know exactly what’s expected of them, you’ll be ok, but planning for other people to never be wrong is problematic. Well, at least that’s my opinion. I know other people see it differently :)

      • http://www.dan-e-gray.com Dan Gray

        I’m with Bruce.

        There’s no practical difference between a BCC and a forward after send. In both cases you are taking a deliberate action to show an email to a third party without the original recipient knowing.

        You have developed a perception of BCC being somehow more shady, despite the two having the same result, which I imagine is highly personal to you.

  • Alon Gildoni

    I have this friend who keeps sending me “personal” invitations putting me in BCC. Now I realize why I can’t stand the guy…

  • Gary Ellis

    All you need to be convinced never to use BCC is to have a BCC’ed person reply all.

    • http://roadler.com Roee Adler

      I’ve been through such horrible incidents :)

  • Wesley Thiessen

    There are also some supervisors who want (demand) a bcc of every email that you send outside the department. Call them control freaks, but at least then your ass is covered when they say they weren’t aware of something.

    The second legit use of BCC is the mass invitation or notice to people who aren’t connected to each other. For example corporate Christmas letters.

  • Asher
  • 3000ways

    Yea your article makes sense to me but I am still wondering if the person being BCC’d knows that they were BCC’d…. I just figured they assumed it was a CC’d to them as well. Am I wrong??

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  • Tal Achituv

    There are lots of legitimate reasons to use BCC, many of them have been mentioned in the comments here, and I will add another: when you want to send something to a bunch of people but you don’t want them to know about each-other.

    I love your analysis because it is thoughtful, but I dislike it because it has the inherent assumption that people develop distrust based on such weak signals, which are not a reason for thinking that someone is dishonest.

    I think, that if I extend this argument very naturally then I can say that when you send me a “forward-after-send” e-mail, I will think to myself the next time you send me an e-mail: “hm, I wonder who he is going to forward-after-send this to”… What’s the difference?

    If someone gossips with me about someone else, I of course learn that they probably gossip about me as well. But if someone shares with me things for reasons that are not gossip, why would I develop the sense that they are bad people?

    This feels to me like an overkill. There is a real problem in e-mail – and it is that people being BCC’ed often can’t tell that they are BCC’ed. If anything is missing, I think, is that when an e-mail is sent BCC, the people in the to/cc fields should be moved on the receiver’s side to “also sent to” which requires a manual step before replying anyone other than the original sender, and perhaps a way to be able to visually tell that something has been received as bcc. The former is something that should have been included in the standard, and the latter is a design choice of the client.

    I don’t think we need more than that.

  • Eldad Mor

    Assuming that your original purpose in using BCC was ethical, the only reason to use BCC is to either save the BCCed person from reply-to-all, or to hide the entire mailing list. In the former case, you could just state in the beginning of the mail that you actually did it, therefore clearing out any “suspicions”. In the latter case, every recipient with some common sense would understand why you did it.

    And in general I think that someone who tends to be suspicious and paranoid about others will be like that no matter what you do. If you forward your mail to them instead of BCCing them, they’ll think “Hmmm… he forwarded me this mail with X not knowing about it… maybe he’s doing it also with my mail!”. As mentioned before, normal non-paranoid people don’t build trust (or, distrust) based on such weak signals.

  • http://nothingyoumissed.wordpress.com togakangaroo

    The science behind this is addressed to a degree in chapter 8 or 9 of “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. It’s also a *statistical* effect and applying it on an individual basis is not really accurate. First of all, it is a slight effect and, while prominent in large groups, it is not likely that it would significantly impact a specific interaction. Next, it only has any real effect at all if this is one of the first interactions the person has had with you (and even then, slight). Finally, at least for me, the word-association for BCC is secretive and focused, not untrustworthy. Suppose you’re a journalist, a salesman, lawyer; that might be the exact impression you want to convey.

    Finally, finally as you indicate, the “forward-after-send” feature will follow the same logic. I’m not sure why you hedged it with “we’ll see”, it’s not like you did a study of the “BCC effect” and need to confirm if you see it elsewhere.

  • dljonesaz

    Gulp. Solemn but smart piece of advice. I never got into the habit of BCC for other reasons, but this trumps them all.

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