Email uses 19th Century technology and 20th Century management practices to undermine trust. I’m not mincing my words here and you’ll need to follow my logic.
Trust is one of the strands that hold people, communities and society together. People need to be able to trust each other, at an individual and group level to coexist and get things done. The alternative is some sort of oppressive dystopian society where everyone spends most of their time; seeking proof, scrutinising and watching what everyone else is doing. All a bit like George Orwell’s 1984…
If you do something to diminish trust you undermine one of the strands that hold society together. My dislike of the email ‘cc’ option comes from this viewpoint.
Before explaining, here’s a bit of the history. The abbreviation ‘cc’ stands for carbon copy (of course you already knew that). It comes from a process developed about 1806 aimed at assisting blind people to write. You can find out more in this article, The Exciting History of Carbon Paper! The expression ‘carbon copy’ came about as ‘carbon paper’ was used to produce duplicate copies.
The widespread use of carbon copies appears to have taken off from the 1870’s. This was linked to the use of typewriters and the desire to have duplicates of important documents such as; receipts, invoices, money orders, financial records or legal documents. The significant point here is that these were ‘important documents’. It took effort to produce these exact copies that were used for very specific purposes.
The introduction of other methods of copying documents from the 1950s (photocopiers etc) led to the inevitable decline of ‘carbon paper’ methods, so why does the term and practice still exist? Here is an interesting suggestion from this Mental Floss article that, “perhaps in deference to a technology they replaced, most e-mail programs allow the author to send a carbon copy, or cc, to a secondary recipient.”
This raises an interesting question. The process of sending an email ‘cc’ is instant and virtually effortless. There is little of the thinking process, physical activity or time delay that would have been required to produce a typewritten carbon copy. Is the email ‘cc’ option an example of technology solving one problem while creating another, the undermining of trust?
Let me try and explain in terms the bad email ‘cc’ behaviours I think undermine trust. I mentioned in this previous post about email overload. Please note that these observations focus upon world of internal, colleague to colleague emails which seem to burden most large organisations (check out this Infographic for details).
Bad ‘cc’ Behaviours that Undermine Trust:
- Look how busy I am. Someone who copies everyone into low value or pointless emails, usually outside of office hours, or while on holidays.
- Look how clever I am. This involves pointing out flaws or problems, and letting everyone know via ‘cc’. These can range from spelling or grammar errors or something more significant.
- I’m Just Covering My Back. By using the ‘cc’ option, with as many recipients as possible, some people think they have reduced a risk. More like ‘reduced the risk to themselves’ by trying to spread responsibility.
- Your Boss Needs to Know You Have Messed Up. A bit like ‘look at how clever I am’, with a sinister twist. The recipient might (hopefully) get punished as a result, or at the minimum look bad in front of their boss.
- I Don’t Trust You To Do Your Job. I am going to ‘cc’ your superiors to make sure you do what I’m telling you. This is coercion and threats in any other language, but sadly seems to be almost acceptable through email.
All of these behaviours amount to an attack upon trust between people. The ‘cc’ option is a very easy way of eroding trust at the touch of a button. It’s a vicious circle. Start by sending that ‘cc’ to show everyone how hard you are working over weekend and before long it will be ‘cc’s colleague’s superiors to intimidate them into doing what you want. Where does that leave trust between colleagues, teams, organisations and society itself?
It’s not just me who doesn’t like misuse of the ‘cc’ option, are plenty of others. Have a look at this Greg Savage post which mentions ‘The cc King’ and ‘The cc Clown’.
Finally……. Don’t even get me started on those automatic requests you get to confirm you have received an email…….
So, what’s the PONT?
- Sometimes technology can create as many problems as it solves. Carbon Copies are a 19th Century idea that has become enabled by 21st Century technology.
- Behaviour is key. Emails cc’s don’t send themselves, people do.
- Think about what you want to achieve before you use the email ‘cc’. You don’t have to use the ‘cc’ option, so don’t.
For good advice on general email behaviour check out the emailcharter.org
Haven’t had a cat picture for a while. Here is one for Helen Reynolds who commented about cc’s in the earlier post and prompted this one. Thanks Helen.
Photo caption via Andy Ball (@ball_localgovt)
“damn these old fashioned typewriters….. Where’s the mouse?”
Picture source: http://evandashevsky.com/2012/02/writing-update/