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Double-Barreled E-Mail

the purpose of business mail is to convey important information, often in anticipation of some response by the recipient

E-mail is one of the greatest contributions to communication. Fast and easy to use, it allows us to send information to each other almost without a second thought. E-mail is also one of the great communication curses of the twentieth century. Fast and easy to use, it allows us to inundate each other with endless chain letters, jokes, and annoying messages.

Many people use e-mail but do not understand how it works. Of course, many people use snail-mail but really don't know how it works, either. There are many levels of "how it works" and some are more significant to users than others. For example, we don't really care how a letter gets from our own mailbox to its destination. With e-mail, the analogous action - what happens between the time we push the send icon and the time it arrives on someone else's computer monitor - just doesn't matter.

What does matter, though, is what happens when the document is received. When writing a letter for normal snail-mail distribution, we usually write to a single person. Word processors now provide mail merge functions so we can send a single letter to several people, and "personalize" it at the same time.


E-mail can also be used to write to a single person or to a group of people. So far, we're doing the same thing. What e-mail does that snail-mail can't do, though, is quickly respond to the person who sent something our way. Even more remote to the letter writer of old was the ability to respond not only to the sender, but to everyone else who received a copy of the first letter.

We have all received jokes that have been forwarded countless times. Sometimes there are so many names of recipients that the original message is lost. The worst case I have seen was a joke my son sent to me from college. Had I printed it out, it would have run to over a dozen pages, with a short two paragraph joke at the end.

Jokes and chain letters are one thing, but business correspondence is entirely different (yes, you can use e-mail for work). The purpose of business mail is to convey important information, often in anticipation of some response by the recipient. As long as we write to a single person, or a carefully selected group, all is well.

Unfortunately, pressing "reply to all" has become so automatic that we often pass on information that is significant to only a few of the people that receive it. When this becomes common within a group, it is not unusual to receive copies of the same letter from several people, each of whom replied to all.

If some action is apparently required by shotgunned mail, how are the recipients to know who is supposed to do what? When forwarders add comments, to whom are they addressed?

I recently received a copy of an article that was sent to one person and copied to several others. There was no indication of the purpose; it could have been an observation, a suggestion, or an article for any of a variety of publications. It may have been offered for limited or general use.

When I received it, I did not recognize the name of the person it was addressed to. Within three days I received copies of the article from five other people, some with suggestions that I post the article on the NCR web site. I later learned that the article was intended for publication in CSI's NewsDigest.

gun control

When sending mass e-mail or responding to a message with several names in the "to" or "copy" fields:

  • Take the time to select recipients.

  • Indicate who is to take action, and who is receiving copies for information only. One might argue that the "To" and "CC" fields would be a good indication, but they are not used with any consistency.

  • Check the CC field when you forward, and delete people who have already been copied.

Many e-mailers appear to be unaware that they can control the way in which messages are presented in responses or forwarded mail. Check the options for your e-mail program. You may be surprised at what is available.

1999 Sheldon Wolfe, RA, CSI, CCS, CCCA, 
on the web at 
July 1999

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Material from CSI Chapter newsletters used with permission.