Email Etiquette (1): Using the Cc and Bcc Fields

Many people probably simply fill in the “to” field in their emailer every time they need to send a message. But the other options are there for a reason. When used correctly, these options can give people useful cues and avoid leakage of information that is none of other people’s business.

Keep in mind that this (mostly) just my opinion. I don’t think that you’re using email the “wrong way”—whatever that would even mean—if you don’t follow these tips. But at the same time, I think you’ll have serious trouble finding anyone who is annoyed by them.

This is part one of a planned multi-part series on email.

Cc field

The Cc field can be used to indicate that you are sending the message to a specific person and merely want to notify someone else that you’ve done so, or if one of the recipients is less important than the others (in terms of responding to the email, of course). Many email clients automatically use the Cc field when activating “reply to all”, only filling in the To field with the name of the person to whom you’re directly replying.

Cc doesn’t actually have any impact on the way the message is delivered, except that some email addresses appear under the “Cc” heading instead of the “To” heading; it’s only a convenience to be used however you want to. For all the computer cares, you could establish guidelines in your office that if you Cc someone a message, that means you’re in trouble and they need to telephone you immediately. But the “less important” or “FYI, I sent this message to so-and-so” interpretation is pretty much universally understood among serious email users. Like putting people’s emails in the To field, every recipient of the email can see all the people you Cc’d a message to.

Sometimes you need to click a link or button marked “Add Cc” in order to see this field.
By the way, “Cc” stands for “carbon copy”, though you’ll have a difficult time finding an email program that actually says that anymore.

Bcc field

Bcc stands for “blind carbon copy”—when you use it, nobody sees the email addresses in the Bcc field except you, but everyone still gets the email.

Not using the Bcc field properly is one of the things that I actually do get annoyed with people about on occasion. This is why: say someone sends a wedding invitation to 200 people using the standard To field. Now, everyone who received that email can see the entirety of the To field. If I’m a recipient of this message, my email address has now been given to 200 people that I likely don’t even know, without my consent.

There are plenty of uses for the Bcc field, but the most important one is this: always use the Bcc field when sending email to multiple people who do not know each other and do not need to write each other back. If all you’re doing is sending an announcement to people, the only person they would possibly care to write back to is you. (If they did want to write someone else on that list, they would already have his or her email address.)

Another use is stealth: say I’m sending a message to someone that’s somewhat confidential. I may want someone else interested to see the message and what’s going on, but I don’t want the main recipient of the message to see. This can be a bit dishonest if you use it the wrong way, but there are plenty of perfectly reasonable situations in which you might want to do it.

In the old days, it was common to blind-copy yourself if you wanted to keep a copy of the email. Now any email program worth its salt will store a copy in the “sent items” folder automatically, so this use has largely fallen by the wayside. In the rare situation that you’re sending an email from someone else’s email account, you might still want to do this so that you have a copy on your own account.

Sometimes you need to click a link or button marked “Add Bcc” in order to see this field. Additionally, some email clients will not allow you to send a message with only the Bcc field filled in (nobody in the To field); if yours won’t, established practice is to put your own email address there, as this doesn’t single anybody out and doesn’t give away any information that people didn’t already know.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Six Things Not To Do When Asking for Computer Help

I often work as an unofficial technical support representative—it’s pretty much an unavoidable result of learning something about computers. Tech support is just inherently frustrating, but the way people act when they ask me for help, more than anything else, can make the difference between whether I’m happy or annoyed at the end of a call or work session. Here are six things that people ask me or do that get me frustrated really fast. Some of them are things that just plain tick me off; others are things that not everybody would necessarily know but that still get annoying when people don’t know them.

This is drawn mostly from personal experience, but most if not all of these things annoy almost everybody.

I’m not intending to offend, make fun of, or complain about anyone with this post. If you’ve done anything on this list, it’s not your fault! You almost certainly just didn’t know it was liable to annoy somebody. My purpose here is to help people know some of the things that tend to annoy their more technical friends so as to help them avoid doing it in the future.

My intent is also not to sound like I’m being constantly wronged; reading my whole article through, I realize it might sound a bit like that’s what I think. I don’t; in fact, my main purpose in writing this article was not hoping that I’ll get these questions less often as a result (I know better than to expect that) but helping people avoid annoying the people they ask for help.

6: “Is this going to harm my computer?”

Do you think that I would tell you to do it if I knew that it would? Because that’s basically what you’re asking me here.

How to Avoid It: If you want to ask clarification questions about what effect an action is going to have or why I want to do it, I’m perfectly fine with that. I always explain what I’m doing before I start actually making any changes to a computer. But I’m aware that sometimes my investigation, which does not change the computer at all, appears to be messing everything up from the eyes of a less technically proficient user. So by all means, don’t have any qualms about asking what’s going on or what I’m planning to change, just don’t ask me if it’s “going to harm the computer.”

5: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Probably.

How to Avoid It: Do you really have to ask this? This question makes me doubt whether you’ve made a good move in picking me to work on your computer. If you don’t trust me, then that’s fine, but please ask someone else to fix your computer in that case.
If you just don’t understand what’s going on, feel free to ask questions about that; see #6. But asking if I’m sure I know what I’m doing isn’t a good way to ask—it’s not specific, does not express what you’re actually feeling, and comes off to me as rude.

4: “I have a problem. My computer doesn’t work.”
I have a problem as well. My problem is that I don’t know what your problem is, but I know you want help from me. This doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, but once people start asking you for help on a regular basis, this starts to get old really fast.

How to Avoid It: If you have a problem that you want me to help you with, please start by telling me what the problem is—not saying “I have a problem” and waiting for me to say, “Okay, what is it?” A sample question would be, “Hey Soren, I’ve been having trouble printing lately. Could you help me figure it out?” (If you’re writing an email, it would be nice to include any other information you know as well, like “it started happening right after I updated Microsoft Office.” If I have the chance to respond right back to you in person or over the phone, that’s not important.)

3: “What was the error?” / “I forget.”
Hey, guess what I forgot? The solution to your problem.

How to Avoid It: If there’s ever an error on your computer, the message you get is where you want to start solving the problem. A well-written error message can make the difference between having the problem fixed in a minute and searching and fiddling around for several hours. (Oh boy, have I been there: I once even got an error message that said Error: No Error.) If you don’t have the error message, I’m going to have a really hard time figuring out what the problem is. This isn’t a problem if you can make the error happen again, but frequently people can’t reproduce the problem, and they’re wasting both their time and mine.

The simplest way to avoid this problem is to write down the error message and include it in an email or have it ready if I need it. Or just know what steps you need to take to make the error come up again. If you have to say, “Hold on, let me bring it up,” that makes me feel like you’ve been doing your homework; if you say, “I forget,” that makes me think, “Now I have to spend an extra five minutes on this.”

2: “Okay, now what happened?” / “Nothing.”
This scene, or something like it, happens to me on a regular basis:
Me: “Type ‘nohup anki’ and press Enter.”
User: “Okay.”
Me: “What happened?”
User: “Nothing.”
Me: “Hmm, that’s odd.”
(I ponder for a couple of minutes and run another Google search.)
Me: “What happens if you run ‘anki’?”
User: “The same thing that happened before.”
Me: “Which was?”
User: [what I was hoping for in the first place when I asked what happened]

How to Avoid It: If anything happened when you clicked the mouse button or pressed Enter, that qualifies as “something.” The response “nothing happened” does not mean “I don’t understand the message I got” or even “I ended up back where I was before.” To me, anyway, it means that you pushed the button and no pixel on the screen changed (which could happen, but typically doesn’t).

I can do my part for this, too—I try to avoid asking “What happened?”, instead saying, “Did [x] happen?” But sometimes I’m don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and sometimes I just forget.

1: “What program are you using?” / “Microsoft.” (or even worse, “Adobe”)
Microsoft is not a piece of software, or even a piece of hardware (nor is Adobe). It is a company. (It may be a software company, but that doesn’t help much; being a logical person, I would not need to ask to conclude that the software you’re using was made by a company that makes software.)

For the purposes of solving a problem, “Microsoft” is a word almost completely devoid of useful information. It could refer to one of probably over a hundred products. And plenty of those are liable to be used: Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, the Windows Live apps…the list goes on. And that’s not including the hardware: the Xbox, mice, Kinect…

Referring to your software as “Microsoft” is something like calling an auto supply store to request a part for your car and describing your car as a “Ford”.

How to Avoid It: “Microsoft” is never an acceptable name to refer to anything except the company itself. There is no piece of software called Microsoft, nor can I usually assume which Microsoft software you’re using. If you’re not sure what the software is actually called, please describe it (“I can type documents with it”) instead of calling it “Microsoft.”
And “Adobe” is even worse: we have Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Reader, Photoshop, InDesign…the same goes here.

0: “Are you hacking?”
This isn’t really about technical support, and it’s also number 7, but I get this question a lot. My typical internal response is, “Well, I will be hacking your head off if you keep asking me that.” (Of course, I never actually say that.)

The answer really depends on your definition of “hacking.” If you mean the typical popular culture definition of “breaking into computer systems,” then (generally ;-)) the answer is no. But in geek culture, hacking means a whole lot more: coming up with creative solutions to problems and the like. See here for the view of much of this community. * If you mean that, then frequently I am.

But nobody who asked me this question ever meant that, did they?

How to Avoid It: Suppose I came up to you and accused you of breaking the law because you were using a Mac instead of a PC. That’s roughly what it’s like to me when you ask me, “Are you hacking?” So please don’t do it. I’m just trying to work on my computer, and I happen to use different tools than most people do.


* If you notice, in order to avoid this ambiguity, I typically try to use the term “cracking” instead of “hacking” to mean attempts at defeating security systems.


Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Searching Google for Only a Specific Site

Ever been to a really poorly-designed website? I’ve certainly seen a few. And what’s worse than a poorly-designed website? A poorly-designed website without a search box.
Fortunately, you can get around this fairly easily using a surprisingly little-known trick on Google. Just start your query with site:www.confusing-site.com. (You must not put a space between the site: and the domain of the website, or it won’t work.) Try it out–here’s an example search.

This can also come in handy if the website does have a search box, but just doesn’t have a good one. I also use it routinely when I read a news article, then want to show it to someone else. If I know what site I found it on (say, Slashdot or the New York Times website), I can easily get back to the article by searching this way, whereas if I go to the site and try to browse for it, it’s likely to be buried or even completely gone if I go back a day later.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad

http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com

If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Google Web History, and Why You Might (or Might Not) Want To Turn It Off

If you’ve been anywhere on Google lately, you’ve probably noticed that their privacy policy is changing. But does that actually mean anything for you? Well, the thing they’ve been getting some complaints about is the way they can now tie your data across multiple services. So the information in your Web History could, for example, be used to decide what ads to show you in Gmail.

You probably didn’t even know Google had a web history feature. And it seems to be active for some people and not for others; in the couple of articles I’ve read so far, nobody seems to know what the criteria are. (Has it always been opt-in? Has it changed?) But if it is on, the the service is tracking all searches you make (and optionally, which results you click on) while you’re logged into your Google account. For many people, that’s a good percentage of the time they use their browser.

Now, before you start thinking Google is some crazy company keeping your data for who-knows-what, you do get something out of it. For one, you can go back and see what you searched for on any day in the past, which is actually a pretty cool way to look back, and on occasion it can help you remember what you were doing on a given day, if you need to figure it out. Also, if you know you’ve successfully searched for something in the past, but now don’t know what search terms you use and can’t find it anymore, you can probably figure out what your search terms were from the web history. Additionally, if you’ve enabled the more-powerful tracking options (these are opt-in), when you run a search you’ll see text underneath any results you’ve clicked on before, with the date you last accessed them through a search. This is really handy, because if you’ve been to a site before it makes it significantly more likely that you’ll be looking for it again. Google can also use the information to give you (supposedly) more relevant results.

Of course, having a history of all the searches you’ve ever performed might be unattractive to some. If that’s you, feel free to clear it out. But keep in mind that this won’t necessarily prevent Google from collecting some of this information about you anyway (see #2 on this CNET article). Especially with that in mind, I find that for me the benefits are worth the potential privacy risk. Personally, I never clear my history in either Google or my own browser, because I frequently want to go back and search where I was a couple of days ago. Someday this is probably going to come back and bite me when someone steals my browsing history, but that won’t be that big of a catastrophe, and I’m willing to take the risk for the convenience.

For the most part, I trust Google to keep my information. Someone has to deal with my email (okay, technically I could run my own mail server, but that’s not really practical for most people). In my opinion it might as well be Google. Some people decry the fact that Google “reads your email”—a computer scans the content of your messages to determine advertisements that might be related. That doesn’t, however, mean that anyone at Google is actually going to read the words in your email and get any meaning out of it, nor does it really scare me. There are plenty of much easier ways for someone to intercept the content of my email over the Internet, and I highly doubt that keeping an archive of the entire world’s email is one of Google’s goals. And in general, I trust Google enough to keep my information. I wouldn’t trust a random start-up company with my history or my email, nor would I trust Facebook. And in exchange for everything that Google offers me (search, email, YouTube, this blog, . . .), I’m perfectly willing to let them display targeted advertisements.

If you do want to turn off web history, either because of the slight protection from Google it might afford you, because you don’t want Google to “personalize” your experience by combining profiles about your web use across their services, or because you just don’t like all that information being easily accessible, it’s easy enough to turn off. Just keep in mind that that data is still out there and consider what you’re losing.
Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad
http://www.thetechnicalgeekery.com
If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.
Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.