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When Sending Email – Be Careful Who You Put First In the TO: Line – Order Matters!

Posted by Keith Elder | Posted in Internet | Posted on 01-11-2007

Have you ever sent an email to several people at work and for whatever reason you forgot to put someone in the TO: field initially?  Instead of putting them at the front of the TO: field in your email email you added them to the end of the TO: field.  Depending on various circumstances what do you think you just said to that person subliminally?  I think the order you place people in your TO: list dictates their importance in the conversation, how serious they should take your email and if a response to it is in order.  Do you think about this or am I just weird?  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Work Example #1

Let’s use a work example to start with since a lot of us that do email spend most of our time emailing people at work.  Let’s say we need to communicate something to people at work.  Let’s start with this list:

  • A & B are 2 team members
  • C – Your team leader
  • D –  Company CIO

The email is about A & B (your team members) who completed a task recently and who both did an outstanding job.  For the record, B did more work than A on the task.  What order do you go with?  The order A, B, C, D doesn’t make sense because you are emailing about A & B.  They would go onto the CC: line since you would want them to know you are emailing to brag on them to leadership. 

In the TO: line do you put D first or C?  In this case I think you could go with D or C first but the safest bet is to go with D then C and place A & B on the CC: line.  D out ranks C and it is safer to just order them in that manner since they have an implicit ranking.  Be careful on the CC: line though and be sure to order A & B properly based on the amount of work they did.  If B did more work than A, then B should be first on the CC: line indicating he was thought of first in your mind. 

Looking at the email when received by D, I think subliminally D looks at the order on the CC: line and makes a mental note of the order without thinking about it, but somehow remembers that B did more work than A on the task. 

Work Example #2

Let’s say you are composing an email to your team members and there are 10 people on the email.  Who do you put first?  Do you put people in order of rank or do you place them in order of their personal priority on the email.  For example if person #10 is really on the email just an FYI, would you put them first?  Probably not.  You’d put the person that needed to take action the quickest first and then order it from there based on everyone’s priority (still considering rank). 

An optional approach in this scenario is if #10 is really on the email as an FYI move them down to the CC: line.  However, if you really want #10 to read the email and possibly respond or take action quicker, leave them on the TO: line.

While this may sound weird to some I think the order and where you place people on email matters.  Think of it this way.  If you had everyone sitting in your office and were speaking your email to the group instead of writing it, would you or would you not direct your conversation to certain people more than others?   Absolutely.  I think the same thing applies to email.

There’s two quick examples where order can matter and why it matters.  The next time you send an email be sure to think about where you are placing people.  Not only does it tell them how they maybe should respond it also tells them how seriously they should take your communication in a lot of cases.   If you can think of some other examples where this is applicable add your comments below.

Comments (6)

To be honest, in certain scenarios, I do quickly add names in some order of “importance” when I send an e-mail. Though, when I read e-mails, I don’t pay attention to the order of the names only the location (to, cc, bcc). Hmm… If I don’t care when I read e-mails, why am I putting any effort at all into the order of names when I send e-mails?

Alphabetic order is the only solution. I’m going to have to also agree with Dave. I don’t really read anything into the order of the To line when I receive an email (though I suppose I’ll have to start paying attention to the order in the emails you send). In the long run, a mail server could potentially change this order (I don’t know why it would but it could happen) which would make assuming anything about the order irrelevent.

The point here guys and the question I asked in the beginning was this:

“Depending on various circumstances what do you think you just said to that person subliminally?”

It isn’t about if someone analyzes this, that would be so anal retentive you are right Dave (#2) that person would find more things wrong than just the order.

The question is do we subliminally look at this and then do we subliminally form an order in our heads when we send emails. I know we do, it is just our human nature. Don’t believe me? Watch who and how you start to address your emails over the next several weeks and see if you just randomly throw people into your emails or if you order them in some fashion.

Let me give you an analogy if I can. Say you are preparing your resume and you have 10 years of experience with Windows, 5 with Linux, 3 with Mac OS X, and 1 with OS/2.

When you list the operating systems on your resume how many people are going to list OS/2 first? The answer, out of 100 people building their resume, 0 will do this. I’ve read enough resumes to know that the order people place information on their resume is really ordered by experience. And, if you don’t think those of us that read resumes don’t look at that order you are just wrong. The only time when the order doesn’t make sense is if for example this person with 1 year OS/2 experience is interviewing for a job that requires OS/2, he or she may move that item and shuffle the order so the person reading the resume doesn’t miss it. This happens folks in real life and people make different resumes for different positions. The interviewer’s job is to figure out which one he got.

The same thing can be said for sending email. We order it whether we want to or not, I am just pointing out the obvious.


Captain Obvious

I have to agree with Dave, I don’t have time to try to figure out if I should be offended by the order in which I appear in the To field. As for CC, I am not even sure what that is… is this something unique to your email client? 😉

Very few people are going to read this much into email headers. Someone that does analyze trivial details to this level will probably find a dozen other things you did “wrong” anyway.

Not to mention, the time wasted would add up quickly.

I tihnk your putting to much emphasis on a miniscule detail. I’d imagine that most people don’t spend to much time examnining the to/cc lines i an email.

I’d like to point out that this is a very subjective case however. For instance, in your abcd example, i would agree stick A&B on the cc line, but i would be C before D to observe proper chain of command.

Also, if you have sent an email that requires immediate attention, chances are the people are going to implicitly know what to do and how to acknowledge it based on the contents. I can’t say I know of anyone who does’nt read an email that pertains to them just because they are CC’ed or the last person on the list. What if the sender order the people alphebetically?

Just my thoughts 🙂

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