Skip to content

Email Etiquette Tips

Whereas ten years ago, sending and responding to email may have occupied only a few hours of our time per month, many people now spend a similar amount of time devoted to these tasks each day!

Coupled with the burden of legitimate email, spam can be a significant headache. Now representing the vast majority of emails sent worldwide, spam burns up bandwidth and is costly and time consuming to control. But spam is only one of a number of things I find frustrating about email — following is a collection of email etiquette tips that may help to minimise the others:

To, CC and BCC
We’ve all seen this and it is my pet hate. When sending email, if you absolutely must send the same email to a group of people, do not include everyone’s email address into the “To” or “CC” fields. I do not want my personal email address promoted to the world and this is what happens when it gets sent to people I don’t know or don’t want to know.

Even worse is when the limited few on your email list send a “reply all” and include their own email recipients — propagation of your email becomes exponential. This is a problem perpetuated by some of our medical organisations and local divisions of general practice, and seems to come in waves. Worse still is when my personal and private email address is used by people who send the latest email joke, or pass on a virus report (usually with the virus), or make a political statement to everyone in their address book. This is a cry for attention, not a public service.

Use the “BCC” field (but see below) and include your own email address in the “To” field, or better still, use a proper email list system designed for efficient group correspondence.

The “To” field should be only for those you are directly sending the email to. The “CC” field is only for those you indirectly wish to be included in the correspondence.

The “BCC” is seen in some quarters as being unethical and fraught with danger. What’s to stop a “BCC” recipient simply acknowledging receipt using “reply all” thereby telling the world “Hey I got this too”?

Email priority and the subject line
Make sure you put an appropriate heading in the subject line of your emails. Some spam filters block emails with blank subject lines, and it is difficult to sort email without them.

Another pet hate of mine is people who classify all their emails as urgent or put “READ THIS NOW” in bold. I usually ignore these.

Block letters
In email parlance, capitalising significant passages of an email is akin to shouting aggressively. Not good form.

Flames are simply verbal attacks that are usually, but not exclusively, associated with email lists and web forums. Think before you write. If someone writes something that really gets up your nose it may be better handled over the phone or simply ignored. The immediacy of email means that the heat of the moment can become a bushfire, destroying trust and relationships and preventing considered discourse.

Formatting and graphics
Emails can be sent as either simple text or in format rich HTML. People like to express themselves, and we all think we’re the world’s best designers, but do we really need email to confirm our identity?

Of course we never say never but is it always absolutely necessary to use six fonts in twelve different sizes and multiple colours to make our point? And adding graphics to your email to make it look like a book or including a background with your kids, dogs, bird or latest holiday snap is just too much. Save the fancy stuff for your personal website.

Public servants love acronyms. Ever been in a meeting with people talking about the GPRG or the RIPIC etc? My head spins. And BTW, FWIW and IMHO, TNSTAAFL so TIOLI, TTYL.

Use smilies and other character strings that are meant to represent emotions, sparingly. The fact that you think what you have just written is funny or sad doesn’t really interest me. 😀

Make your signature useful and secure
Ever had those “get back to me soon” emails, but you think a phone call is more appropriate but don’t have the number? I include my name and contact numbers on all emails where ongoing dialogue is needed.

And a word of warning: you probably shouldn’t include a scanned version of your signature in your emails. Some people might find it useful to access your bank account one day.

Keep attachments to a reasonable size
Just because you have the latest high-speed broadband technology, it doesn’t mean that your recipients enjoy the same access to the Internet. Many ISPs and mail systems are now quite generous when it comes to the size of the attachments they allow to pass through their systems (5-20MB or more), but this doesn’t mean you need to use it.

With this in mind, don’t send full sized photos of your holiday. While you’ve been slacking off, I’ve been working and don’t want to see them anyway! Reduce the size of those pictures using the software provided with your camera or operating system before emailing them.

Check the size of your attachments before sending – if they are large, check with the intended recipient before bombarding their inbox. Alternatively, consider using a free web service designed specifically to store documents for subsequent download by the intended recipients.

Unless, and sometimes even if, you use encryption the contents of your emails are not secure. Don’t send something to someone you wouldn’t like going further. Even if you do encrypt the email what guarantee have you that the recipient’s computer is electronically or physically secure? They may download the email, unscramble it, and then accidentally or mischievously forward it to someone else.

Don’t send personal emails using the office system or use your work email for lists or personal communications. Using your work email for personal correspondence means that at least part of every working day is spent replying to friends instead of working. Not only are organisations able to monitor email usage, but some consider that an email sent from work is an official company communication.

Be cautious with patient information
While the previous etiquette rules can probably be ignored without severe consequences eventuating, the same cannot be said for this tip — standard unencrypted email should not be used to send patient information to other health professionals.

All emails you send and receive are susceptible to being intercepted during their transmission throughout the Internet. While the chances of this happening to you is unlikely, email snooping is not a technically complex operation for a determined miscreant to perform, and more over, there is no way you will know that it is even happening.

Fortunately, there are a number of products and services dedicated to secure electronic messaging that will integrate with most modern clinical software packages. Speak to your clinical software vendor, the colleagues with whom you most frequently correspond, and your division, with a view to selecting and implementing one or more secure messaging solutions to reduce the amount of paper flowing in and out of your practice.

If you happen to receive an email correspondence containing potentially sensitive patient information from a colleague, congratulate them for taking steps to reduce the burden of paper, but then strongly advise them of the potential breaches of patient privacy that may result by their actions.

Author: Dr Paul Mara MBBS, FRACGP, FACRRM, Dip RACOG 
Dr Paul Mara is a practising rural doctor and managing director or Quality Practice Accreditation Pty Ltd

This article was first published in the May 2008 edition of Pulse+IT and is reproduced here with permission. To read more articles from Pulse+IT please visit

Subscribe to our weekly e-Bulletin.

Like to receive AFMW news direct to your email? Please enter your details below to join our list. Please note subscribing to our mailing list does not confer AFMW membership.

* indicates required