Letter and Email Salutations and Greetings

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What's the best salutation to use when you're writing letters and emails? Starting a letter with the right tone is important in formal written or email correspondence, such as a cover letter or a thank-you note. That's why the greeting you use in this correspondence matters. For informal communications, your salutation can be less formal.

Familiarize yourself with common salutations to help you convey the right level of familiarity and respect in any professional situation.

Guidelines for Choosing Salutations

The salutation is the greeting at the beginning of a letter or email message. Since the salutation is the first thing a recruiter, hiring manager, or another business contact will see, it's important for the greeting to set a tone that is interpreted as appropriate by the recipient.

Appropriateness depends on:

  • How well you know the recipient
  • Whether you are sending a written or printed letter or an email
  • The type of letter you're sending

In general, the better you know the person and the more casual the correspondence, the less formal the salutation you can use.

Salutations in emails are typically less formal than those in written or printed letters. 

Formal Letter Salutations

Greetings (or Good Morning, Good Afternoon): Consider these options as a slightly more formal version of "Hello" and "Hi." They're appropriate for formal written or printed letters and emails to people you don't know (or only know on a casual basis). For example, consider using them when sending a newsletter to another department.

Dear: This salutation is appropriate for most types of formal written or email correspondence. You can use it whether you know the person or not and whether the letter's recipient is a supervisor or a business acquaintance. "Dear" is commonly used in cover letters, follow-up letters, and resignation letters to employers. Employers also use it in acceptance and rejection letters to job applicants.

To Whom It May Concern: This is used in formal written or email correspondence when you don't have a way of knowing the specific person to whom you are writing. You might use "To Whom It May Concern" when making an inquiry about a job you want to apply for or when applying for a job, but you don’t know the name of the person leading the candidate search.

Informal Letter Greetings

Hello: While a universal greeting, "Hello" is generally only appropriate in email correspondence. There too, it should only be used in casual correspondence with people with whom you have already established a professional relationship (an appreciation letter to a supervisor, for example).

Hi: This informal variation is only appropriate in the most casual email correspondence with people you know well. For example, consider using it in a thank-you note to a close coworker.

Make an effort to find the name of someone specific in the department that you are interested in contacting. (Try using a company website or LinkedIn to find a specific contact.) Using the person's name lends a personal touch to the message.

How to Follow a Salutation

After the opening term that conveys your familiarity with the person (such as "Dear"), include either the recipient's honorific and name (such as "Mrs. Hudson" or "Doctor Zhivago"), a name (first or first and last, such as "Abby" or "Peter Parker"), or a generic title ("Sir" or "Madam"), depending on your relationship with the recipient.

When You Know the Person Well

If you know the person well enough to be on a first-name basis (a current colleague or supervisor, for example), follow the salutation with their first name only ("Dear Jamison").

When You Don't Know the Person

If you don't know the person well, use Mr./Ms. Lastname, or Mr./Ms. Firstname Lastname. If your contact has a gender-neutral name (such as Taylor Brown) and you are unsure whether you are addressing a woman or a man, follow the opening term with the person's full name ("Dear Taylor Brown").

For a Potential Employer

For a potential employer or supervisor, always use Mr. or Ms. unless you have been specifically asked to use the person's first name.

Generic Greetings

The salutations "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern" may be construed as outdated by some, but it’s better to err on the side of conservatism when addressing correspondence within business relationships. It generally doesn't hurt to be overly formal, whereas your professionalism may be questioned if you choose a casual greeting.

Addressing Gender

You can use the appropriate gender title (such as "Sir" or "Madam") if you know the gender of the person but not their name. While you should always address your letters as specifically as possible, if you can't obtain the person's gender, you can use their first and last names: Dear Rory Smythe. Use "Dear Sir or Madam" as a last resort.

Addressing Multiple People

When addressing several people, the greetings and salutations above are still appropriate. However, you should include the names of all the recipients if there are three or fewer names.

You can write "Hi, Rick and Jen" or "Dear Mary, Bob, and Sue." But if there are more than three names or you prefer a group greeting, use "All" or "Team" after the name ("Hi, All" or "Dear Team").

Punctuating Salutations

At the end of the greeting, you should tack on either a comma or a colon. For example, all of the following are acceptable:

  • Dear Ms. Brown:
  • Dear Ms. Brown,
  • Dear Sarah:
  • Dear Sarah,

That said, the colon is the more formal option, making it suitable for both written and email correspondence. In contrast, the comma is a slightly more informal choice, making it more suitable for emails or casual written or printed letters.

The Balance/Melissa Ling

When to Switch to Less Formal Greetings

Keep in mind that certain opening terms that communicate a professional tone in your first correspondence can convey a stiff tone if used in subsequent messages, at which point you will know the person better.

Consider reserving formal terms such as "Dear" or "Greetings" for the first point of contact and then switching to more familiar greetings and salutations (such as “Hello again,”) in subsequent emails.

Likewise, change salutations as your relationship with a business contact deepens. For example, once a potential employer becomes a supervisor, you can transition from "Dear" to "Hello." And if your contact signs off with their first name and addresses you by your first name, you can reciprocate. 

Writing Effective Letters

A greeting is an important component of formal correspondence that draws the recipient in and sets a professional tone. However, there’s more to learn about writing business letters beyond which salutation to use.

Improving your overall business letter writing skills will help you craft a persuasive body of the letter so you can get that interview, send an appropriate thank-you letter, and ultimately win over business contacts. Referring to business letter samples can help you evaluate and perfect your letter writing skills.

Key Takeaways

  • The salutation sets the tone. Choose an appropriate one based on the mode of communication, how well you know the recipient, and what type of letter you're sending. 
  • Whenever possible, use the person's name. If you can't find out what it is, "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam" is appropriate. 
  • Over time, salutations can become less formal. As you correspond with someone, "Dear Mr. Smith" can shift to "Hi again, Bob." Follow the lead of the person you're communicating with. When in doubt, it's better to err on the side of being overly formal rather than too informal.