When you start writing an email in English, the first thing that you have to decide is how to greet the person you are emailing. Years ago, we were taught to write ‘Dear Sirs’, or ‘Dear Sirs/Madam’, but this is like sending a telefax in a time of emails and messenger apps. Here are some things to consider:
Who are you writing to?
Choosing the right greeting does depend on the person you are addressing, their position, and even the industry. While more informal greetings are more common in some industries, such as the software and tech industry, you might want to be slightly more formal when writing to someone in academia or the legal profession.
What if you don’t know their name?
This is always tricky. It used to be that we would write ‘To whom it may concern’, but this is dreadfully old-fashioned and very impersonal. Take the time to try and find the name of the person you’ll be dealing with. Even if you get it wrong, they’ll pass you on to the person responsible. If you are writing to apply for a job then this is particularly important. Look at the company website to see if they list the recruitment manager or head of HR. You can also check on Xing or LinkedIn to find the appropriate person to address.
A way to get out of this is to use ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’. It is more polite than ‘Dear Sales Team’, or ‘Dear Company’.
Do you use just their first name?
Generally, people are slightly less formal in English than in German. Obviously, a huge part of that is due to us not having a formal ‘Sie’ form. Everyone is just ‘you’, so that’s one level of formality less.
At the same time, just jumping in with their first name may be seen as slightly rude. A good way of getting around this is to use the more formal ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ when you first contact someone, and once they’ve gotten back to you and signed off with their first name, you can switch to their using their given name.
Avoid if the person you are contacting is a bit pompous and self-important!
Oh, and one more thing – Don’t use a nickname unless the person uses it themselves. Calling someone ‘Susie’ when their name is ‘Susanne’ is not the way to make friends.
Mrs, Miss or Ms?
Traditionally, women were addressed as Miss when they were unmarried, and Mrs once they married. This has become increasingly unfashionable. Many women prefer to use the prefix ‘Ms’, which doesn’t give reference to their marital status (which is obviously irrelevant!) Some women still use ‘Mrs’, but I tend to use ‘Ms’ when I’m first contacting someone.
How about titles?
Brits and Americans tend not to use their titles as much as Germans unless it’s directly relevant to their qualifications for the position or job. A doctor of medicine will most likely use their title but someone with a doctorate in another field might not. They may or may not wish to be referred to using their title. I’d play it safe here, and use the title for the first contact.
Always use a comma at the end of the greeting. ‘Dear Samuel, … ‘. Under no circumstances use an exclamation mark.
Ok, so which greeting is best? Here are my opinions, going from best to worst.
Dear Ms/Mr [Last Name],
Classic. Unremarkable. It’s the Hefekuchen of greetings. Not particularly exciting but liked by almost everyone. Some might find this slightly too formal, but no one is going to be offended. As mentioned above, you can switch to Dear [First Name] later.
Hi / Hello [First Name],
More modern and friendly, especially in certain industries or fields, such as media or tech. Don’t use ‘Hallo’ – it’s not a common spelling of the word and looks very Denglish. You can, of course, use title and last name here: Hello [Title] [Last Name].
Good Morning / Good Afternoon,
I tend to use this if I don’t know the name of the person I’m writing to. I realise that it may not be morning when they open their email, particularly if they are in a different timezone but I still think it’s better than ‘To whom this may concern’!
Dear [Job Title or Department]
If you can, take a few minutes to search the website or LinkedIn to find the person with the job title, rather than using this. Especially if you are writing to pitch them – it gives the impression that you are sending out a generic email to lots of companies. If you are looking for work, this is a bad impression to give!
Mr/Ms [Last Name],
These are just horrible. Don’t just start an email with the name of the person. It sounds really rude and abrupt. Like you are shouting across the office.
This is a total no-go. Just don’t. Unless you are a skateboarding geek looking to buy new gear.
Are you an 89-year-old professor, writing from his country home in Oxfordshire? No? Then avoid this one.
To Whom it May Concern,
You are either stuck in the 1950s or you really don’t want your business partner to get a good first impression.