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Usage Tips

‘Dear,’ no dear, or ‘Hi’? How to address people in formal correspondence

Some of the following points are meant specifically for readers in India, based on my experience of the sort of mistakes they tend to make in choosing salutations.

For formal letters (non-electronic)

  • Dear Mr Taylor, or Dear Professor Sen (for someone you don’t know well, have a formal relationship with, or especially if they are your superior/senior in position or age).
  • You may use the first name and surname if you are not sure about a person’s gender: ‘Dear Ashley Peters.’ In that case, please do not use ‘Mr/Ms’ in front of the name.
  • In cover letters, if you do not know the name of the person to whom you are supposed to address the letter, you may use ‘Dear Sir/Madam.’ However, using ‘Dear Hiring Manager for the ABC position,’ ‘Dear members of the Hiring Committee’ or similar terms is rapidly becoming acceptable, and in fact preferred by many recruiters. [See notes below]
  • In British English, there is no period (full stop) after Mr or Ms, whereas in North American English, there is.
  • After ‘Dear X,’ put a comma if you are following British English and a colon if you are following the American format. Please do not put an exclamation mark there.

For e-mails:

  • Dear Mr Singh, or Dear Professor Davison, (for someone you don’t know well, have a formal relationship with, or especially if they are your superior/senior in position or age)
  •  Dear Manoj, or Dear John, (if you have a working relationship with the person)
  • It’s fine to use “Hi Rita”, “Hello Lin” or just the name followed by a comma (“Lin,”[or Mr X, if senior]) if you know the person well – writing “Dear Lin” to one of your team-mates or each time (for frequent correspondences through the day) sounds awkward!
  • Please do not use ‘good morning’ unless you are using a real time messaging system and you know that the recipient will be reading the e-mail in the next few minutes. In all other cases, please use the common salutations mentioned above.
  • If you are writing to a customer service unit or a business, requiring information on products or requesting service, please use a ‘Hi’ or ‘Hello’ instead of simply foregoing any sort of greetings. That’s impolite. Conversely, neither should you use ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ in such cases, which is too formal and unnecessary for these occasions.

Points to note:
1. Please do not use Mr/Ms/Mrs/Sri/Smt/Dr/Prof with one’s first name. Use surnames with titles[Dear Mr Rahul=X; Dear Mr Sharma=√]
2. Using ‘Respected Sir/Madam’ is not much common now, even in India. Please use it sparingly. We see even comments to posts in blogs and websites beginning with ‘Respected Sir.’ That’s awfully awkward and stiff. It lacks the simple but sincere cordiality of ‘Hi,’ a good option for electronic communication, and ‘Dear’ for non-electronic ones.
3. It is always strongly recommended that you address a covering letter (for a job application) to a named person. If the name is not mentioned in the advertisement, find it out. Search the company’s website or call them. Use ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ ONLY if you are totally unable to find the right person. Naming the person is an indication of your sincerity. It implies that you are not sending out generic mass mails, but have actually researched the position and the company. However, this is a matter of cultural difference as well. Recruiters in Western countries accept ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ more readily than ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ because they feel the latter indicates laziness. In India, ‘Sir/Madam’ is commonly accepted.

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