A salutation is the greeting in a letter. It’s how you address the recipient, and it sets the tone for the rest of the content in the message. In business these days, most correspondence is done through email. However, post mail is still used in some industries and with specific kinds of business documents. In either case, it’s important to use the correct salutation to show the recipient of the letter respect and to engage him at the beginning of the communication.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The proper salutation for business letters depends on the tone of the document, whether it's in print or email and the nature of the message that's being delivered.
How to Choose a Business Letter Greeting
Deciding which salutation to use in your business letter depends on a couple of factors. First, figure out the nature of the matter you’re discussing. Does it require a formal tone or an informal one? For example, applying for a job at a company is a formal business transaction and requires a business letter with a formal salutation. On the other hand, emailing a colleague about when to meet for lunch doesn’t require a formal salutation. Similarly, addressing a customer you haven’t spoken with before might require a more formal tone compared to speaking with a partner with whom you regularly do business.
Another factor to consider when deciding on the salutation to use is the tone of the whole message. The salutation is the first part of the business letter that your recipient reads, so it essentially sets the tone for the entire message. Carefully select your salutation based on the tone you want to convey throughout. In addition, the salutation you use will depend on what you know and don’t know about the recipient. Whether you know the person's name, gender, occupation and credentials plays a part in choosing the salutation.
Considering the Format of the Business Letter
The salutation you use may also depend on the format of your letter. For example, whether you’ll be sending your message via post mail or email may affect the kind of greeting you choose. In addition, the type of letter will also dictate the salutation you use. For example, a business proposal introductory letter sent by post mail may have a much more formal greeting than a company-wide memo sent to an internal list by email. You will also need to consider whether you’re sending your business letter to one person or to multiple people, as that will affect the greeting you choose.
Recipient of the Business Letter
Before you begin your business letter, find out to whom you’re sending the message. If you’re writing to an individual, it’s important to know his full name with the correct spelling. If the recipient has a gender-neutral name like Alex or Pat, calling the organization and finding out the gender may save you potential embarrassment in the future. If you aren’t aware of the person's gender, then you can drop the courtesy article in your greeting.
If your business letter is in response to a message the recipient has already sent, pay attention to how they signed their name. If their full name is Cassandra and they signed their letter "Cass," then you might be inclined to address her as "Cass." This will depend on the nature of your relationship and the document you’re writing. Don’t shorten someone’s name without first being invited to do so.
Using Gender-Specific Titles
In some cases, you may choose to use a gender-specific title as part of your greeting. “Mr.” is used for a man and precedes his last name – “Mr. Smith,” for example. For a married woman, use “Mrs.” before the last name. For an unmarried woman, you can use “Miss.” When writing to a woman without knowing her marital status, you can use "Ms.," as in "Ms. Smith."
Before deciding to use a gender-specific title, consider whether your language is inclusive. Some people may not identify as either male or female or may identify as the opposite gender. If you don’t know or are unsure of the situation, you may choose to leave out the gender-specific language entirely in your correspondence.
The most common formal salutation in business is “Dear.” You can use that salutation in a number of ways:
- Dear Mr. Smith
- Dear John/Jane
- Dear Ms./Mrs. Smith
- Dear John Smith
How you address the recipient’s name will depend on the formality of the business letter and your relationship with her. “Dear” can be used in both print and email business letters, as can the salutation “To.” “Hello” is another formal salutation. However, that is generally used in email rather than post mail.
Less-formal greetings can be used in business environments. However, whether or not they are acceptable will depend on the culture of the organization, the recipient of the letter and the nature of the message.
In organizations where there is no formal hierarchy or small businesses that only have a handful of employees who know each other well, there may not be any need for formal salutations. Generally, in internal correspondence with colleagues or partners with whom you are familiar, it’s acceptable to use “Hi John” or “Hey Jane,” especially when communicating over email.
Take note that even if the culture of the organization is informal, there may be some cases where a formal salutation is required, such as when speaking with a new customer or stakeholder or when applying for a job.
Salutations for an Unknown Recipient
Sometimes when writing a business letter, you may not know the name of the recipient. In this case, try to call the organization ahead of time to find out who may be looking at your business letter, and address your note accordingly. You can also check a company’s website to see if you can find out this information. If you are not able to find out the name of the recipient, you can address your business letter with generic salutations such as:
- Dear Sir or Madam
- To Whom it May Concern
- To the Hiring Manager
Salutations for Multiple Recipients
When dealing with multiple recipients of your business letter, tailor the salutation to include multiple names, such as writing “Dear Jane and John” or “To Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” If there are more than two names to list, you may choose to forgo the names altogether and use a generic greeting such as:
- Dear Team
- Hi All
- To the Human Resources Department
- Dear Blue-Sky Corporation
Guidelines for Specific Titles
A person’s occupation or education may require you to address them a certain way in your business greeting depending on the formality of the letter. Generally, this applies to members of the clergy, medical professionals, academics, military personnel and elected officials.
For example, if you’re writing to someone who has a medical degree, use “Dr.” before his last name, as in “Dr. Smith.” When writing to a professor, judge, rabbi, imam or pastor, write out the full title before his last name, like “Dear Pastor Smith.” When writing to members of the military, it’s appropriate to use their full rank and last name in the greeting, as in “Dear Lieutenant General Smith” or “Hello Captain Smith.”
Formatting a Salutation Within a Business Letter
When formatting your letter, you can add either a colon or a comma after your greeting. The colon is the more formal choice, while the comma is used for informal correspondence. The first paragraph of your letter starts after the salutation on the next line, for example:
Anam Ahmed is a Toronto-based writer and editor with over a decade of experience helping small businesses and entrepreneurs reach new heights. She has experience ghostwriting and editing business books, especially those in the "For Dummies" series, in addition to writing and editing web content for the brand. Anam works as a marketing strategist and copywriter, collaborating with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, lifestyle bloggers to professional athletes. As a small business owner herself, she is well-versed in what it takes to run and market a small business. Anam earned an M.A. from the University of Toronto and a B.A.H. from Queen's University. Learn more at www.anamahmed.ca.