The greeting “Dear Sir or Madam” sounds like a formal way to begin a business letter or business email. Though, in today’s business world, the use of this salutation or greeting is considered poor business etiquette. This is considered such poor business etiquette because information regarding the name of the recipient, for emails or letters, is readily available. And the use of the term implies the specific person in mind for the letter’s receipt is unknown (their name, job title, gender, marital status, and more).
The secondary reason that “Dear Sir or Madam” is an inappropriate method of starting a business letter is that it falsely assumes a preferred gender. And “To Whom It May Concern” becomes a poor alternative, where gender intent may be alleviated from the greeting, but lacks personalization.
A salutation is a letter greeting used to open the communication between an author and a reader. The most common salutation in the English language is the term “Dear,” followed by the recipient’s given name (birth name) or title. In the United States, variations of this greeting include “Dear Sirs.” While the British usage of the term stays “Dear Sir or Madam.” But in both the UK and The United States, this greeting is considered borderline offensive and sexist (because it’s unclear whether the writer addresses a man or a woman). Variations of the term may include “Dear Sir/Madam,” “Dear Sirs and Madam,” “Dear Madam,” “Dear Madame,” or “Dear Sirs.”
Writing a Formal Salutation
An informal salutation is using a slang term or informal term within the greeting. For example, “Dear Ladies” or “Hey there!” are both informal greetings. These greetings would be used in a personal letter or letter to a friend, family member, or close contact. A formal salutation can be found on a cover letter, business letter, legal letter, recommendation letter, job application, or reference letter. The letter is intended to be authored for a new contact, where a formal tone to the writing indicates respect on behalf of the writer. The proper (or “right way”) to start the letter would be, “Dear Mr. Johnson” or “Dear [Mr./Mrs. Last Name]”.
In all scenarios, addressing the reader and person by their name is considered formal letter writing and proper business etiquette. When writing a cover letter salutation, it’s best to address the hiring manager by their name. This information is usually available through LinkedIn or other company “About” pages. In that instance, “Dear Mr. Johnson” would be a more appropriate greeting.
The use of “Mr.” and “Mrs.” is the utilization of a surname. By using a surname in business emails, business letters, or formal correspondence— proper business etiquette is achieved.
When a specific person or name of the contact person is unavailable, there are always better alternatives than using “Dear Sir/Madam” as the greeting. Using the cover letter example, starting the letter with “Dear Hiring Manager” is more appropriate and is a more effective cover letter greeting than “Dear/Sir Madam.”
Colon or Comma After the Greeting
When writing a formal letter, there are three options for the punctuation to use after the salutation: a colon, a comma, and an em dash. The use of a comma is most common in the English language. It looks like this:
Dear Mr. Smith,
While the colon looks like this:
Dear Mr. Smith:
Both are acceptable forms of separating the greeting from the initial paragraph or opening paragraph in the business letter, cover letter, or another formal letter. Improper use of the separator can be considered a small formality but a key indicator for the reader. For example, in a job application, this may indicate to the reader that the author has poor verbal writing skills. Use either the comma or semicolon when deciding between punctuation separators.
Dear Sir/Madam Alternatives
Alternatives to this term include using a department when addressing a company and when a general salutation is required (no available name or contact information of the letter recipient). For example:
- Dear Sales Team
- Dear Engineering Team
- Dear Legal Team
- Dear First Name
Addressing the department is one way to keep a formal greeting intact. Another method is to use the job title of the recipient as the personalization. For example, the following are perfect for a cover letter.
Cover letter alternatives
- Dear Hiring Manager
- Dear VP of Product
- Dear VP of Sales
- Dear CEO
- Dear Customer Service Team
- Dear Recruiter
In the event the author has the recipient’s contact information, there are options to use the surname or exclude the surname. For example:
- Dear John Smith
- Dear Mr. Smith
- Dear Roxanne Brooks
- Dear Mrs. Brooks
- Dear Ms. Brooks
Avoiding using a surname can be beneficial when addressing a woman or lady, considering it shows respect for their marital status. It can be wrong to falsely assume, as the writer, the marital status of the reader. If the letter is being authored for a woman, it is best to avoid using a surname.
Avoid informal alternatives to the greeting. For example, “Dear Gentlemen,” “Dear Ladies,” “Hi There,” or “Hi Team.” While these sounds more enticing, they are informal and improper to use in a business conversation.
Is there an appropriate use for “Dear Sir or Madam”? No. Avoid using this greeting as an author.
How to Use Dear Sir or Madam Correctly
If you must use “Dear Sir or Madam” here is how to correctly use it. Many people use “Dear Sir or Madam” and “To Whom It May Concern” interchangeably. It’s not advised to use those at all. Though, if you have to. Here is the only place where it’s appropriate to use the term.
Ideally, when sending an email to a company email address on behalf of another business. Where the receiver of the email will route the message to the correct party.
If you know the name of the party. Or have some idea who might know their name, it’s best to reach out to that person rather than using the salutation. You can even say, “Dear Company Name.”
Again, if you can avoid using the greeting, great. It might not leave a lasting positive impression upon the recipient. In situations where the recipient does not know the sender, they might assume it’s a stranger. And dismiss the email entirely. This goes for job applicants who try to use the salutation for their cover letters.
More Alternatives to Common Phrases
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