I'm not sure whether it's gender-based or not, but it certainly seems that more men than women have trouble opening a business letter with the salutation "Dear _____."
In a recent writing class in Bellevue, Washington, several men admitted they couldn't force themselves to use "Dear" to address a business acquaintance, especially one they didn't like. (I'm sure this situation has nothing to do with Bellevue, which seems to be a perfectly pleasant city. Also, I have gotten the same admissions in Tacoma and Seattle.)
These men would rather begin a business letter with no salutation at all, or simply with the addressee's name, as in:
But the salutation "Dear ____" isn't like the word Darling. It's a business convention—the way we open a business letter, even if we don't like the person. Similarly, "Sincerely yours" is the convention we use to close a letter, even for someone we have never met and to whom we definitely do not belong.
I like these civilized, courteous conventions, and I recommend following them, just as I recommend thanking people for their letters of complaint. After all, when we call someone "Dear" or say thank you, how can we not write them a courteous, reasonable letter?
A participant in the recent Bellevue class said, "But what if the person stole from us, and I am writing to end the business relationship—how can I possibly call that person Dear?"
Excellent question—I wish I had an ideal answer. But what is the alternative? The other four-letter words that come to mind for a business cheat simply don't fit a professional communication.
I recommend "Dear." Using it, we are much more likely to resist being obnoxious, unfeeling, or confrontational in our message. That "Dear" may even help us see the other person's point of view. (We are all dear to someone, aren't we?)
Yes, I have to call you "Dear"—and it's my pleasure.