There’s No Excuse for Dear Sir or Madam

Update on April 4, 2013

When I wrote this post in 2009, I was reacting to the sales messages and email requests I was receiving that were addressed to "Dear Sir or Madam." That greeting instantly told me that the writers were strangers who did not care enough about their communication with me to find out my name or my gender.

If you have landed on this page because you want to know whether it is acceptable to use "Dear Sir or Madam" as a greeting in a message to a stranger, when you cannot learn the person's name and gender, the answer is yes. It is acceptable. But do read the discussion below. You may decide to use other ways to greet your unknown reader.

Peace,

Lynn

**************************************************************************

In the unsolicited email I get, every day brings more messages that begin "Dear Sir or Madam." But these days there is no excuse for that greeting. Anyone who wants to write to me can easily learn whether I am a sir or a madam. They can also track down my name. If they really want to succeed with me, they can read this blog and my website to learn about my preferences, personality, and possible needs.

That's why I feel comfortable deleting every message that begins "Dear Sir or Madam" without a second thought for the writer or the message.

Does anyone read email that begins that way? Do you?

Lynn
Syntax Training

62 COMMENTS

  1. Lynn,

    I see your point but does this also carry over to letters or other ‘out of the blue’ hard copy written communication?

    I tell my students that such a greeting is ok when they are writing a claim letter or something to an anonymous someone in the bowels of a company.

    Is this greeting ok in those circumstances? Thanks!

  2. Hi, McClain. Thanks for your great question. I was thinking specifically of email when I wrote my complaint.

    You are right that “Dear Sir or Madam” is acceptable in business letters to unnamed individuals. I myself prefer using a job title when I can, for example, “Dear Claims Professional.”

    Lynn

  3. I guess I don’t automatically delete emails with something similar to “Dear Sir or Madam,” although I am looking for ways to cut down on time spent in email.

    Hey, just about any reason I can find to improve productivity makes me happy!

  4. Thanks, Lynne. And thanks again for all your great work. I gain a lot from following your blog and newsletters.

  5. One point I’d raise is that it isn’t always possible to determine gender from a name. I’ve known Jean’s and Lynn’s and Loren’s of both sexes, for example. And the issue is even more troublesome with foreign names: Asa? Li?

    I suspect that some writers to whom English isn’t native are less comfortable with the personal approach of “Dear Lynn Gaertner-Johnston,” believing that “Dear Sir or Madam” is more respectful.

    Which is to say that I don’t automatically delete such emails; I usually judge by the first sentence instead. 🙂

  6. In my opinion, to make such a sweeping comment as “that is why I am comfortable deleting every message…” does not reveal an entrepreneurial and opportunistic spirit that is essential to the successful small-businessperson. You might be missing all kinds of new opportunities and ideas based on this arbitrary rule that you have created for yourself. I would rather think that, well, sometimes there are such excuses for such impersonal greetings, take my ego out of the picture, and look for potential value in the content that has been presented to me “free of charge.” As I am not a claims professional, I hardly ever get such emails in the first place, but I do use the salutation when shooting off blind emails to such professionals–to me, “Dear Sir or Madam” actually sounds less impersonal than “Dear Claims Professional.”

    Basically, rather than create set-in-stone rules, I would simply suggest that you ask yourself why you use email in a business setting in the first place and then act in a manner that that is consistent with achieving that goal. If I may ask, what is the goal of the rule? Is it to punish the apparent offenders?

    This approach, based on addressing reasons (not actions), gets to the heart of the issues that are key to successful strategic business communications–asking yourself why you are communicating in the first place, asking yourself who you are communicating with, and asking yourself what you want the audience to do following the effort to communicate a specific message.

  7. Hi, Lester. Thanks for voicing your opinion.

    I agree that many names do not indicate gender. But if people are sending me an email, they are on the Internet. If they are on the Internet, they can find me on my website and blog. I believe it is obvious from my photo that I am a woman, but I am open to suggestions about changing my photo if it is not obvious.

    If people have the opportunity to find out who I am, won’t they do so if their message is more than spam? They will not use “Dear Sir or Madam.”

    Thoughts?

    Lynn

  8. Hi, JiminJapan. You are right. We all need to have our own approach to email in our businesses. Mine is to not spend my limited time on reading spam. I consider spam any message that was not sent to me but rather to a huge group of “Dear Sirs and Madams.”

    By deleting spam instead of taking time to read it, I have more time to do productive work that helps my clients and myself.

    My intent is not to punish anyone. It is to be effective at my work by not using up time with messages that are not really intended for me.

    Thanks for bringing up “Dear Claims Professional,” which I mentioned in response to McClain’s question. I might use that greeting in a business letter rather than “Dear Sir or Madam” to focus the greeting a bit. I would not use it in email.

    I like your suggestions in your final paragraph. If people would follow them, they would not send me impersonal broadcast messages.

    Best wishes,

    Lynn

  9. In response to Lynn, Re: Lester’s comment, I would say that’s true – for you Lynn. If I search your name I will indeed see your photograph but that’s not the case with everyone. I’d guess that most people I’ll be emailing soon about graduate school information and admission do not, in fact, have a photo posted on the web.

    Also, admissions boards consist of mixed genders so anyone could be reading my message. In this case, where I am writing a personal letter and I intend to impress my audience, do you recommend I use “Dear Sir or Madam” as a salutation? I’d appreciate any suggestions you have – thanks!

  10. Dear S Freeman,

    Thanks for your practical question. If you are writing to people whose name you have or can track down, the best way to impress your audience is to find out how to address them. Taking the extra step to get it right would be very impressive.

    For example, if you are applying to a certain university, check the website to find the name of the director of admissions, and email that person if you can.

    If you are writing to an admissions department or board and cannot find a person’s name, I recommend “Dear Admissions” Or “Dear Admissions Board” over “Dear Sir or Madam.”

    Whenever you are communicating, the goal is to be less impersonal and more focused on your readers.

    Good luck with graduate school!

    Lynn

  11. I am not a fan of the greeting, “Dear Sir or Madam,” but I realize this is just my personal preference. The greeting I dislike even more, however, is “Dear Sirs,” especially when I am the hiring manager receiving the cover letter and job application! In my opinion, there is no situation in which, “Dear Sirs,” is acceptable.

  12. That is an arrogant and haughty statement. Granted, if the individual knows that you are a female then there is no excuse. But there are males out there with the name Lynn. Now, Samantha, Julie, or Rebecca, I can say with a certainty that they are women, but Lynn can be construed as being a male as well.

  13. Lynn, I am not sure which statement you find “arrogant and haughty.” I don’t see anything in this post or its comments that I would characterize that way.

    Yes, both men and women are named Lynn. But when people write to me, I hope they can see I am a woman.

    Lynn

  14. What about if you are answering an ad for a job on craigslist or another site that does not provide a company name, nor a phone number. You are actually answering via the job listing site, therefore therei s no way to know nor find out. Is there something better than “Dear Sir or Madam” that you can suggest for better results?

    Jennifer

  15. Dear Lynn 🙂

    What is an appropriate opening for a business style “out of the office” reply?

    Is it a good practice to use “Dear sir, madam”? And should “sir” and “madam” be capitalized? Is it better to say “sir or madam”? And as a last question, is “madam or sir” weird to use (formally seen, I think so).

    I ask this question on behalf of a friend who actually send me the “Dear Sirs” version in her automated reply 🙂

    Henk

  16. Henk, for an out-of-office email response, I do not believe a greeting is necessary. Why not simply begin with the message?

    In “Dear Sir” both words are capitalized. If you chose “Dear Sir or Madam,” you would capitalize the key words, as I have done.

    If you think your friend is open to suggestions about her business writing, why not talk with her about her “Dear Sirs” opening?

    Lynn

  17. Hello Lynn
    I am a PA and often send letters from my boss as an attachment to the people they are addressed to. On the covering email, when the letters are addressed to more than one person, can I use “Dear Gentlemen, please find attached…..”
    Paola

  18. Any time I have the option to use “Dear Sir or Madam”, I am writing to an entity that strives to be anonymous. People who don’t like it shouldn’t be anonymous.

  19. Hello, Paola. I believe I sent a private email to you, but here is a public response.

    First, I recommend you avoid “Please find attached.” Type “please find attached” in the search box on this site, and you will be able to read why I recommend avoiding that phrase.

    Second, a greeting with “Dear” should not be connected to the first sentence. The greeting needs to stand on its own.

    Finally, “Dear Gentlemen” can be problematical. It requires that all readers be men. It also sounds very formal.

    Why not consider a greeting such as “Dear Colleagues” or “Greetings, Colleagues”?

    Good luck with your email openings.

    Lynn

  20. Whatever happened to the old fashioned simplified format cover letter?

    Before computer searches, the person would put Subject: in place of the salutation.

  21. Lynn,

    I completely understand your point of view here, but let me just say that sometimes when a position is offered online the company uses their name as an email address, so when we apply for the job we don’t have a clue who’s going to read it. So I guess in that case it’s okay to start with Dear Sir/Madam. Don’t you think?

    Dóra

  22. Hi, Dóra. I would not use “Dear Sir/Madam.” I would use one of these openings:

    Dear Hiring Manager:
    Dear Recruiter:
    Dear Applicant Screener:
    Dear [company name] Representative:

    Although I do not recommend the greeting you asked about, if you intend to use it, leave out the slash, like this:

    Dear Sir or Madam:

    Lynn

  23. hi lynn,
    i send mails to many in my office time which contains official matter, i do not want to write dear sir or madam more then 5 time, suggest me some appropriates.

    Prince

  24. hi lynn,

    Thank you lynn.

    If i send mail to unknown person with whom i can only connected due to professional/office work, but i do not know him personally or out of office relation , then can i use “personal hiring”

  25. No, you cannot use “Personal Hiring” in the greeting.

    I would like to suggest a greeting for you, but I do not understand the situation you describe.

    Please read my comment to Dóra above. It may be helpful.

    Lynn

  26. Hello Lynn,

    The person writing under the name of “cool” is apparently not a native English speaker, because he has reversed the order of the noun and the adjective in “personal hiring” from the way we say it in English and he has used the word “personal” instead of “personnel” as one would do in Spanish and a few other Romance languages. I think that what cool meant to ask is if he may use the salutation “Hiring Personnel.”

    It is probably worth noting too that in Spanish, only the first word in the salutation gets capitalized; therefore, cool should be aware that his question should have been if he may use the salutation “Hiring Personnel,” with both words capitalized.

    Since the question was addressed to you, not me, I’ll let you take it from there.

  27. But I’m still not sure if I should begin my email to the US Consular Agency here in Spain as “Dear Consular Agency,” because I don’t know who within the agency will handle my email.

  28. Hi, Bruce. Thank you for helping me understand Cool’s question. I appreciate your sharing your linguistic expertise.

    Regarding the consular agency, why not call the agency and ask to whom to send your inquiry? Although you are not likely to get a name, you may learn the title of the people who might help you.

    I suppose an alternative is “Dear Consular Agency Staff.”

    Lynn

  29. Hello Lynn,

    I’m a student and need some advice. I need to write an e-mail to several senior professors and lectures at my university. The recipients of the e-mail are of both sexes. How can I properly address them? My first instinct was to say: Dear Sirs,.

    Any help will be greatly appreciated.

    Francesco

  30. Hello, Francesco. When you say “several,” I think of a small number. You might try something like this:

    Dear Messrs. Duncan, Crouch, and Falcon and Mses. March and Davis,

    OR

    Dear Professors and Lecturers,

    OR

    Send them individual messages.

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  31. Hello Lynn,

    At a slightly different angle to this, how do you feel about the convention that Sir comes before Madam in the salutation rather than presented in their alphabetical order and as “Dear Madam or Sir”? I tend to feel that there is no good reason for this tradition.

    Michael

  32. Hi, Michael. Thanks for your interesting question.

    Well, it’s a tradition, as you noted, just like “Mr. and Mrs.” Originally such greetings were “Dear Sir” or “Dear Sirs.” Then “or Madam” was added so that language would match business realities.

    I don’t actually have any feeling about the order.

    Lynn

  33. As a female, I would never like to be referred to as a “Madam.” Nor do I like “Dear Ms. XXX” If you are addressing someone in a cover letter and absolutely can not obtain the name (and gender) of the person you are sending it to, then I suggest you leave the “Dear”line out all together. Instead just use an Attention line with the perons job title (this you can find out regardless of company policy). Yes some of you may think this is rather impersonal, but still, I’d rather not be considered a woman who has a history as a manager of a whore house!

  34. Dear Lynn, in some countries the tradition says to stard greeting female first, for example german “Seer Geehrte Damen und Herren” or czech “Dámy a pánové”. How do you feel about swapping the order in this content? Is the order same for all english speaking countries or is there a difference for exammple between US and UK

  35. Interesting question, John.

    I cannot speak with expertise about greetings in the United Kingdom. However, I can tell you that in the United States “Dear Sir or Madam” is more common than “Dear Madam or Sir.” Both are correct.

    Lynn

  36. Hello Lynn, Thanks a lot for sharing your opinion and thoughts. How can I contact unknown martial status females like married or still a girl, I think we can’t just call any female Madam if we don’t know her martial status, also calling a girl with Madam is kind of rude to her, also some countries can’t say “Dear Lynn” as it seem to be more sexual if the sender is a male.
    1. What do you suggest if I know the name but don’t know the Martial statues and can’t say “Dear xxxx”?
    2. What do you suggest if I don’t know both name or gender?

    Abdelrahman

  37. Hello, Abdelrahman. In the United States, the default courtesy title for a woman is “Ms.” By default, I mean the one we choose if we do not know whether the woman prefers “Miss” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”

    If you do not know the name and the gender, why not use a category title such as “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Customer Service Agent”?

    Lynn

  38. WOW, that is REALLY arrogant and by far not helpful to those individuals who are looking for an approbiate answer from a native tongue.

  39. Hi Lynn,

    During the initial days of my work with my undergraduate project mentor I mailed him using the salutation Dear Prof. John Doe. As time went on he never asked me to call him with his first name, so I have been mailing him with the salutation Dear Sir ever since.

    Can you tell me if it is ok to use Dear Sir in this case?

  40. ‘Dear Sirs’ is a formal structure of letter writing and is entirely appropriate as a generalised (non gender specific) salutation when writing to multiple persons who you don’t know, such as when writing to a company. Those who might take offense do so because they don’t understand this. The closing salutation which formally accompanies it is ‘Yours faithfully’.

  41. Maibinrai, you are correct that “Dear Sirs” was a general greeting in years past. But that was when men were in virtually all management positions. These days the use of “Dear Sirs” can come across as thoughtless or even offensive to women, who often read the messages that begin “Dear Sirs.”

    Do you have a current style manual that suggests using “Dear Sirs”?

    Lynn

  42. Hello, Rahul. If you can have a conversation with your mentor, I suggest asking him how he prefers to be addressed. Not knowing his preference, I would call him “Dear Professor Doe.”

    My style manuals do not suggest addressing someone you know as “Dear Sir.”

    Lynn

  43. Hi Lynn,

    Just applying for some jobs, but I’m trying to forward my cover letter as :

    Dear Sir / Dear Madam, is it ok? a professional told me its ok as long as they don’t provide the name in the job announcement.

    Thanks

  44. Hi Lynn,

    I used to email my manager by his first name, but one day he told me I don’t like the way you email me. since then I call him Sir.

    Is it unprofessional to call my superior by his name. please note that I am not from a Native English background.

    Thanks.

  45. Hello, Charitha. It is always a good idea to address people the way they prefer to be addressed. Perhaps your manager wanted to be addressed by his last name, as in “Dear Mr. Tang” or “Hello, Mr. Tang.”

    I recommend that you ask people about their preference when you begin writing to them. You might write “Would you prefer that I address you by your first name or your last name?”

    Good luck!

    Lynn

  46. Hello, lynn. Sometimes i wonder whether the statement “Dear sir” or “Dear madam” is correct. Can these both words fit together. “Dear” being an informal word used with a formal word “sir”.
    I usually start a letter as “Sir” instead of “Dear “Sir”. I shared my thoughts with my friend and he advised me to use “Respected Sir”. But even his sentence was not a match. Because the word “Sir” is itself an honouring and respecting, so why use “Respecting” twice.
    And finally i came across this page and wanted to know whether i am right or as to what should be used.

  47. Hello, Vishal. It is not correct to begin a letter “Sir” or “Respected Sir” (without “Dear”) in the United States. I cannot say whether it is correct in other countries.

    Please review my post and the comments above for more details.

    If you do use “Dear Sir” or “Hello, Lynn,” be sure to capitalize the word “Sir” or the individual’s name.

    Lynn

  48. Hi Lynn,

    I am not sure if you still monitor this entry, but I h ave a question for you.

    I am in the process of writing an Auto Reply letter acknowledging the receipt of an email to a specific individual. I was going to start it by saying Dear Sir or Madam, but that didn’t seem right. Hence I ended up here.

    The message is just an Auto Reply to anyone that send an email to a distribution group, so I have no way of knowing if it is a Male or Female. But I want it to be polite and respectful. If I do not use Dear Dir or Madam, how should I address it?

    No honorary at all? Just thanks for writing and we will get back to you in 24 hours?

  49. Dear Lynn,
    I’m currently applying for Jobs and, quite often, when I call to get the name of the manager, they refuse to give me the name and recommended me to use Dear Sir or Madam. They say they don’t want the manager to be bothered by inappropriate phone calls or emails.
    Also, I tried to write cover letters as much as possible, but sometimes I only send my resume. Funny enough, for all the interviews I had, i never send a cover letter. So i believe there is no rules. Cheers

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