Email – a simple and powerful web communication tool. And yet, it can be very confusing, especially when dealing with unknown or external mail recipients. Do you go with full name or first name? Should you acknowledge titles or seniority? And what about unisex names – do you go with a Mr or Ms? What about country context and organization culture?
A year ago, I shared a quick guide to emailing unknown and external recipients on my LinkedIn page. Over 40,000 views and many questions later, it became clear that information on email etiquette is still very essential, especially in today’s digital world where we spend a huge chunk of our time and lives online. Below, I flesh out some of my initial points for those of us who may have questions.
If you don’t know the gender of the recipient, stay neutral. Just use “Dear First Name, Last Name”. Especially when you operate in a multicultural environment and cannot tell the gender behind every single name.
If you must absolutely be formal – for example, if you are drafting a work email or communicating with a client – stick with the good ol’ “Dear Sir/Madam”. It’s less personal, but also less hassle – especially when working in an African context.
Sometimes one email leads to five leads to twenty. For an ongoing email exchange, note that it’s all about the dance. One leads and the other follows. For your first email message, stick with a neutral or formal salutation, then observe how your recipient responds:
– If the recipient responds to your first email with “First Name only” in their signature after you used “Dear First Name, Last Name” to address them, you may follow their lead and address them with “Dear First Name only” in your next email.
– If you are unsure/uncomfortable with the above, stay formal and wait till you receive at least two emails from them where they use “First name only” in their signature and then address them by “Dear First Name only” in your next email.
– Conversely, if they stay formal throughout, do the same and unless you find out their gender, you may want to be gender neutral as well.
In case of doubt, just reciprocate in kind. E.g if they continually respond to all your emails with “Dear Madam” – even after you sign off with your first name only – then respond with “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” or “Dear Sir/Madam” – whichever fits depending on if you know their gender.
If you are using “To Whom It May Concern” – make sure you are emailing from a non-personal, business or generic email address eg. firstname.lastname@example.org. In any other case, it would be helpful to do a bit of research to find out the name or title of who you should be addressing eg. Dear Recruitment Manager.
Never assume that a recipient is male, female, or both. If you are unsure of gender, stay neutral by using “Dear First Name, Last Name”.
If you know you are emailing a woman, stick with “Ms. Last Name” – it covers both the married (Mrs.) and the unmarried (Miss). For men, this matters less; they go with ‘Mr’ regardless of their marriage status.
As much as possible, make sure you spell your recipient’s name and/or title correctly. First impressions count and some people can be very sensitive about the spelling of their name (especially considering it can mean different things in different languages). Double check for typos before hitting ‘send’; under no circumstance is “Dear First Name OR Last Name” okay. Especially not after multiple email exchanges. And yes, this happened.
Got your own tips on email etiquette – or horror stories? Share in the comment section below.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.