Many times when writing a letter asking to a department of my university, I'm hesitating for the appropriate title.

Say I want to email "Student Insurance Office" to ask about insurance coverage. Here are some example I can come up with,

  1. "To whom it may concern". Not appropriate, because to me it shows the writer's indifference about the person reading it.
  2. "Dear Student Insurance Officer/Manager". Can I start with "dear" to an stranger?(I could replace it by "Hello" or "Hi" though) and can I generally call people officer? Usually it means police officer.
  3. "Dear Student Insurance Office". It seems that I'm writing a letter to the whole office.
  4. "Dear Sir/Madam". But actually I don't know the name of that person. I would know of course if he/she responds my email.

Do you guys have any suggestions to the generally acceptable title for an unknown person/department/organization?

  • I've sometimes resorted to something like "Dear Company," or "Dear Sir or Madam" if it is a formal communication. My usual salutation to a new contact is "Good morning," which I think works fine. – emsoff Jan 24 '14 at 21:54
  • @jboneca, as you said "Dear Sir/Madam" might be a better solution of a formal communication. – anecdote Jan 24 '14 at 22:40
  • As of today 78K views. Pretty amazing. – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '15 at 23:55
  • This doesn't really belong here. It might be acceptable at Writing. – curiousdannii Apr 14 '15 at 1:14
up vote 28 down vote accepted

Dear Sir or Madam (some write it Dear Sir/Madam) would be an appropriate salutation when you are writing to an institution and you don't have a name. It is in common use, at least in the UK and the EU, and is considered polite and professional.

"Sir or Madam is a respectful way to address the person when you don't know their gender - that is, when you don't know whether the person who will read the e-mail is male or female. Though it is still acceptable to write Dear Sirs in the UK, this salutation is no longer considered politically correct in the US, as it excludes women.

Dear Sir or Madam is the salutation I teach my students and business clients here in Germany. It has a courteous, respectful and professional tone to it, which is suitable for formal and more relaxed written communication. This tone of politeness and respect is very important when communicating with people of most cultures in the world.

Some people are of the opinion that you should make an effort to find out the name of the person being addressed by calling or e-mailing. If that's not possible, it is recommended to make up a title that fits the situation, as you have done; for example, Dear Student Insurance Officer.

There are many books and websites advocating one style or the other, but there is no definitive style that all agree upon in the English-speaking culture.

You seem to have thought this out well and have provided some good examples.

In the end, I can tell you that as a non-native speaker of English all of your efforts to write and express yourself in good English will be respected by the person reading your email.

  • thanks, your explanation of "Sir/Madam" at situations to be used is professional. I ask this question because I don't want to be unintentionally rude to those officers. Generally I think they won't point it out even if they feel a little depressed about the title. But a lack of feedback during this sort of communication may lead to a fatal fault in some important business/official correspondences in the future. – anecdote Jan 24 '14 at 22:35
  • @ anecdote. Yes, and to avoid offending someone whose attention and help you need, it is wise to honor their position and their authority by showing the proper respect. In many cultures, being too friendly too soon shows disrespect for that person, which could lead to not being taken seriously. – Babs Jan 25 '14 at 11:23
  • 1
    In French, we would rather place "Madam" before "Sir". Therefore, "Dear Sir or Madam" would not look courteous in French. Reading your answer, I suppose it is however acceptable in English. But would "Dear Madam or Sir" look strange? – Yako Mar 8 '17 at 18:13

The standard form, which has been in use in Britain all my life (that is since the 1940s) and probably long before that is:

Dear Sir or Madam,

This pre-dates modern feminism and is considered courteous and correct. I use it in both letters and, nowadays, emails.

  • @ WS2. Yes, I agree with you and have edited my post to express this. – Babs Jan 25 '14 at 11:15
  • @WS2, thanks for sharing your personal experience. – anecdote Jan 25 '14 at 13:22

protected by tchrist Feb 21 '15 at 23:51

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