The Perils of Writing to Someone You Don’t Know

By Maeve Maddox

From a reader:

I have a question.  I work for a large Canadian law firm and I’ve noticed that many of the people here do not use Mr. or Ms., but rather address letters to “John Smith.”  Have I missed something?  Is this proper now?

It may not be “proper,” but sometimes it’s safer.

Addressing a letter in the old days was a fairly straightforward undertaking.

If the name of the person was “Michael Jones,” you’d say “Dear Sir,” or “Dear Mr. Jones.”

If you were writing to a woman you could safely address her, married or unmarried, as “Dear Madame.” Back when the great goal of most women was to find “Mr. Right,” you could take a chance on starting a letter “Dear Mrs. Jones” even if you didn’t know the recipient’s marital status. If she wasn’t married, she’d probably giggle at the error.

In these more enlightened days, knowing how to begin a letter to a person you don’t know is like walking through a minefield.

Current letter-writing guidelines will tell you to address a man as “Mr. Jones” and a woman as “Ms. Jones,” but that’s pretty simplistic, given the complications of feminism, reactions to feminism, multiculturalism, and creative child-naming.

Ideally, the letter writer will check out the person being written to so as to know what form of address to use. But what if, despite your best efforts, you just don’t know?

How, for example, would you start a letter to Drew Barrymore, Daryl Hannah, or Michael Learned if you don’t know all three are women?

How are you supposed to figure out the gender of Jordan Dane, Alex Wright, Cory Black. Elliot Simpson, or Jamie Johnson if you know nothing about them but their names?

In the age of the world-wide web, what about a name like “Ananda Singh?” A name ending in -a looks “feminine” to me, but in India, “Ananda” is a guy’s name.

Say that you do know that the person you’re writing to is a woman. Are you sure you want to address her as “Ms. Jones?” She may have a Ph.D. and prefer Dr. Jones. She may be a reactionary housewife and detest being called Ms. Or maybe she’s single and proud of it and wants everyone to address her as “Miss Jones.”

The people at your law firm are probably less concerned about proper usage than they are about avoiding ruffled feathers. Sometimes the best course of action is to play it safe by using the full name instead trying to juggle a courtesy title.

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20 Responses to “The Perils of Writing to Someone You Don’t Know”

  • cmdweb

    I have to admit, this one has stumped me on occasion as well. If I’m trying not to be too formal, I’ll start with the old trusted ‘Dear so-and-so’, using just their first name. That isn’t always appropriate though.

  • Deborah Hendrick

    I still use “Dear Sir or Madam,” which is neutral and polite, or the entire name if it is known. I don’t find “Dear Deborah Hendrick” offensive.

  • JD

    I love how politically correct we are these days.

    ”… but that’s pretty simplistic, given the complications of feminism, reactions to feminism, multiculturalism, and creative child-naming…”

    Creative child naming… that’s great. You mean like Apple? Suri? Dweezil?

    Some people call it weird, some call it creative… super.

  • Prashant

    great article..
    In India also a name ending with ‘a’ (there are always exceptions ) points to a female name. In this case the spelling is incorrect ‘Anand” is masculine name while ‘Ananda’ should be having XX chromosomes. 🙂

  • Charlie

    I run into this all the time. In business you will find me as M. “Charlie” Ferrazzi. The quotes frequently get dropped and I have been addressed as Sir and Mr. due to the initial M, (I believe this is the abbreviation for Monsieur), in correspondence. I have received silence at the other end of a phone when I answer the caller’s question “May I speak with Charlie” with “That’s me.” I also get strange looks when this happens in person.

    My daughters and grans introduce me as ‘my Mom or Gramma Charlie’. And the looks when people meet me after my husband has talked about his wife Charlie . . .

    Having had this nickname for 45 years, I still crack up at the reactions. A sense of humour is alway good.

  • Brad K.

    Oh, thank goodness. I thought at first that *every* letter was being address to “John Smith”, regardless of the recipient’s actual name. It made a kind of loopy, anonymous sense. Sort of a personalized “Occupant”.

    I might still retreat to “Sir” for an individual (I often leave off the “dear” if I don’t know the individual well enough to *know* how she/he prefers to be addressed), “Sirs” for a group or company. I understand the male-centric nature of “Sir”. I figure anyone in business, receiving a letter from someone that doesn’t know how to address them as they prefer, would at least recognize an attempt at business-polite usage.

    Hopefully the sender will be instructed by how the recipient returns the communication.

  • Jessica

    Before becoming a freelance writer, I worked as a paralegal, and I usually followed a couple basic rules that you may want to try, as well.

    First, if you know the person’s first and last name, address any original legal correspondance to “Dear Mr. John Smith” or “Dear Mrs. Jane Smith.”

    Then, once you get back a response from then, check and see how they sign their letter. If they sign it in a more formal fashion, continue to address them in this formal matter. On the other hand, if they sign it simply “Jane,” you can generally address them as such.

    Furthermore, ALWAYS check if there has been previous correspondence to the person. Your law firm should keep records of all previous letters, so CHECK THEM, and then address your letter the same way. There is nothing that offends someone faster than calling them Jane, like you would a friend, and then suddenly addressing them as “Mrs. John Smith.” 🙂

    Finally, do remember that when people receive mail from a law firm, they generally expect a higher level of professionalism and formalities, so going the formal route (if done so consistantly is usually a safe bet). Once they become a regular client (as opposed to a brand new one), switching to the use of their first name can often be used as a sort of marketing tool for your law firm. People feel like they are considered a friend when you use their first name, so you can create some loyalty by doing this properly.

    My all time favorite rule of thumb though is this: Address them formally, and ALWAYS use Ms. if you’re unsure if the woman is single or married, until the attorney representing them as met with them once. After this initial meeting occurs, switch to a first name basis. This will make the client feel as if they were more accepted, and thus will be more comfortable and trusting. Show trust to gain trust.

    Anyway, so there you go. Give me a little past experience, and I’ll act like an expert for years. Haha.

    Jessica

  • MidnightMarauder

    Um…did you know that a name can belong to both genders too? and sometimes it just depends on HOW you say the name. Like, I’ve got loads of people calling me Adrien when I’m actually AdrienNE. People either don’t say it correctly, or they just spell it wrong. And by the way, Ananda (Aa-nund-aa) is a female name, whereas Anand (Aa-nund) is a masculin name. It really DOES matter how you spell/say things. To make things easier, I just settle for a “Yo dude.” 😛
    ^_^TheMidnightMarauder^_^

  • Jessica

    Yo, Dude,

    That’s funny. Hehe. I don’t know if your post was directed towards me (since I was the last one who commented or not), but I just wanted to say, yes, I was aware of that. However, usually in a law office, the secretary will write down if the name of the potential client is a female or male. Secondly, if the initial correspondence came in a written form, and both the first and last name were used with the address, you can do a whitepages.com search on most people and see if they have a spouse. While I know cases where it has happened, usually one spouse will have a gender-specific name.

    Of course, with names, there is no absolute fail-safe for knowing the gender. However, I was just trying to address whether it was appropriate in legal correspondence to address the client or potential client in formal or informal terms.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  • Maeve

    MidnightMarauder,

    I was going by the Wikipedia article and not personal knowledge:

    Other Indian names, such as Ananda, are exclusively or nearly exclusively masculine in India…

    Thanks.

  • Charlie Rapple

    I’m another female Charlie so I sympathise with “Gramma Charlie” above! and would offer one more word of advice – whatever you do, don’t make unnecessary assumptions. Sure, in many circumstances you are going to have to use a title of some sort, and I’m generally accepting of being addressed as Mr. What I really don’t find acceptable is the many times I have received emails to “Dear Charles”! So don’t go expanding Jon to Jonathan or Becky to Rebecca – you may think you’re being deferential (to the fact that you don’t know this person personally) but in fact you may be bestowing upon them a name they do not have – thereby implying, perhaps, that you think their chosen name is inadequate – and in the worse cases one that’s not even the appropriate gender (see tomorrow’s posting on epicenes)!

  • PreciseEdit

    Is it just me, or does the “Dear” seem a little awkward when starting a business letter to someone whom you have never met or communicated? If I have to call someone “Mr.” or something similar, is this person really dear to me?

    Awkwardness aside, we tend to use “Dear John Smith.”

  • Hingmn

    I have a question for the Charlies up there… My name is Hingman (and I’m female). Because my name ends in “man,” people assume that I am male and so address me as “Mr. L” in correspondence 90% of the time. My question is how do I tactfully but subtly correct the person I’m writing/emailing? Sometimes I note in my reply that I am female (when it is relevant to the letter), and sometimes I just sign with Ms. Hingman L.

    Is there a widely accepted way to do this?

  • Charlie

    Ms. Hingman
    It sounds like either method would work fine, since you correct them in the returning response. The only other way is to use Ms. on all your correspondence and introductions. A bit too formal for me, but could be the best way.

  • MS

    I just received an email from an organization for which I recently made a donation.

    They are thankful for my “family’s support” and “your family’s special gift “. This goes to beyond the issue of Miss or Mrs. I am single, I have no children or husband, and live alone.

    Shouldn’t they be choosing to thank me as a “you” and not as “my family”. I would argue that I have no family since I no longer live with either my parents or siblings.

    By the way, the letter (sent via email) opens with “Dear Miss ***).

  • MS

    A just in case clarification: Addressing me as Miss *** in opening the letter is what I prefer. I indicated this preference when I made my donation.

  • Sheila

    I know this is an old thread, but, I had to have some place to vent my frustration. My English Professor, of all people, addressed me as DUDE. I was offended, and of course, I didn’t tell her. I just didn’t answer her email. Now, I don’t trust anything she says.

  • uma shankar

    Hi,
    My name is Uma Shankar and I am a man, although ”Uma” on a standalone basis is a female name in India. I often get mails addressed to Ms. Uma Shankar. Can you suggest the correct response ? Do I tell them that I am a ‘Mr.’ and not a ‘Ms.” or discretly add ‘Mr.’ in brackets after my name in order to drive home the point? Since I am referring to official letters, I would be glad if someone could suggest the correct response.
    Regards,
    Uma

  • M.

    I had that happen with my job. I get emails from the same 20-30 people that make requests for information.

    One of the individuals is named Kenya and I assumed it was a woman. I’ve been doing this job for 3 years and I still don’t know for sure!

    Same situation with someone named Hillary. I know men and women with that name.

    I usually just address the letter “Dear LastName” or just simply use the full name.

  • Just wondering

    I wonder why Indians always write “Sir” when they address a woman?
    I found this quite strange when people apply for a job (I’m working as professor, I have a female name (but this might not be obvious for an Indian) and there is a photograph (quite obviously showing that I’m no “Sir”) on the homepage of my research group). I got daily these mails, it is nearly never “Sir or Madam”. In my country this is very rude and sexistic, I would never think about considering such an applicant. Are woman in Indian usually addressed as “SIr”?

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