How to Address Your Elders, Your Doctor, Young Children… and Your CEO
Sonia asked us for tips on writing effective office emails, especially when addressing medical doctors, CEOs, your elders (those older than you), and your “juniors” (those younger than you).
Should your salutation be, “Dear Bill,” “Dear Dr. Williams,” “Mr. Ramirez:” or “Hi Bob”? If you’re as old as me, you were never taught in school how to address email messages, because email hadn’t been invented yet. But you were taught something about etiquette and respect.
Still, customs and expectations change, and depending on the circumstance, any of those salutations might be correct. Here are some general principles (with an American slant) for salutations in letters or emails, following on our article How to Format a US Business Letter.
Honor your addressees. In a day of spam and junk mail, it’s a privilege for someone else to be willing to read your correspondence. You need to believe that. Don’t be proud or lazy when you write a letter or email. Choose a salutation that will make your recipient feel honored. If you are writing to a superior or an elder, you would generally begin your email with “Dear Mr. Jones” or “Mr. Jones,”. Email is inherently less formal than a paper letter, so “Mr. Jones:” (with a colon) is less common.
Match the formality of your addressees. If you’re replying to an email from one of your peers (someone who isn’t a person of authority), you can often take your cue from how the sender addressed you. Since publicists often greet me in emails with, “Hi Michael,” I always reply to them with, “Hi Vijay” or “Hi Amanda.”
Don’t make your addressees feel old. My parents, who were raised in the Old South (USA), taught me to address older people as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” to use “Mr.” or “Mrs.” and to never call older people by their first names. So what does that mean? That when you call me “Sir,” you probably think I’m old!Of course, Americans are less formal than other nationalities. In many other cultures, age is rightfully respected, and it’s an honor to be treated as older. But American peers (people of your own age or position) might consider “Mr.” or “Mrs.” overly formal.
Children enjoy feeling older. As a child, I was tickled to receive letters from my grandmother (born before 1900) addressed to “Master Michael Moser.” But usually, you address those younger than yourself by their first name.
Pay attention to the email signature. It will include titles that your recipient wants you to note. If his email signature, at the end of his message, says, “Richard McManus, MD,” it means he’s reminding you that he’s a medical doctor, so make sure you call him, “Dr. Manus.” If it says, “Brig. Gen. Robert Watson USAF (Ret.),” call him, “General Watson.” People spend years of hard work earning such titles, and don’t cast them off lightly. Abbreviations for other doctorates include PhD and LLD – call them all “Dr.” The initials DD mean “Doctor of Divinity” and you sometimes address their bearers as “Rev.” (short for Reverend) instead of “Dr” (short for Doctor). Other military abbreviations include “Col.” (“Colonel”), “Maj.” (“Major”), and “Lt.” (“Lieutenant”).
Treat them dearly, if you think they would appreciate it. I was taught in school to begin all letters with “Dear”. That’s especially appropriate if you want to communicate warmth or affection. For some business emails, such as those to strangers or adversaries, the salutation “Dear” is not credible. They know that you don’t feel affection for them, and they don’t feel affection for you. On the other hand, calling someone “Dear” can help build warmth and affection, and sometimes can help defuse an angry exchange.
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