Wondering how to start an email? Don't worry you're not alone. It can be surprisingly easy to overthink your email’s professional greeting, especially when you’re not very familiar with the person on the other end. Before you’ve even addressed the reason for your outreach you’ve already wasted time getting distracted with whether to say “Hey Tom”, “Hello Mr. Smith”, or “Dear Sir”.
By the time you’ve made a decision, you’ve lost confidence in writing the message itself and overall it’s really slowed you down. Finding that perfect salutation can really take it out of you!
That said, it’s even more surprising how many people don’t think about their email greetings enough. How you start an email sets the tone for everything that follows and impacts a person’s all-so-important first impression of you as a professional.
That’s why we’ve outlined every step, scenario and circumstance you’ll need to think of when beginning any type of professional email. Here are the best ways to start that professional conversation and some of the most crucial things to avoid when doing so.
To make this super helpful we will list out examples of good ways to start a professional email plus point out what not to do when professionally greeting someone.
Why is it important to understand professional email greetings?
In theory, starting an email should be the easiest part of the exchange! "Hello" is one of the first things we learn in our native language. Yet, so often, when greeting someone in a professional context, we *really* get it wrong. We say hello to everyone and everything - bus drivers, people in the elevator, a cute dog - so what's missing once we're sat behind a computer screen?
The answer is understanding workplace contexts. It is key to correctly navigating what greeting to use when, where, and with whom - nobody wants to set the wrong tone before you even get to the main message. Naturally, you want to make a good first impression. Getting this wrong can cost you the person respecting, replying to, or even reading your email. For example, when HR teams review a mountain of job applications, that very first sentence can seriously harm your chances of an interview if you don't appear sufficiently capable of saying "hello".
Here are some things to consider when professionally greeting someone.
What tone do you need to set?
In-person communication allows us to observe audio, visual and physical cues that written communication does not. Think about the environment and sentiment as if you were delivering your email's information in person, then remove these cues. Your email's tone is how the character of your business comes across with your words, illustrating your emotional perspective without these other useful cues.
How do you want to be perceived?
As mentioned, life is generally easier when we make a good first impression. So by beginning your correspondence appropriately, you demonstrate your professional ease, expertise, and competence in just a few words. Sounds good, right?
A study from the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science gives a comparison to in-person communication "First impressions are heavily influenced by emotional expressions such as smiles. In face-to-face contact, smiling individuals are perceived as warmer and as more competent than non-smiling individuals.
Keep this in mind as you dive into the world of workplace communications, and it will keep you straight and narrow when choosing the perfect email greeting.
Will this person keep reading your email?
There is much research on the general likelihood of an email being replied to in day-to-day correspondences. It's often the simple things that go the distance, like manners - "Emails on the politer side get higher response rates", says Boomerang's product designer, Mai-Chi Vu.
In a time where humans have shorter attention spans than ever before, politeness levels really go a long way. Basic considerations like spelling someone's name correctly, mirroring the greeting they've used, acknowledging the tone of the interaction in your reply go a long way in making sure you don't offend or alienate the recipient.
By putting some thought into how you begin your correspondence, you avoid starting on the wrong foot - saving yourself time and the potential awkwardness of being outright ignored.
So you ask, how to start an email? Let's go through some scenarios and examples that you need to be aware of.
Formal email greetings for professional emails
First off, we can divide the realm of professional comms into the "what's more formal and what's more friendly" spectrum. As highlighted in how to end an email professionally, most business emails exist in the elusive middle ground between formal and casual. Hence, it's important to pause and review what you've written before you press 'Send'. Here are our top picks.
1. Hello <Name>
It's that straightforward. When in doubt, keep it direct and friendly, and you can literally do no wrong.
2. Hi <Name>
Yep, again, do not overthink this. Surveys show that simple and polite without going over the top is always a winner.
3. Dear <Name>
This can feel a little unnatural. However, there are definitely still scenarios in which this professional greeting is the most appropriate. Especially when addressing a more old-fashioned institution or traditional representative like a government official. It can also be a nice touch when applying for a job if you know the person's name. As rule of thumb, when contacting someone for the first time use Dear Ms./Mrs./Mr. <Last name> – if you are on first name basis, feel free to use that.
Friendly ways to begin a professional email
There are many cases where your email context isn't so formal or where a friendly touch is appropriate. Maybe it's an internal mail to colleagues or with a long-term client. You can both relax a little and also keep things nice and competent. It's a fine balance sometimes. While many workplaces tend to be more casual these days, keep your basic principles of polite, friendly, and professional front and center.
1. Hi <Name>
You heard us when we said this option is always a winner, right? Great. Once you are on friendly terms with the recipient, you don't have to overthink the greeting - you can get straight to the point of the email while maintaining a friendly and professional demeanor.
2. Hi there
When you do not know the recipient's name or its spelling, this is the safest way to address a professional email without sounding too formal or indirect.
3. Good morning/afternoon/evening
This can add a friendly, casual, yet still, polite touch to your email greeting. It's definitely for occasional rather than consistent use, though. Needless to say, if different time zones are in play, you should use this greeting wisely.
4. Hey <Name>
Be careful with this one. There are cases to be made for and against "Hey" but feedback shows this should really only be used if you have a rapport with, for example, friends or close co-workers.
When replying to somebody, you can mirror your recipient's tone and choose to open your email with a similar greeting or an alternative that matches the level of formality and familiarity – the some principle applies also to choosing the right email sign-off.
Email salutations to avoid at work
1. To whom it may concern
Many sources say just don't use this one. In a survey of almost 2,000 people, 37% of respondents found this greeting the *worst* way to start a professional email. It's been described as annoying, vague, inappropriate, dated, and the list goes on. It, hands down, has the #1 spot of how not to start an email. Convinced? We are.
It's generally best to steer clear of this if you're unsure how, where, and when to use "Hey". As mentioned above, there's a time and place for it, but it's just not worth the risk of coming across as too informal.
Best practices suggest that this is outdated. There are now more apt ways to address a group of unknown recipients, like the favorited "Hi there" or "Hi all". It's not the biggest faux pas, but try and stick to the validated winners.
4. Happy <day>!
This divides the masses a little. Overall knowing your audience is key here. While many reports say that this comes across as immature and unprofessional, maybe internally, your company culture embraces this greeting style.
5. No greeting
A big no-no. You may well be on the receiving end of a no-greeting email, but mostly this rubs people up the wrong way, so this is one behavior not to mirror.
6. Smiley or emoji
It's a tricky one for many as smileys and emojis are widely used in much more visual communication channels to express outside of the written word. Unfortunately, it is still not universally seen as professional enough for use in the workplace, so best to leave these out of your emails in all contexts... :(
7. Misspelled name
This is so avoidable so pay attention when writing your greeting. Double-check this before you press send, and you'll be in the clear. If you're really unsure of the spelling, a little copy and paste of their sign-off or email address should really set your mind at ease.
How to approach different scenarios with ease
Professional email greetings are a space that covers a wide range of contexts and scenarios. Here are a few more example situations to make sure you feel truly confident in all your email communications.
Decide on whom you are emailing
Do you know this person? Is this the first time you've corresponded? Are they external or internal to your company? Have all this in mind as you choose the perfect email greeting. Then you can decide if it's more of a formal or friendly professional interaction.
Our blog post on writing a cold email is a great step-by-step guide on this kind of outreach.
Is this a follow-up?
Are you trying to prompt a reply or chase for an answer on something important? Check out our tips on sales follow-up emails that help find the perfect way of driving that much-needed response while also staying pleasant, polite, and professional. If you are not used to following up on your emails, we've also created a complete guide on how to write a follow-up email after no response.
This one gets easier with practice but is for sure a tricky one to feel confident about. Find a smooth style that feels natural to you while also ticking all of the boxes that we've outlined here. Finding time to read this piece on How to introduce two people over email should be a no-brainer.
Good news! All of the above guidance can be applied when you're addressing multiple recipients. The same principles, just not including individual names. Work with "Hi all", "Hello all," or "Hi everyone," and so forth.
If it's a situation where there are 2-3 people on the thread, you can definitely address these by name with "Hi Name 1, Name 2, Name 3," but we wouldn't generally recommend continuing this above 3 people.
In a 2020 report, 73% of people said that email is their preferred communication method at work. As evolved as humans have become at interacting and communicating, there is undoubtedly much respect to still be paid to the world of electronic mail! What's great is that you've taken the first step towards this by reading up on professional email greetings in this blog post.
Let's remind ourselves of the key takeaways.
1. Don't underestimate the importance of first impressions.
Nailing this makes everything that comes next easier.
2. When in doubt, lean towards the formal end of the spectrum.
3. Read the room
Take on board what you've learned in this blog post, and make sure you know your audience. Your recipients' comms are always a helpful indicator, so don't shy away from mirroring their tone of voice.
And there you have it! Now you should feel completely confident about starting a professional email and conquering all of your workplace correspondences. To continue this streak of upskilling, why not learn how to end an email professionally?
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