Starting a formal email in English can be tricky as it involves following some strict rules and conventions. Unless you’re familiar with them, deciding how to start a professional email can be confusing – but it doesn’t need to be.
This detailed article will explain how to use the correct formal email greetings, salutations, and opening lines. By the end of this post, you will know how to start writing an email in your personal and professional life.
What is a formal email?
Formal emails are those written in the correct format. Formal emails follow a tried and tested formula that all readers will understand.
A well-written, professional and polite email can start a successful and productive relationship. Conversely, a poorly written email can damage relationships, confuse and even upset recipients in some circumstances.
Every formal email should consist of:
- Subject line
- A salutation or greeting
- Body copy
Formal emails are respectful, using polite terminology to address the recipient. They are written in a simple-to-understand format that’s clear about what you want and why.
The English language is used worldwide by businesses, but there are cultural differences in how we communicate. Formal emails reduce the likelihood of any misunderstanding or miscommunication.
In most cases, poorly written emails won’t damage your career, says Jeff Su in the Harvard Business Review. In contrast, “writing professional emails will affect how competent you are perceived to be in the eyes of your colleagues.”
In your personal life, when contacting a school, for example, you’ll want to ensure your communications are clear, professional, and polite. In this context, formal emails are essential.
We’ve delved deeper into the details of what makes a great formal email in our guide, so check that out if you want to learn more.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of how to greet in a formal email, starting with greetings and instructions. Make sure to try Flowrite's smart self-introduction email template below:
How to start an email professionally
We’re going to delve deeper into the two critical things you need to know when starting a formal email in English:
- Formal greeting and salutation
- Formal email opening lines
We address both parts in detail before applying them to a series of examples later.
1. Professional email greetings and salutations
The first thing you need to know about greeting in a formal email is using the correct salutation.
It can appear confusing as the appropriate formal way of greeting in email changes, depending on whether you know the person you are writing to or not. The first rule is: if you know someone’s name, address the person directly using their full name.
In the past, you’d use what’s called an honorific – such a Mr and Mrs – with a surname. However, we must be conscious of the risks of what Harvard calls “misgendering”.
Unless we know someone’s gender for sure (and even in those cases where we think we know, we should never make assumptions), we should avoid using gendered terms.
Instead, use a person’s full name where possible. This is both professional and respectful.
Take an example of emailing someone called Robert Johnson.
Instead of saying:
- Dear Mr. Johnson
We would say:
- Dear Robert Johnson
The question of which greeting is appropriate for a formal email arises regularly. We’ve provided some formal email salutation examples below that illustrate how to greet in an email formal. Still, we’d also urge you to use your judgment, too.
Before sending your email, spend some time attempting to identify the person you’re writing to. Using a person’s full name can establish a stronger connection than a formal approach, such as Dear Sir/Madam.
2. Formal email opening lines
The rules around how to address a recipient in a formal email are relatively straightforward. However, when it comes to starting the body of a formal email, you have greater freedom.
The best formal email opening lines are straight to the point. In most cases, you request something (information, to attend an event, or payment); or respond formally to a request.
If you know someone or have spoken to them in the past, you can get straight into the details of your request.
Some examples of suitable formal email opening lines include:
- I am writing to request some information from your company.
- I am contacting you to invite you to my event
- I appreciate your interest in our company. I am attaching the information requested.
Suppose you’re writing to someone you’ve never communicated with before. In this case, it’s polite to explain who you are and why you’re contacting them. For example, simply stating, “my name is XX, and I’m contacting you from YY” is enough for the reader. This quickly tells them who you are and why you’re messaging them.
Here’s how that can work in practice:
- I’m the marketing director at (company name), and I am interested in learning more about your business.
- I am contacting you from (company name) with some details of exclusive new offers
- I’m leaving (company) on 25 September and would like to invite you to a leaving event being held at (insert details).
Of course, you’re not bound by these rules. However, by following them, you won’t confuse or upset your reader.
Can you use “I hope you are doing well in a formal email”? If you know the person, then starting a formal email this way isn’t incorrect. If you don’t know the individual personally, it’s unlikely to achieve the results you want. It can seem overly informal and out of place.
Our advice is to get straight to the point in your formal email opening. We explain more about crafting the best email opening sentences in this detailed blog post.
Why is it important to understand formal 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
4. Group greetings
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.
So you ask, how to actually start an email? Let's go through some scenarios and examples that you need to be aware of.
How to start a formal email (6 examples)
So, we’ve broken down the process of how to start a formal email into two steps; now, it’s time to put it into practice. Here we provide six examples of how to start a formal email. Each example is accompanied by a short explanation of our reasons why.
In this section, we include some specific examples of how to start formal examples. We cover:
- How to start a formal email without a name
- How to choose a formal email greeting for an unknown recipient
- How to start a formal email to multiple recipients
- How to start a formal email to a school
- How to start a formal business email
- How to choose the formal email greeting for a job application
These templates included here are used to illustrate how to approach each task. We recommend that you use these as the basis for developing the approaches that best represent you and your business.
1. How to start a formal email without a name
We’ve written about how important it is to attempt to find a person’s name when emailing them, so we’d always urge you to do so if you can. However, there are likely to be times when this is impossible for some reason.
Some writing guides will still encourage you to use “Dear Sir/Madam,” and while a little old-fashioned, it’s still OK to do so if you need to.
While you’re free to use it if you’d like to, we recommend finding an alternative. You can do more research to identify the recipient. If not, here are some other options:
- Dear (Job title)
- Dear (Department or team)
Starting a formal email in English is, thankfully, pretty straightforward. Here’s an example of how to start a formal email with no name.
2. How to choose a formal email greeting for an unknown recipient
If you’re struggling to identify the right formal email greeting to an unknown recipient, you’re not alone. It can be challenging to find the right approach in how to start a formal email to an unknown person.
Other writing guides will suggest you use “To whom it may concern,” but we think this isn’t just formal; it’s a little too fussy for our liking. We’d also recommend opening a formal email with “Hi” or “Hey”. That’s a step too far in the other direction.
So, how do you choose a formal email greeting for an unknown recipient? Here’s a tried and tested method.
3. How to start a formal email to multiple recipients
It’s evident that there are different rules when you are emailing a group of people. There are fewer rules when deciding upon a formal email greeting to multiple recipients. The question of how do you start a formal email to multiple recipients depends on who they are. We advise you to choose a safe collective term.
If they’re fellow employees, acceptable formal email greeting lines include:
- Dear colleagues
- Dear team
If you’re emailing a generic email address (such as customerservice@), you could use:
- Dear Customer Service Team
If you’re emailing a business, you could simply use their company name.
- Dear (company name)
Here’s a fool-proof example of how to start a formal email to a group.
4. How to start a formal email to a school
If you’re wondering how do you start an email to a university teacher or professor, here’s how. The important thing is to ensure that you use the correct honorific; in this case, we’re emailing a professor.
Check out this example to see how we’ve approached the task.
5. How to start a formal business email
In the business world, it’s crucial to ensure your emails are correctly formatted and respectfully formal. The question of how do you start a formal business letter is often asked by those worried about how they will be perceived.
Our example template below provides an example you can adapt to your circumstances. You can find more detailed information on how to craft a business inquiry in our in-depth guide.
6. How to choose the formal email greeting for a job application
When sending a cover letter for a job, you’d traditionally use “Dear Sir/Madam.” Still, as we’ve established, this may not be appropriate anymore.
Firstly, you should attempt to find out who the recruiting manager is and use their full name. If you can’t find their name, then the following alternatives are all acceptable:
- Dear recruiting manager
- Dear recruiter
- Dear (company name)
Here’s an example of starting a formal email to a recruiter.
4 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.
7 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.
Final thoughts on how to start a formal email
Starting an email can be a challenge for anyone, but we hope we’ve simplified the process. The key learning point is to understand how to use formal email greetings and salutations and how to craft strong formal email opening lines.
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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