Dear Ms Smith

How do you start a business email in English?

This might seem trivial, but I often get this question from people who aren’t native English speakers. They understand that a courteous greeting will set the tone of their whole message.

Politeness is not easy when you don’t know the nuances of modern English. Many English classes teach a formal writing style.

However, the formal “Dear Mr / Ms / Dr …” is rarely used in email unless it’s a serious matter, such as a legal issue. In most English-speaking countries today, business email is more like talking, so we tend to use greetings like “Hello”. Even so, it’s considered poor style to start with something as casual as “Hey”.

After the salutation, most people use the preferred given name of the recipient (e.g. “Hello Mary”). But because different cultures present names differently, we might not know what that person’s given name is. If you already have an email from them, use the name they signed off with. If you are contacting them first, write what their card or web page says.

When you’re writing to several people, don’t list all the names. Just say “Hello everybody”. And if you don’t know the name(s) of your reader(s), you can write “To whom it may concern”. This is a little formal, but it looks businesslike and is a well-used phrase in English.

Occasionally, I get email that starts with “G’day”, although the writer is not Australian. They’re trying to be friendly, but it feels forced because it’s not their native-born slang. Just be yourself and write your own friendly greeting.

In a good working relationship, most people are fairly casual in their business communications. But if you’re unsure, it’s always better to be too polite. It’s easy to misinterpret a casual attitude as rude. When you’re overpolite, people will usually assume that you’re at least trying, and will appreciate that.

Starting your email well is not trivial. Regular communications done right build good relationships.