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Question: If you are contacting a person with whom you are not familiar and their email address is their first name only - for example john@doe.com, is it disrespectful to address them by their first name in an initial email to them?

Perhaps as a counterquestion, would addressing them such as Mr. Doe seem a bit cold and unfriendly? Or not including a salutation at all, as suggested in a related question?

  • Voting to close because answers depend on the recipient's culture as well as the context of the relationship. – Jim G. Dec 12 '13 at 23:26
  • It is an initial email, you aren't aware of the culture and have no relationship to base this decision on. Why do you feel the need to adhere so strictly to a rule to block my question which I ask in need of sincere advise - and joined this community specifically to ask? – mikeybaby173 Dec 13 '13 at 0:00
  • If their email address is joe@somecorp.com I don't think you would address it as To Mr. Somecorp. The only think you can be certain of is the first name, so just go with To John. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Dec 13 '13 at 1:18
  • @mikeybaby173 : You write an email to get a person to do something, that means you want to have a relationship with them. – Christian Dec 13 '13 at 22:42
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In strictest Western etiquette, you are not to use a person's given (first) name until you are invited to do so by that person. It happens all the time, though, but I still find it off-putting when someone I don't know addresses me by my first name as though we've known each other for some time.

Addressing them as "Mr. Smith" or "Ms. Jones" is appropriate if you are making an initial contact. "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam" is also correct, but "Madam" is sometimes seen negatively, as it implies to some that they are "mature" in age.

To play it completely safe, I would suggest "Good morning," or "Good afternoon." You won't have any chance of accidentally misinterpreting gender, and you still convey a respectful, professional tone. Don't worry about the time zone differences. It is implied that you are speaking from your location's time.

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  • +1 for giving a nice alternative that does not require a subjective decision to be made, with the "Good morning" suggestion - I had overlooked that route! Thanks, Mr. Long ;) – mikeybaby173 Dec 19 '13 at 19:26
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I would suggest

Dear Sir or Madam,

or

Dear Madam or Sir,

whichever you prefer. You don't know the person. You have no idea what the person's name is (e-mail address john@doe.com does not necessarily mean that person goes by the name John). You don't know the culture. You don't know the gender. The best way is not to use the name.

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I almost never get an email that is uses a salutation or my name in any way except from people who already have a relationship (work or personal) with me. Try to write your intial email so that you don't need to use the first name if you feel it is too familar at this point.

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It depends on why you are contacting the person.

Let's say you contact me, because I wrote some open source code and published it on github. You have some feature request. If you address me with Dear Sir or Madam, I would find that strange and give your email less attention than if you would address me with my first name or don't start with any greeting.

Most emails that start with "Dear Sir or Madam," that I get from people I don't know are spam.

It's different if you contact someone in his role as employee of a company. In that case you can be more formal.

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    @JimG. - I did because I didn't find it helpful. The fact he would not give an email less attention because of the use of a perfectly valid salutation is strange. – Donald Dec 16 '13 at 12:41
  • @Ramhound: You come from a Georgia. From your cultural background it might seem strange. People from non-Western countries who write spam mails, often use the formality that's appropriate for their own culture. As a result they label themselves as outsiders. If you dress in suit and tie in an open source convention you also look like you don't belong. – Christian Dec 16 '13 at 18:23
  • All I know is that using Sir or Madam is proper English in the context of addressing somebody you don't know personally and in the case of the Madam or Ms. are not familar with their marriage status. If you know they are married Mrs. can also be used. How else would you be addressed, in a random email, they are aware familar with who you are. Somebody asked about the downvote and I explained it. – Donald Dec 16 '13 at 18:50
  • @Ramhound: Whether or not it's proper English is irrelevant. The fact that I address you in this command with the syntax @ Name : isn't proper English in the sense that it's what an official style guide or a dictionary recommends. It's still the default way. If I would start my comment with Dear Sir Ramhound, that would indicate that I'm not aware of the cultural standards that exist on this website or that I decide to ignore them. Speaking English in a way that's formally correct in no way implies that you don't label yourself as an outsider in a specific subculture. – Christian Dec 16 '13 at 19:07

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