“To whom it may concern” seems at first glance to be an all-purpose phrase, perfect to slap on each email you send. Many email-writing novices fall down the "To whom it may concern" rabbit hole, plastering it at the beginning of every single email until their "Command" and "V" keys are worn out. Yet unfortunately for "To whom it may concern" fanatics, the English language is incredibly nuanced, and sometimes the context in which you are writing demands a different salutation. “To whom it may concern” works well in cases where you don’t know the name of your recipient(s) and want to come across as respectful, but in other contexts, it is not the most appropriate choice; and in some moments, it’s not an appropriate choice at all. Read on for salutation suggestions that are catered to specific contexts.
In every case — always, always, always — it is most appropriate to address your letter to its recipient by name. This simple act automatically makes your correspondence more respectful, and it’s incredibly easy to perform: the amount of information available online to the public is astounding. You really have no excuse for not at least attempting to research the recipient’s name. It shows a certain amount of initiative, which further demonstrates your interest in the company; it might mean the difference between your letter being read and tossed aside. A safe bet with this salutation is to write “Dear [First Name] [Last Name],” in order to avoid accidentally messing up the pronouns of your recipient; if you’re uncomfortable using their first name, use a respectful abbreviation (Mrs., Mr., Mx., Dr., etc.) and their last name.
Though laced with cisnormativity (the assumption that everyone you meet identifies with the sex assigned to them at birth), this greeting is a fine failsafe if you really, really cannot find the name of the recipient of your email. In some ways, this salutation can actually be more effective than “To whom it may concern,” because when you specify that you are writing to a specific Sir or Madam as opposed to a “concerned” party, the email seems more urgent and is likely to garner more attention. (Unfortunately, gender-neutral honorifics do not currently exist in English — which is another reason why finding the name of the recipient of your correspondence is preferable.)
In moments when you know the job title of your recipient but not their name, this greeting is the best way to go. It has a very serious tone and will capture the recipient's attention for that reason. The only drawback to this salutation is that you might not get a response as quickly if you address your email to the entire department, seeing as a department is usually made up of multiple people, and your email might have to pass through several hands before they respond.
This salutation is great for less formal mail, such as an insert form on a website or a mass email asking your coworkers to participate in Secret Santa. It is less appropriate in a cover letter, where the ultimate goal is to convince the reader that you are a serious applicant to be considered for the job. With that said, by all means use “Good afternoon” when you’re reaching out to someone that will not decide your career path — you’ll come off as affable and charming.
More informal still than “Good afternoon” is a plain old “Hello,” which you should use sparingly. This greeting is most appropriate when sending out a group email to coworkers whose names you can’t be bothered to specify. It communicates a certain level of intimacy between you and your recipient, so it’s certainly not meant for your cover letter, but in more casual settings it is a great, friendly greeting.
This salutation is perhaps a tad archaic, but it works both in formal and casual contexts as a salutation to many or to only one person. It gives the sense that you’re about to present information, like an invitation to an event, instead of asking a question — it’s similar to an actor exiting the curtain and welcoming the audience to a show. Its multipurpose nature earned it a spot on this list; however, it still would not be appropriate in a cover letter. Use “Greetings” in mail you send to professors, colleagues you don’t know well or your whole croquet club listserv when suggesting a postponement of the upcoming match.
Even if you absolutely cannot find a name to address your cover letter to, you still need to include a greeting at the top of the document. The most well-suited salutation for a cover letter is “Dear [job title];” if you address your cover letter as “Dear hiring manager,” it will reach its recipient directly without delay, and prove your interest in the position almost as well as if you were to use the hiring manager’s actual name. Another good choice is to use “Dear Sir or Madam,” which will similarly communicate respect and urgency. Both of these options are better than “To whom it may concern” due to their direct nature. Plus, “To whom it may concern” is a pretty dated phrase, and you don’t want to seem like you’re thoughtlessly following tradition in the context of a cover letter.
With more options available to you than simply “To whom it may concern,” you can rest easy knowing that there exists a perfect salutation for your specific situation. Of course, you should still search LinkedIn, the company’s website and even Twitter before resorting to labeling your recipient anonymous — even the most media-averse employees leave traces online. At the end of the day, you may not always be able to locate the name of your recipient, but at least now you have a few methods to apply in order to traverse that uncomfortable anonymous terrain.