When writing a letter or email, it’s important to start with the right salutation. In most written communications, you probably don’t even think about the salutation because a simple “Hi Jane”, “Hello John” or “Dear Ms. Wright” gets the job done.
But what happens when you don’t know the name of the person to whom you’re writing? In such instances, you might default to the classic “To Whom It May Concern”.
“To Whom It May Concern” is a traditional salutation used in formal writing. When using the salutation, each letter is capitalized and it is followed by a colon. “To Whom It May Concern” is frequently used in cover letters accompanying job applications and generic reference letters.
In this article, I will discuss why you should avoid using “To Whom It May Concern”‘ wherever possible. Letters should, as much as possible, include personalized greetings. In the event you can’t personalize your greeting, you should use one of the alternatives to “To Whom It May Concern” that is listed below.
While this article doesn’t specifically address “Dear Sir/Madam” as a greeting, you can treat it largely in the same way that you treat “To Whom It May Concern”. Keep in mind, however, that “Dear Sir/Madam” has additional baggage compared to “To Whom It May Concern”, not least of which is that some people do not like having the title “Sir” or “Madam” thrust upon them.
Why "To Whom It May Concern" Usually Isn't Appropriate
1. It's Generic
The biggest issue with “To Whom It May Concern” is its generic nature. When you use “To Whom It May Concern”, you’re conceding that you don’t know who will read your letter.
Just think about the consequences of this for a moment. Practically speaking, who should the letter be delivered to if there is no identified recipient? If the letter manages to get delivered, what is your letter reader going to think when they see that you addressed them with a generic “To Whom It May Concern” rather than their name or title? Your reader may look at your choice of salutations as laziness on your part, or a lack of interest in the subject matter of the letter. After all, if you didn’t even bother to take the time to figure out who would read your letter, do you really care about the letter?
You don’t want to give your reader the wrong impression or put them in a foul mood, especially right at the start of your letter. For this reason, you should always try to use a personalized greeting.
2. It's Overly Formal
“To Whom It May Concern” is stiff and formal. This is a problem because “To Whom It May Concern” appears at the start of your letter and sets the tone for the rest of your letter. Readers who see “To Whom It May Concern” may find your overly formal tone to be distracting at best and off-putting at worse.
You might also confuse your reader if you start with the formal “To Whom It May Concern” but then don’t follow through with a similarly formal tone in the rest of your letter.
While formal letter writing certainly has its place, it doesn’t fit most modern settings. Even in traditionally formal settings, like business and law, formal writing is giving way to natural and conversational writing.
Emails vs Letters
While I wrote the above primarily in the context of traditional letters, it also applies to emails — if anything, using “To Whom It May Concern” in an email is even worse than using it in a traditional letter. Emails are less formal than traditional letters and should accordingly use a less formal salutation than “To Whom it May Concern”. As with traditional letters, you should try to address your emails to the person who will actually read them. If you don’t have an individual’s name, then try to use one of the alternatives to “To Whom It May Concern” that are listed below.
Always Try to Personalize Your Greetings
You should always try to personalize your greetings. If you don’t know who will read your letter, then there are a few steps you can take to determine the recipient’s name. Some of these steps include:
- Talking to people “in the know”. You can try calling the organization’s general hotline or toll-free number and asking who is best suited to receive your letter. Alternatively, you can ask people in your network if they have any suggestions.
- Visiting the recipient’s website: Often, organizations will post their employee’s names and positions on their website. You can use this information to identify the name of the person who will read your letter.
- Using social media: People frequently post their affiliation with organizations on social media. You can use this to identify your potential recipient. LinkedIn is especially useful for this function because it lets you filter people by organization.
Alternatives to "To Whom It May Concern"
If you can’t find a proper name to use in your greeting, then you should try to address your letter to the intended recipient’s title or position (i.e. “Dear [title/position]”). By using a greeting with a person’s position or title, you’ve at least made it clear who is intended to receive the letter.
For example, if you’re writing a cover letter for a job application, then you can use the following greetings:
- To the Recruiting Team
- To the Hiring Manager
- To the [Company Name] Recruiter
- Dear Search Committee
Outside of the job application context, you may want to consider a salutation such as the following:
- Dear Customer Service Manager
- To the Management of [Company Name]
- Dear Shift Supervisor
- To the Chief Financial Officer of [Company Name]
Finally, even if none of the above salutations are appropriate in your context, you still shouldn’t default to “To Whom It May Concern”. As a last resort, consider whether a simple and conversational salutation is appropriate. Simple salutations are often sufficient in less formal contexts like emails. Examples of simple salutations include the following:
- Dear Friends
- Fellow Colleagues
- Good Day
- Good Morning
- Good Afternoon
- Good Evening
The Exception: When "To Whom It May Concern" Can Be Used
When writing a letter, you should always try to use a personalized greeting. “To Whom It May Concern” may, however, be appropriate in instances where (i) you genuinely have no idea who may read your letter, and (ii) you have little interest in the impact of the letter.
For example, “To Whom It May Concern” could be an appropriate greeting in a reference letter. In such an instance, a generic greeting means that the letter can be used multiple times and in multiple contexts without the need for any edits. You, as the letter writing, also have low stakes in terms of whether the letter is successful.
If you use “To Whom It May Concern”, don’t change its wording. The convention is “To Whom It May Concern” followed by a colon. Do not try to change it to “To Whomever This May Concern” or “To Who This Concerns” or anything similar. By changing the conventional language, you risk distracting your reader.