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The conventional way we open formal correspondence in our culture is, of course, “Dear [insert name or title],” where the addressee’s name, if known, or their title is inserted after the word “Dear.”  Thus, a typical piece of correspondence might begin “Dear Ms. Hobbes” or “Dear Recruiting Manager.” However, where the addressee’s name or title are not known, perhaps the most common formulations with which to begin correspondence are “Dear Sir/Madam,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” or “Ladies and Gentlemen.”   However, in these non-binary times these formulations just do not seem right, as they exclude those who do not identify as either male or female.  So, what to do?

One option would be to resort to another conventional epistolary greeting: “To Whom It May Concern.”  While this eliminates the problem of excluding non-binary addressees, there is something rather cold and distant about it that makes it appropriate only for the most impersonal of correspondence.  Let us examine a few other options, then.  We could begin with the words “Dear Associate.”  This also eliminates the non-binary issue, though it is not entirely satisfactory, as it may imply a closer professional connection between the sender and the addressee than may in fact be the case.  It also comes off as a tad bureaucratic.  Another formulation that eliminates the non-binary issue is “Dear Comrade.”  However, while the word “comrade” is arguably broad enough to cover a range of addressees from friend to senior officer, it is undoubtedly too tainted by its association with communism to reach common usage in the capitalist world.

One could also use “Dear Colleague,” which bears some similarity to “Dear Associate,” though it strikes me as a bit more respectful in tone.  In addition, it does not carry the suggestion that the sender and the addressee work for the same organization, though it does suggest that the two are in the same profession.  Yet another candidate is “Dear Friend.”  Indeed, this is how Quakers address each other.  But it does connote an intimacy between sender and addressee that some might find uncomfortable or incorrect.  One final option is to start the correspondence simply with the word “Greetings.”  This option avoids the non-binary problem, as well as the need to use some sort of title.  However, there is something about it that seems a bit unprofessional and perhaps more akin to a solicitation of some sort.

Okay, so there you have it.  Unfortunately, there is no single candidate that stands out as perfect.  Each has something to commend it, but also some potential drawbacks.  That being the case, I think that my vote would go to “Dear Colleague.”  It is respectful, with just the right degree of formality.  And while it may suggest that the sender and addressee work for the same organization or are in the same profession, dictionary definitions of the term “colleague” are broad enough to encompass such terms as “associate,” “comrade,” “friend,” and pretty much anyone engaged in an undertaking related to that of the sender.  In my view, second place would go to “Greetings,” especially if the type of correspondence (e.g., a solicitation) is particularly suited to that opening.

I hope that you will share any candidates you think I may have missed, as well as which candidate gets your vote.  And we shall see if there is an appetite out there for a gender-neutral epistolary salutation.