Hey you! Hi Jill! Think you are close enough with a professor or boss to address them with the salutation of your preference? You might want to reconsider. It is not something that gets to me (assuming that the salutation does not have a negative tone and there is no name calling). I have, however, heard enough other professors and supervisors complain about this that I can tell you that it’s something that means something to many of them. It will serve you well to think about the salutation you use.
It’s not as if the professionals who have an issue with it are on any kind of “power trip” (most of them anyway), rather the pet peeves surrounding the proper salutations are centered on the belief that young adults should respect individuals who are in positions of authority. Generally, they have worked hard to earn their degrees and titles so they can be in positions to help you. Some newer, less experienced supervisors or professors are advised to have others address them as “Dr” or “Professor” (or prefer it), so they can establish professional boundaries with employees or students. Think about it. If your professor said, “Call me Jim” and you called him by his first name all semester, you may have a tendency to believe you are friends. Thus, when you fail to turn in an assignment, you may expect your buddy, Jim, to make an exception for you….and be disappointed when he doesn’t. Thus, the salutation is a way for the professor to make that boundary clear from the beginning. The same idea could be applied to bosses/supervisors.
As a general rule of thumb, stick to the formal salutation and avoid first names and informal greetings unless your boss, supervisor, or professor has told you that it is okay. Here are a few tips for using salutations in a way that helps you as you network or with your relationships with professors or supervisors:
You should err on “Professor” or “Dr.” for professors. If you know the person has a PhD/doctorate or medical degree, address them as “Dr. Smith.” It might be offensive to them to hear “Hi X [first name]” or “Ms. Smith,” even if you intentions are good. If it is a professor and you’re not sure what degree they have, you might want to begin your emails with “Dear Professor Smith.” They can let you know if they prefer for you to use something less formal or if they don’t have a doctorate. Yet, beginning with these salutations will, at the least, increase your chances of starting off on the right foot.
Even if they don’t have a doctorate, stick to a formal salutation unless they tell you otherwise. If you know they don’t have a doctorate, address them as “Mr.” or “Ms.” even if you hear others throwing their first names out there.
Pay attention to how they sign their names if you’ve had prior contact with them. If they consistently sign their first name in the signature of their emails, you could probably feel more comfortable to address them by their first name.
Pay attention to what others say. You can observe how others refer to them. For example, if one of your managers says, “You should tell Mr. Smith that you are not able to work next Saturday, so that he knows how to plan,” then you should probably not address Mr. Smith by his first name when others are directing you to use a particular salutation.
If all of this stresses you out, and it would make you more comfortable to ask them how they prefer to be addressed, doing so would be acceptable. If you don’t, however, stick to the rule of thumb, and stay formal.