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I am writing an email in Italian to a female HR manager. I was going to write "Buongiorno Sig.ra ____", but I don't know if this would be proper given that she may not be married. What is proper in this situation?

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Probably neither. Since in Italian whoever as a laurea (the lowest universitary degree) is entitled to be called dottore, or dottoressa for a female, chances are that whoever holds a high-level post in a firm or other organisation has this title. So to be on the safe, you may use dott. for a male and dott.ssa (or dott.) for a female.

As for signora / signorina, the use of the latter is dwindling, and the trend is towards a generalised use of signora, whatever the marital status of the woman involved. For more on this, if your Italian is good enough, see, on the website of Accademia della Crusca, what linguist Paolo D'Achille explains.

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  • Note that Dag is from Rome, an area where in some contexts it is not uncommon to call dotto' even random people you meet on the road, as a sign of respect. – Federico Poloni Jan 9 at 10:33
  • Thanks, @FedericoPoloni, but also note that DaG is able to distinguish between popular or jocular use, and formal and standard one, secco. ;) – DaG Jan 9 at 12:09
  • Sure, no offense implied. This was just to note that the frequency of dottore may vary across regions. – Federico Poloni Jan 9 at 12:42
  • Fair point, but the use of dotto' or dottore as an everyday appellation is not the same thing as its formal use in correspondence between strangers. In some parts of the South, marescia' is used as a generalised form of address, but this doesn't detract from the fact that an actual maresciallo (who isn't a friend of yours) is still to be called maresciallo. – DaG Jan 9 at 13:57
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In my experience, the most common solution is avoiding the problem by using a different salutation (for instance, just buongiorno) or switching to a first-name basis earlier than normal practice would suggest (in particular, gentile Anna would sound perfectly OK between coworkers in a firm with a relaxed culture).

I don't tend to 'doctor' people I don't know, and I very seldom look their title up. But that might just be a cultural preference; I can see other people doing differently, in contexts where degrees have a higher perceived importance.

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You usually start formal letters with "gentile" (literally kind), which can be followed by the recipient's "titolo" (title, qualification). If someone is in a public position they will usually have some sort of profile online that tells you what their qualifications are. Check that and write "dottoressa" (f. graduate) if she has a degree, or you can also write "professoressa" (f. professor) if she teaches. You have to check though, if she doesn't actually have a degree it would be awkward to call her dottoressa.

Even if she has no qualification I would avoid "signora" or "signorina" and simply go for "gentile" + her name and surname, in this order. "Signora" and "signorina" feel dated and there's always a chance you make her feel old or weird if you use the wrong one. If your tone is right your letter can sound formal and polite enough even without "signora"/"signorina".

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    All good advice, but I find, say, “Gentile Maria Rossi” a slightly odd mix of formalism and colloquialism and personally I'd avoid it with someone I don't already know. – DaG Jan 8 at 18:08

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