Forms of Address – More Informal, More Familiar – Not Appropriate

By | 2017-01-13T13:42:25+00:00 February 3rd, 2010|Categories: Respectful Workplace|Tags: , |5 Comments

Recently, I received a number of requests on how to deal with less formal uses of address. It seems like most forms of address have become extremely relaxed over the years to the point of being disrespectful. I maintain that this is a direct generational response by parents reacting to their own upbringing. Whatever the reason, the end result diminishes the respect shown to one another in subtle ways, which reflects an attitude of laziness, inappropriate familiarity and just plain rudeness.

One reader stated:

“I have a pet peeve about how the ordinary citizen is addressed, say, in a doctor’s office. I am always ‘Mary’, which I sometimes don’t hear because I have a double first name which is Mary Jane. Granted my name is not easy but I could be referred to as Ms. Jones which never happens even if the speaker is 20! Is this lack of effort to call someone by their rightful name because there is overall very little respect for anyone anymore?”

My explanation, for this all too common phenomenon, is that people simply don’t realize that something as simple as how we refer to one another is the very essence of showing respect. I believe we are more consumed with “I” and “me” and thus end up taking the easy way out of conducting ourselves. Without  guidance and social education, people will continue to ignore showing one another a sense of decency. There is also carelessness about not listening to or paying attention to what a person’s name is. It creates a perception that the individual just doesn’t matter.

My advice to anyone who thinks this detail really goes unnoticed and doesn’t matter is that they are absolutely wrong. There is nothing more personal than one’s name. Getting it wrong sends shock waves through most people. This is why it is so important to take the time and make the effort to focus on a person’s correct name and title. And if you don’t know the person, it is a good idea to call them by their last name (surname) preceded by Mr., Miss, Mrs. or in my opinion, the unfortunate Ms. Only when someone gives you permission to call them by their first name is it okay to do so. If you are introduced by a third party using first names then it is acceptable to use a first name.

In a professional setting, there is nothing wrong with using formalities. In fact, it is down right rude not to in most cases. Even when going to see your doctor, refer to him or her as ‘doctor’. You are seeing them as a professional and they should be addressed accordingly. Similarly, receptionists should not call you by your first name. Familiarity of this sort screams disrespect.

We like it when we are called by our name. In fact, we are annoyed when people get our names wrong. Using one another’s name is a sign of respect. It shows that you matter and that someone has taken the time and effort to remember your name. Addressing someone by their proper name lets that person know that they stand out in your thoughts. Though memory does not always serve us well and we can forget names from time to time, simply admit that you have forgotten a name, apologize and ask for their name again. Since this happens to all of us, it should not be considered bad form. Remember the cardinal rule of recognizing the intent behind what we say. We don’t purposely forget names and should not be chastised for it.

I recommend paying close attention to how we address each other. As it matters to you how you are introduced and spoken to, it matters to everyone else too. We all deserve the same level of respect. This simple act goes a long way in making the communities in which we live and work more civilized.

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About the Author:

Jay Remer
Jay Remer is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and international protocol. He lives in St. Andrews, NB, Canada. For more information, visit


  1. Brendalee Harris February 3, 2010 at 10:44 am

    You are old and antiquated…and speaking my language! I feel it’s disrespectful when you don’t give your elder the courtesy of addressing them correctly. Even when given permission to call my elder (not necessarily elderly or senior in age) by his/her first name, I usually say “Ms./Mr._____”. They usually take it in stride when I explain that it’s not disobedience on my part, but respect for them. It’s even more critical in a professional setting because we are such a global society that liberties that we take in America just don’t fly abroad. And we are doing business more often than not with our global neighbors every day in every way. Bottom line, if we are not doing it, how can we teach our children to do?!!!

  2. David Cowen February 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    I would like to offer a perspepctive on why people use first names over last names, and this, by no means, makes it correct because it’s not. I go through great pains to use a person’s last name and to get it pronounced correctly. The reason I do that is that I have a 5-letter last name, and 90+% of people mispronounce it. The chances of mispronouncing a first name are less than a last name in the majority of cases (the global society will affect that). People opt for the first name because they fear being wrong and getting corrected. The reason they do that is that they are not well-grounded from within (low self-esteem /self-respect from within). So rather than possibly butchering a name, they keep themselves “intact” while sacrificing a show of respect to another. And since they do that for tough names, they do it for easy names to be consistent; again, keeping themselves intact.

  3. Bruce Kulgowski February 3, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    I agree with David Cowen, as you can see my name is always said incorrectly. Most European names all the letteres are said. I tell people where I come from its the same as Smith. Most Americans if its not Jones, Smith, or Johnson can not pronounce a name. Shame on anyone that doesn’t at least try!

  4. Melody February 8, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I agree with Jay on the point of getting the name right. My name is commonly mispronounced as “Melanie”. Even while working retail with a name tag that clearly had my name spelled, people got my name incorrect. Even my neighbor who I have known for almost 10 years mispronounces my name!

    While thinking about the lady’s comment in Jay’s posting, I wonder if doctors’ offices have gone to first name only due to privacy practices? It’s harder to identify someone by their first name than their last name or using both.

    On a similiar note – I took my youngest daughter to an orthopaedic dr to have a cast removed. When we entered the office, we were directed to a computer to sign in and given a “beeper” – one like you get at a restaurant. When it was my turn to register her, they called our number and then the beeper went off when it was our turn to see the dr. I think that’s more disrespectful. I’d rather be called by my first name than be a number.

  5. A. C. Metcalf April 17, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I will be 70 years of age on my next birthday. Although they are welcome to, even some of my co-workers will not call me by my first name, and yet…

    I had an appointment at a dentist’s office for the very first time yesterday. On the Registration form there was an item inquiring ‘what would you prefer to be called?’ or something like that. Thinking, “at last, I get a choice in the matter!” I wrote in “Ms. Metcalf.” (So many office people, especially in medical offices, are making the unilateral decision that using the first name is more “friendly” but they are not “friendly” enough to provide their services for free and since I am paying I consider the process a formal business arrangement as opposed to a visit between mutual “friends.” )

    At any rate, subsequently, the receptionist called me “Ms. Metcalf” one time, then the dental assistant called me by my first name, and the receptionist made it a point to use my first name only on my next appointment card and in the two E-Mails sent to me the same day.

    It appeared they were in effect telling me that they chose not to grant me the type of respect that using an honorific and my last name would imply.

    I once had an optometrist introduce himself to me as “Doctor” whatever, then proceed to ask me how to pronounce my first name and to go on to use my first name.

    Oddly enough, my primary care doctor, my ophthalmologist, and my oncologist–and their respective staffs–all call me Ms. Metcalf and have done so for years. I’ve also noted that the bank, power companies, and telephone company personnel also stick with the last name, so why is it so difficult for some?

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