What should I call you?

Does it bother you if someone you’ve never met before addresses you in a familiar way? For example, if they use your first name, rather than Mr/Mrs/Ms or other title plus your surname.

Some of my friends object strongly to being addressed by their first name by their bank manager, for example, or to receiving emails or letters from strangers which start Hi [first name], rather than Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms [surname].

It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if strangers call me Simon rather than Mr Ager. In fact I prefer informality to formality any day. However I do tend to correct mispronunciations of my surname.

When I reply to emails I tend to take my lead from how to sender has addressed me. If they start with ‘Dear Mr Ager’, then I’ll use the same formular to reply. Some even award me other titles, such as professor or Dr, which I have no claim to. If they start with ‘Hi Simon’, then I’ll reply in a similar way. Some start with ‘To whom it may concern’ or ‘To the webmaster’, which is just lazy – it’s not as if my name is hidden away.

When talking to people face to face I tend not to use their names at all, unless there are several people and I want to get a particular person’s attention. Sometimes this is because I don’t know or can’t quite remember their names, but usually it’s just a habit.

Inspired by a post on Linguism.

This entry was posted in English, Language.

6 Responses to What should I call you?

  1. bulbul says:

    Does it bother you if someone you’ve never met before addresses you in a familiar way?
    That depends on the person and on the context. My first language has the tu-vous distinction and it would be quite out of place to be addressed as something else than Mr. Pycnonotus + vous form by, say, a bank manager, head hunter or customer when addressed in that language. But on the street, in a bar/restaurant or on a bus, it really depends on the person and their general demeanor. But unless someone is obviously trying to assert their perceived dominance by using the tu form, I’m fine with either. Pretty much the same goes for whenever I use German, Spanish or Portuguese. With Dutch and Finnish, there were a few funny/awkward moments when I used the respective vous form – it apparently sounded way too formal to the people I was writing/talking to 🙂
    It’s much simpler with English, especially due to the fact that the big soulless corporation I work for has a first-name-basis-globally policy, so even an email to the CEO would start with ‘Dear Meg’. There I adopt a policy very much similar to yours. The only problem is that Outlook displays everybody’s name in the ‘Last, First’ format and once in a while, somebody starts their message with ‘Hi Pycnonotus’. That really sounds weird (like elementary-school weird), so I usually gently correct them. Pronunciation of my last name is a lost cause.

  2. joe mock says:

    Never thought I would say this, but now, at the ripe old age of 66, I am rather annoyed when people considerably younger than I address me as ‘tú’, which tends to be the case these days, even from my students. It somehow bespeaks an intimacy that just ain’t. Same with first names – and barging through my door without knocking.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m American, we’re generally very informal, so using my first name doesn’t bother me. It would only seem odd in a business situation, that is I would expect to be called Mr. [lastname] instead of by my first name if I were a customer. Same thing if dealing with a public/government official, e.g. a police officer.


  4. dreaminjosh says:

    Off topic, but where in America are you from Andrew? I don’t usually here “Cheers” here unless someone’s holding up a drink!

  5. Call me Ishmael.

    Wait, that’s not me. Like Mr Pycnonotus said, in Finland the vous form can sound a bit too formal. Of course it depends on the people and the situation. I tend to speak more formally to the elderly and people socially higher than me, for example my landlord. Then again, at work, I use the first name of my boss, as does everyone else. At a grocery store, I find it strange if the cashier speaks to me formally. I’m 28 years old, but the vous form makes me feel old.

    I’ve never actually been in a situation, when I would have said “Mr/Mrs/Ms [last name]”. Like Simon, I don’t use the name at all, expect when getting a person’s attention.

    I don’t like it when telemarketers use my first name. Everyone else is welcome to do so.

  6. Vijay John says:

    I think I would agree that I don’t mind people talking to me informally in English, but I’m kind of sensitive to this in Malayalam, which I think has pretty strict, well-defined rules of formality. In Malayalam, there is one pronoun that can be used to address someone informally (the equivalent of French “tu,” Spanish “tú,” etc.). AFAIK, you can only use it when you’re talking to someone who is socially equal or inferior to you in every way (i.e. younger than you or the same age as you + your social subordinate or equal).

    If you’re talking to someone who is socially superior to you in any way (or you want to just show that you respect them), then you’ll probably talk to them in third person.

    For example, Simon is older than me and therefore my social superior by Malayalee standards. So if I met him on the street and we were talking in Malayalam, it would be pretty rude for me to say, “How are you doing?” (using the equivalent of “tu”).

    Instead, even though I’m talking directly to Simon, I would have to say the equivalent of: “How is Simon Uncle doing?”

    (I don’t think I could even say “How is Simon doing?” because that might imply that he is socially inferior to me in some way, e.g. that he’s my servant or driver or just some commoner I don’t care about, even though it also acknowledges that he is socially superior because he’s older).

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