Deciding how to properly address someone doesn’t have to be stressful. Do your best to understand the relationship and to consider their culture when possible.
In many areas, it isn’t rude to call someone by their last name as long as you include a proper salutation with it. It may feel formal, but it can be a wonderful way to get a relationship off on the right foot.
If you work under someone or they teach you, stick with that last name format as a sign of respect towards them and their role.
Calling someone by their last name is often seen as a sign of respect in most locations. Should the other person feel it is too formal, they may ask you to call them by their first name or another name they prefer. When they extend that invitation to do so, it is fine to accept it and change how you address them from that point forward.
When you use the last name, be mindful of salutations to include. For a male, it is always Mr. but for a female, it can be Miss if they are single or Mrs. if they are married. When you meet someone new, you may not know her marital status so it is fine to go with Miss until you do.
Some last names are harder than others to pronounce, but don’t let that get in the way. Try to remember how to say it when you are introduced to them. Create a good impression of yourself when you meet someone new. When you call them by their last name, it gives you a good starting point.
This topic isn’t always black and white, there are some gray areas. Pay attention to how someone is introduced. Listen to how others address them. When you aren’t sure you can ask them to make sure you aren’t making a mistake. Don’t make assumptions as it can harm the relationship and their impression of you.
It isn’t rude to call someone by their last name when you use a proper salutation. It gives you a starting point in the relationship to connect with them that seems to be widely accepted as part of social norms.
If you’re in a hurry, here are the recommendations on when to use last names:
|Role||What to use|
|Former Teacher||Depending on the individual relationship|
|Co-workers||Stick to the company culture|
|University||As they introduced themselves in the first class|
|Older than you||Last Name|
|Somebody you just met||As introduced to you or how others address them|
|Medical professionals||Last Name|
|Military||Honorary title + Last Name|
|Different cultures||Depends, e.g., the USA is often okay – Japan is not okay|
Sign of Respect
A good impression matters when you meet new people. It doesn’t matter if it will be a one-time interaction or the start of something more. If you call them by their last name, they will see it as a sign of respect. This can make a great impression as it shows you have good manners. It can encourage them to talk to you more, to give you a job you applied for, and more.
Calling someone by their last name is also a sign of respect when they are older than you. Many parents teach their children to address family friends this way as well as the parents of their friends. It is a good idea to use this method of addressing individuals in a profession too including teachers and medical professionals.
A common mistake with addressing someone by their last name is assuming what precedes it. This isn’t an issue with males but it can be embarrassing when it comes to females if such a mistake is made. A single woman should be addressed as Miss and one who is married as Mrs. If you aren’t 100% sure they are married always go with Miss and they can correct you if they feel it is necessary to do so.
Never call someone by their last name without some type of salutation preceding it. The one exception to this is when someone is part of a military unit. Even then, you have to be careful as it can be a sign of disrespect if the other person holds a higher ranking. Make sure you know the proper etiquette before you get yourself into hot water with someone! If they have a higher military ranking you need to use their honorary title and then the last name.
It doesn’t hurt to learn the cultural norms for certain environments either. Your employer may not allow you to call each other by your first name. If they don’t have an issue with it, make sure the individuals you interact with don’t.
Due to diverse cultures within any work environment, there may be those that aren’t comfortable with a first name basis. Show them the respect they ask for regarding this.
While students may interact with teachers often, it is never acceptable to interact with them on a first-name basis. They should always be addressed by their last name. Some like to be called professors, teachers, or some other alternative they are widely known by with their student population. On the first day of class, the teachers tend to introduce themselves and share such details.
Where that line may be crossed though is when you are no longer a student. Many teachers stay in touch with students. In small towns, it isn’t uncommon to see them out and about. When a student becomes an adult, can they then call any teachers they are still connected to by a first name?
It all comes down to the relationship and what both parties are comfortable with. If you aren’t sure, bring it up and listen to their feedback. There is a good chance you aren’t the first former student to ask them about this!
Culture plays a role in how this is regarded too. For example, in the USA it is fine to call someone by their first name if they are accepting of it. In places like California, it’s also common to call each other “Dude” daily. If your relationship is a friendly one and you are both comfortable with that format it is not considered rude. This is often how co-workers will address each other.
However, in Japan, calling anyone by their first name is deemed disrespectful. If you visit the country for fun or you do business with a company there you need to understand such protocols. Make sure you are honoring their culture and their acceptable etiquette so there aren’t any misconceptions because you weren’t aware of the cultural differences.
Respectfully addressing individuals is a big deal in Japan. If you make mistakes with this, you may lose relationships both personally and professionally. The foundation of their culture is based on treating others well and being respectful.
You don’t want to compromise this and make someone feel like you were being disrespectful towards them.
Correct Pronunciation of Last Names
One of the pitfalls of calling someone by their last name is it may be harder to pronounce than their first name. While that may tempt you to go with a first name basis, stick with the last name until you know it is acceptable to do otherwise. Strive to use the correct pronunciation with harder last names.
Don’t worry about if you don’t get it correct, do your best! Those with a harder last name are used to it. They realize people aren’t always going to be familiar with it and they tend to take it in stride. When they share with you the correct pronunciation, repeat it to yourself a few times so it will stick for the next time you address them.
Only Call by First Name when they ask you to do so
Not everyone will be comfortable with you calling them by their last name or feel that formality is necessary. Let them be the ones to change it if they so desire. As your relationship with them becomes more personable, they may ask you to call them by their first name or even a nickname. When they extend that to you, acknowledge it and tell them you will do so from that point on.
Likewise, when someone calls you by their last name you get to decide if it sticks or changes. If they are a business associate or someone you barely know, you may decide to leave it that way.
On the other hand, if you plan to interact with them often you may ask them to call you by your first name. The timeframe for such a change isn’t set in stone, and you are in control of that change happening or not. In case another person that you barely know already talks to you with your first name you should figure out their name and use it from then onwards as well.
This also works for people calling you on the phone.
Keep in mind, you may not think it is rude to call someone by their last name, but not everyone has the same mindset about it. Be respectful about it and apologize if you have used the wrong name to address someone. This allows them to see you didn’t mean any disrespect and to share with you what they would like to be called.
If you truly aren’t sure how to address someone and it is important, ask them.
The request doesn’t have to be awkward for either of you. They will appreciate you being direct and you won’t have to stress that you are calling them by the wrong name. Such communication can help to clear up any concerns. Do your part by learning cultural norms but also respecting the decisions of individuals when it comes to this topic.
Sophie Hammond is a journalist, psychologist, and freelance speechwriter for people in politics and business. She lives on the edge of the Rocky Mountains with her dog and a lifetime supply of books. When she’s not writing, she can be found wandering through nature or journaling at a coffee shop.