My given name and my surname are both well-known given names. Hence, many people use my surname as my first name mistakenly. This occurs especially in mail conversations when I cannot introduce myself face to face.

Usually, I use polite and subtle ways to correct people, e.g., using "P.S.: XXXXXX is my first name. ;)". However, in the last few months the number of people addressing me by my surname increased a lot and it started annoying me. As an academic advisor, many students consult me using mail. I don't want to correct people all the time, especially in the consultation context, but I want to be addressed using my given name. I fear that my "wrong" name naturalizes among students and other members of my institute. It seems like the conventions "[given name] [surname]" and "[surname], [given name]" don't point out my given name sufficiently.

How should I deal with this problem? Is there a way to prevent people from confusing my first and my surname in the first place, maybe by highlighting it using a specific notation?

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 11:09
  • 1
    @DetlevCM But that's a problem in another regard: What, if DETLEVCM vs. DetlevCM carries meaning? Commented May 8, 2020 at 8:26
  • 1
    @I'mwithMonica - In my case the C and M are actually initials ;) and thus would not be part of an "official name" in the shape of one consecutive word. I really doubt surname capitalisation would be a problem. I could imagine that some of the Scottish names prefaces with "Mc" or "Mac" or similar constructions should they exist elsewhere may be slightly problematic, but apart from that, I think the vast majority of the world (at least world using Latin characters) would benefit from surname capitalisation.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 12:47
  • I gave up. I don't think there's a way to stop this - at best you can try and reduce the incidence rate, but I got to the point where I just accepted the risk, and went with it. Just like addressing people with the wrong pronoun, these things happen, and you deal with it, as it comes up. Sometimes I just ignore it (e-mail communication, where it doesn't matter, as long as they reach the right person), sometimes I clear it up (group conversations with strangers, where other people might get confused by the mistake). Commented May 8, 2020 at 17:48
  • 2
    Fun fact: In the USA, Kent Clark’s outnumber the Clark Kent’s by about nine to one.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 22:21

14 Answers 14


Something to keep in mind, in a lot of cultures the first name is actually the surname.

So when you say "first name" you are actually confusing a whole range of cultures surnames and given names. Which is ironic given the question.

It's best just to be direct. "Please call me Bob" is better than "Bob is my first name". A direction is clearer than a statement. It doesn't make any assumptions about the motivations of the person using your surname. They may have come from a culture where using the surname is a sign of respect, so your "correction" may be giving them information they already know.

It is somewhat typical to use capital letters for your surname.

As this answer indicates, you should be signing things with your preferred name, and your full name and position should appear in a much less prominent font. If an inordinate number of people are making mistakes regarding this, the distinction between your preferred name and email signature is not enough.


Quite a few people have commented about their own cultures, and it's even more complicated than I thought.

Indeed, thinking about my answer, I've kinda answered a different question. There is a bit of a distinction between "first name" and "name you wish to be called". I think it usually don't matter what people understand the given name is, or what the surname is. The main thing is people are addressed how they wish to be addressed.

A few examples:

  • Title only: Doctor
  • Given name: John
  • Title and surname: Doctor Doe
  • Surname: Doe
  • Nickname: Johnnie
  • Middle name: Jack
  • 8
    But "Please call me X" has different implications depending on whether X is your given name or surname. The first case connotes familiarity, the second case suggests formality.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 19:00
  • 13
    Although usually if you're asking someone to call you by your surname, you also include an honorific, e.g. "Please all me Mr. Bob".
    – Barmar
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 19:02
  • 8
    +1 the culture aspect is highly important in an education setting where foreign students are involved.
    – Aaron
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 21:48
  • 102
    Plot twist: OP's name is Bob Bob.
    – Nico Burns
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 23:49
  • 29
    Just as a note: In Japan, the first name is the surname, but when we say faastoneemu (first name), we mean given name. Commented May 7, 2020 at 0:50

I've had this happen to - people assume my last name is my first name as it would be a guys name but I'm a girl.

It's tricky when you're communicating via email but usually I just sign off the email:



[firstname][surname] - Data Scientist, [Company Name]

Usually that makes it pretty clear.

  • 7
    Thanks. Unfortunately, that's already how I do it. :D
    – lema
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 10:13
  • 8
    You mentioned you're an academic adviser, maybe they are trying to be polite? We used to call lecturers by their last name as a matter of respect, how about just saying "Please, call me lema, Mr XX is so formal" - also a note that this may be better answered on the Academia SE, you can flag it and ask mods to move it over if you agree
    – Gamora
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 10:16
  • 4
    In Germany, you address persons either by Mr./Mrs. Surname or just by their given name. It is colloquial to use the surname without the Mr./Mrs., especially in written communication. Therefore, it can be assumed that they confuse my names instead of trying to polite.
    – lema
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 13:53
  • 4
    In English I often get called Mr. firstname, especially people from Indian subcontinent do so. I assume they try to be polite or its a from you can talk in some Indian language.
    – usr1234567
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 9:28
  • 1
    Yeah, I've tried this and never had it actually work for me. No one reads the closing or signature block in an e-mail unless they're looking for a phone number, and then they just read things that are numbers and skip everything else (citation needed). Commented May 7, 2020 at 13:48

In France it is almost the norm to use Firstname LASTNAME.

While initially this looks weird, it helped numerous Jean MARC or Paul MARTIN to convey what is what.

Looking at it from an international perspective, it usually works. We still get cases where both are mixed, especially in the case where Firstname is a common last name in the other country. Extra points when LASTNAME is a common first name. (I have a coworker who is in that unfortunate case).

This has the added value to allow the order LASTNAME Firstname, still being explicit on which is which.

  • 3
    Came here to mention the upper-case strategy, which can be very effective. Though I'd mention, in English contexts, "SURNAME Given-name" always uses a comma; this is extremely well standardized. In the special case where the OP wishes to be addressed by their surname ("Prof. Robert" for example) then perhaps they could arrange to have their given names represented by initials. EG Prof L Robert instead of Lee Robert.
    – CCTO
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 14:45
  • Indeed. Seems a little unusual at first, but then one gets used to it. And ambiguity is pretty much impossible in this configuration.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 18:50
  • +1 for this. I have two given names, and a last name that can also be a given name. On top of that, we use eastern name order in Hungary. So when it matters, I use this convention. (or use my nickname with friends, coworkers, etc.)
    – Nyos
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 23:27
  • Thank you. Multiple people pointed out this approach here. I will give it a try. Do you think, it is sufficient to use this notation in my mail signature. I don't think I can implement it in all of the institutes' websites.
    – lema
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 7:53
  • 2
    @lema: the problem you may face is that this is quite country specific. It will look weird initially if you are the only one using that approach. In such a case pushing a wider adoption actually helps to go past the WTF phase and actually see it as useful.
    – WoJ
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 10:26

Usually, I use polite and subtle ways to correct people, e.g. using PS

When someone gets a name or other important fact (job title, etc) about you wrong, the most effective way to correct it is head-on, quickly and to the point. It's not really the time for subtlety or passiveness. Assertively correct the fact, before moving on with the conversation.

So in written format, a PS is definitely not the place to put it - as you've found, it's more likely to be ignored or just not seen as that important.

You could combine it with your own greeting in the first line:

Hi Surname,

What's the latest on...

Thanks, Jane

Hi Jane, Lema here (Surname is my surname!)

The status is...

Thanks, Prof Lema H. Surname*

*What? well..

maybe by highlighting it using a specific notation

Yes, one possibility here is people simply scan reading emails just aren't parsing your name correctly - hooking onto the first word that pattern matches as a first name and using that.

A pragmatic suggestion: a simple format change might help with this. Perhaps use a title, and/or a middle name or initial if you have one. Also, don't just update your email signature but the name field of your emails too, if you can.

Lema Surname Vs Prof Lema H. Surname - How much likelier is it that someone parses out Surname as your first name from scan reading the 1st Vs the 2nd?

  • Thanks, I will address the problem more head on the future. Regarding your second advice: I use a mail signature that contains my full name as well as my titles. Apparently, even this does not suffice.
    – lema
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 14:08

The well-known software developer DJ Delorie has a somewhat unusual first name (it is exactly DJ) which people often distort because they misunderstand it or think it is misspelled when they read it in communication.

DJ addresses this with a statement on his website. You could have something similar on your department home page and as an email signature.

  • 3
    Do you know how DJ is pronounced? Is it deejay or something like dzj?
    – Berend
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 10:30
  • 1
    @Berend There are videos with him online; in this interview he pronounces his own name "dee-jay", if I hear it correctly over the whine of my laptop ;-). Commented May 7, 2020 at 15:47

Check what the normal form of address is in those students' academic environments.

In multiple academic contexts that I've been involved in, it has been perfectly normal that ALL persons within a particular group are routinely addressed by their surname with no honorifics.

Similar to how academic citations are often written e.g. [Jones et al.], or the way that wikipedia articles routinely discuss their subject using only the surname, but used for everyday address within the academic context.

It's possible that what you are perceiving as them getting your first and last names mixed up is simply using the normal form of address for that environment.

If people who are accustomed to that form of address are using it with you, the insistence on using your first name may come across as unusual, and perhaps overly-familiar.

On the other hand, if they're normally on first name terms with everyone else in a similar position to you, it's more likely a mistake that needs correcting...

  • Well, both the undergraduate degree and the PhD in the UK had me in environments that used first names... (Though the PhD-Uni used surnames for undergraduate students. -> Institutional differences in the same country.) Typically surnames are always the polite formal form - but it cannot be assumed they the standard for a given group.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 18:56
  • Addressing someone by their surname without a honorific would be considered rude in Germany.
    – Joooeey
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 10:19

Just sign your emails the way you want to be addressed, in your case sign them with your first name. People who need your family name will be able to find it in your email address anyway.

Also, avoid devoting too much attention to that. Some people will always get it wrong and you can't do anything about it.

I work with people from different cultures, with names I hear for the first time in my life. To avoid rubbing someone the wrong way I just check how they signed their email to pinpoint how they want to be addressed.

  • 1
    But those students start the email conversations appearently.
    – guest
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 20:47
  • In addition, I do sign my mails the way I want to be addressed, which is my given name.
    – lema
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 20:51
  • 3
    @guest, how on earth do you want convey to people you have never talked with what your first name/ family name is? You can only convey that that during your first mail to them/ contact with them, not earlier than that. Or do you have another idea? Your criticism applies to each of the answers here.
    – BigMadAndy
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 21:08
  • 1
    @lema. I actually address that: "Also, avoid devoting too much attention to that. Some people will always get it wrong and you can't do anything about it."
    – BigMadAndy
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 21:09
  • @BigMadAndy: There has to be something how the students learn about you. In this case, it is the person's homepage.
    – guest
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 21:14

I know a guy whose first name is much more common as a surname and his surname is much more common as a first name. This leads to the same sort of confusion. When we're on an email chain with someone that uses the wrong name, the rest of us start adding a salutation line to the top of our messages. Nothing fancy, just an explicit reference to the person we're addressing:

[recipient's first name],

I think you forgot to attach the file to your previous email.

My office is not usually that formal, but it's a simple enough addition that it doesn't seem awkward or out of place. It lets the reader know not only the name that person goes by, but also that it's socially acceptable to use that name (as opposed to a more formal address). There's also a slight peer-pressure aspect to it as well, since it feels awkward to refer to someone by a different name than everyone else is using. If you have multiple people with the same first name, use their first name and last initial instead of the complete last name.

This "lead by example" method worked most of the times that we've tried it (although not always immediately). It avoids calling out someone's mistake in front of others, and makes it a bit easier for someone who doesn't fully understand your culture. It's also at the very top of the email, so it's hard to ignore. This obviously won't work for one-on-one conversations, but in those instances it's easier to be direct without risking offense.

  • 2
    I think this is good advice. However, I assume from lema's position as an academic councillor, and that they mention students emailing them, that most of these errors are not in chain emails with multiple participants where a co-worker could correct the mistake by example. Still useful in general.
    – Dan
    Commented May 6, 2020 at 22:37
  • I like the subtlety and politeness of this approach. The utility is limited to conversations involving more than two persons, as you already pointed out, which unfortunately is the minor part of all conversations I have.
    – lema
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 7:47
  • You are gold star colleagues. Commented May 8, 2020 at 12:29

You're possibly facing two distinct but related challenges:

  1. You're requesting to be addressed by your first name and don't want people to follow the traditional, polite and formal German convention to address you with your (academic) titles and your surname. i.e. Please call me "John" and not "Herr Professor Doktor Doe".

    And maybe related: please use the informal German form of "Du" rather than the formal "Sie"?

  2. People commonly mistake your surname for your first name and vice-versa.
    And thus you might be addressed either with your first name in a formal salutation such as "Herr Professor Doktor John" or informally as "Hi Doe," (rather than "Hi John,").

To address the first quite a few of my German colleagues have the tags "#gernperDu" and "#CallMeByMyFirstName" in their email signatures indicating that they prefer a more informal tone of address. See: http://www.gernperdu.de/

Maybe you can expand on those tags and use them in your email signature to also clarify which is your first name. For instance create a signature:

Mit freundlichen Grüßen / with warm regards,

#gernperDu #CallMeByMyFirstName : John

Dr. Dr. h.c. Dr. h.c. John Doe
Lehrstuhl für ...
Universität ...


Make up your own "everyday" name

I've had a bunch of clients over the years who didn't use any of their proper names (first, last or middle) in normal conversation and everyone (including themselves) addressed by some other name. You can pick any name you want and tell everyone to use that and hardly every reference your official name.

So you're free to just tell everyone to call you "Pat" or "Mike" or "Dutch" or whatever you want.

Plonk it on your emails, and stick it on a tee-shirt and on your office door (assuming you have that rarer and rarer luxury of an actual office - with a door no less). Stick it on emails and your default signature. You can plonk a standard footer indicating your real name and title and position as well.

Strictly speaking there's no reason your new name can't be an email-alias as well, but a lot of IT departments and HR departments have "set in stone" rules that don't achieve anything and in your case may be counter productive - I wonder how many people have tried emailing you with the names the wrong way around ? So in your case there is a valid argument for having an alias email as well as a "real" one.

  • 1
    Interesting idea, but I think that is not appropriate in my situation. Using what basically is a nickname, would probably confuse my consulters or come across as unprofessional since this is nothing I've ever seen in German Academia. About 20-30% of all my consulters mix up my names.
    – lema
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 7:44
  • 2
    @lema Maybe that's a German thing, but it would not have an unprofessional appearance in my culture (Ireland). Thanks for the cultural perspective - useful to know. Commented May 8, 2020 at 7:59

Some people can't be corrected on this easily. How much you wish to correct them depends on how much you're prepared to disrupt the conversation as well as how much it bothers you. The error you're seeing is likely to be at the more bothersome end of the scale, and if it recurs with an individual probably needs clear correction. A PS is probably too gentle.

Like you, I'm in academia, and prefer to be addressed by my given (first) name. Some students can't be persuaded. Most of those settle on "Dr Surname", which feels overly formal but is at least correct; "Dr Chris" is common among students from some backgrounds, and I'm sometimes addressed by my bare surname even though it's not used as a given name. This was normal in school, but I suspect it has more to do with referring to authors in the 3rd person by their surnames alone.

I wouldn't try too hard to persuade them against using "Dr Surname" - an attempt or two early on but then I leave it. Some students seem more comfortable with a little formality acting as a barrier. Similarly if someone's cultural background means they regard "Dr Chris" as suitable, I won't labour the point, though I will try to educate them, especially if they're new to UK/western academia.

On the rare occasions when my bare surname is used in an email of speech I do try to stop it, gently but directly. Something like "Please call me Chris, or Dr Surname if you want to be formal. Calling me just Surname makes me feel like I'm back in school, and in trouble"

  • There’s Judge Judy, and there’s Dr. Hilary (extremely well known in the U.K.) going by first names.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 22:32
  • @gnasher729 I can think of a few other examples too (e.g. Dr Ranj). Dr Firstname is perhaps a more common style in medicine, when there may be a desire to combine medical authority with putting people at ease, than it is in academia.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 10, 2020 at 6:36

Since it is THEIR confusion, you really can't completely correct it. The suggestions in other answers might help, but only if people actually pay attention. In my experience (having a first name which many people automatically replace with a common nickname), people won't until they've been corrected a number of times, and sometimes not even then :-(

The only real solution here is to change your name.

  • 1
    Sounds pretty pessimistic. Do you actually think about changing your name because of this?
    – lema
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 7:49
  • @lema: No, because it's no more than a minor annoyance to me.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 19:16

Change your name. You (most likely) didn't pick your name so it shouldn't be an important part of your identity (compare with your profession or similar where you made an active choice, based on your interest, competence and so on).

No one abroad can pronounce my given name so when I am overseas (both temporarily and when when I have lived there for a couple of years) I use one of my two other names, which is much more international. The name is just a tool, use the best tool for the problem.

  • 4
    Since I already published some papers, I would rather not do that. But, I will definitely adopt my partner's surname for a double name after getting married. As a side note, changing your surname can cost over a thousand Euros in Germany. I don't think my situation is bad enough to justify this expense for me.
    – lema
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 8:06
  • 4
    As far as I am aware you are not allowed to change your name in Germany just because you do not like the way people address you. Name changes are only allowed for a limited number of reasons (marriage being one of them). Commented May 8, 2020 at 10:53
  • 1
    Haha, WTF! In Sweden you can change your name without any reason at all. There are limitations to what name you can pick (you are not allowed to take a name that can cause offence, nor are you allowed to take a surname that only a few people have or belongs to a family of the former nobility). Your first change of name is free - which makes a lot of sense: you didn't pick your given name nor parents (for the surname) - after that there is a nominal fee, maybe €20 or something like that, to change your name. Isn't picking your own name a human right listed somewhere?
    – d-b
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 20:07
  • 3
    If anyone suggested to me changing my name because it is of no importance I’d recommend not doing it face to face.
    – gnasher729
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 22:29

1. Forgo the signature

Any email program that allows signatures should have a setting to either add your signature automatically to every email, or to ask you, or to have a checkbox for yes/no, or add it to the bottom of the email you compose as text but allow you to delete it, or some subset thereof.

When communicating with people outside your institution, or anyone who doesn't already know you, a signature including your full name and position is a very good thing. However, I would assume a student who's taking your class already knows that you're a professor at that university, right? So you don't need to provide that extra info.



might actually get read and is a lot clearer than



Firstname Lastname, MFA in Underwater Basketweaving, PhD in Underbasket Waterweaving, Basket U Associate Professor of Weaving, Underwater U
Author, Waste Baskets: Towards a New Ethical Hermeneutic of Weaving in the Age of Twitter

which everyone's eyes tend to skip right over.

2. Check your "display name"

Computers are supposed to facilitate communication, not impede it. Good IT techs know this and will want to help you out if possible. At my last org, everyone's display name (the human name the email program says the email is from, instead of or in addition to the actual email address) included a nickname. This was especially helpful if the name you went by every day wasn't obvious to a non-native speaker, like "Doe, Margaret Ann (Peggy)", or was something else entirely like "Doe, John J. (Sketch)". But if your name is John James, and your current display name is "John James" or "James, John" and you think that might be part of the problem, you could ask for one like "John James (John)" or "James, John Q. (John)" or something like that, to highlight your preferred mode of address.

  • Any hints to go with that downvote? Commented May 13, 2020 at 12:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .