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I'm currently in an email chain with a company representative, seeking to get technical documentation on one of their products. After around a dozen emails of me addressing the other individual as "Mr. X", he's asked me to call him by his first name instead. He's been signing his emails with his first name since the beginning.

I'm a big fan of Derek Jeter and how he always called Joe Torre "Mr. Torre", as a sign of respect. I've always sought to emulate that practice. And frankly, as a relatively young (early 20s) engineer, it only seems right to me to use honorifics when working with more senior individuals, unless I know them very well.

Is there a polite way to decline his request? Or am I making mountains out of molehills here and should just call him by his first name?

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    It is respectful to address someone by their surname until invited to do otherwise. Then it is respectful to address someone as they wish. As long as you're coming at this with the mindset of being respectful to them and their wishes, it's hard to go wrong. – Wesley Long Jul 26 '17 at 15:52
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    A sign of respect would be to do what they ask. – paparazzo Jul 26 '17 at 15:53
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jul 29 '17 at 11:55

11 Answers 11

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How to respond to request to use a first name?

If the individual requested it, just use their first name. You are thinking correctly in most cases, but in this case you will be aggravating the individual by not using their first name.

Short answer: Mole hill

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    I find it humourous that this was answered by "Mister Positive" :P. The only thing I would add would be that when someone offers "please, call me [first name]" it is polite to reciprocate, and if OP is not comfortable being called by his/her first name then finding a polite way to decline is better than having the contact perhaps be slighted by OP's lack of reciprocation. – Daevin Jul 26 '17 at 19:46
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    @Ooker - it is a a shortening of the phrase "making a mountain out of a molehill" which means making something into a bigger issue than it really is. – HLGEM Jul 26 '17 at 20:18
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    @tonysdg at least for some people, when they sign with their first name they are implicitly asking (or inviting) to use it. He may have waited 4-5 replies for you to get comfortable (or get the hint :) ). – Davidmh Jul 27 '17 at 9:26
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    The short answer is surely 'mountain' !! – Strawberry Jul 27 '17 at 10:51
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    @MisterPositive nothing AmE about the expression. It actually predates the founding of the US by a few centuries. – terdon Jul 27 '17 at 11:10
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Is there a polite way to decline his request? Or am I making mountains out of molehills here and should just call him by his first name?

The bold option is true. In fact, going down the first route probably has the completely opposite intended effect. If I asked someone to call me by my first name (and I always do) it would irritate me if someone kept calling me by my second name.

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    What truly matters is that the OP has a unanimous answer to his question. :) – DCON Jul 26 '17 at 15:53
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    You can hover over the "answered X minutes ago" to get the exact time. DCON at 15:51:38 and @MisterPositive at 15:51:46! – David K Jul 26 '17 at 15:58
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And frankly, as a relatively young (early 20s) engineer, it only seems right to me to use honorifics when working with more senior individuals, unless I know them very well.

It's not. In a rare few cultures that might still be the case but in this day and age it's common for adults to address each other by their first name, no matter how large the age difference or how far removed they are in the chain of command. It can feel awkward to address C-level executives and company presidents the same way you would your manager when you're low on the totem pole but even there it's usually common to use first names unless you know for sure that you should be more deferential, because you see others doing it or because it's part of the culture.

As Alison Green covers here, this can be an especially strange adjustment for people who enter the workforce for the first time but as she says it's something you just have to get over. Even when you're emailing hiring managers you typically move to first names when they do.

Insisting that you can call or address others with their last name isn't much different from insisting that they avoid using your first name. It's going to get you branded as an oddball very quickly.

There is no polite way to not honour this request, you're going to have to get used to using other adults' first names, at least at work. If you do this outside work it's simply a quirk that some might find quaint or old-fashioned, but at work it's a matter of following business conventions and being in tune with the corporate culture.

Whether you can default to addressing someone by their first name after the initial introduction without them asking you to can depend on the culture. Certainly in most fields in the US and in more modern fields like IT throughout the Western world, it's become the accepted standard to communicate with everyone on a first name basis. Finance and Big Law are classic exceptions as they often have a much more formal culture. Certain countries, particularly in Asia, are also sticklers for formal address. If you're new to the culture, the company, or the workforce in general you should always take your cue from your colleagues and when in doubt opt for formal rather than informal. Nobody minds having to say "No need for that, just call me Joe." while some people might think less of you if you drop honorifics.


All the above applies to both written and spoken communication, though the rare company that has a weird policy on using last names usually reserves it for emails only.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jul 28 '17 at 3:30
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    Instead of claiming that cultures to which your description does not apply are rare, you could just state to which culture(s) you know it to apply. Regards, Dr. Schultz :) – Carsten S Jul 28 '17 at 9:24
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Where I'm from, some youths refused to shake their female teacher's hand. They claimed not shaking a woman's hand was their way of showing her respect, according to their faith and culture. Problem was, the teacher didn't share their faith or culture, so what they did was incredibly disrespectful, contrary to their (stated) intentions.

If you want to show respect to a person, don't do something that makes you feel respectful, do something that makes them feel respected.

Refusing their trivial request makes you feel respectful, complying with their trivial request makes them feel respected. The difference is huge.

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    By analogy, insisting on calling him "Mr. X" could be highlighting an age gap in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable. – 200_success Jul 28 '17 at 3:43
  • @200_success Calling someone Mr, Mrs, or Ms has nothing to do with an age gap, but a sign of respect for another human being. – user52909 Jul 28 '17 at 17:03
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    @Physics-Compute as an absolute, this is incorrect. Calling someone Mr can be a sign of respect, and it can highlight an age gap. It also can imply quite a lot of other things, depending on context, including explicit lack of respect. – Peter Jul 28 '17 at 17:17
  • @Physics-Compute In certain cultures (e.g. Germany), etiquette requires addressing coworkers as "Mr. X". In the US, though, it's generally culturally inappropriate. Especially when the forms of address between coworkers are not reciprocal, it does highlight a gap — call it an age gap, a difference in seniority, or a power differential. Being excessively deferential to superiors can have serious impacts on workplace performance. – 200_success Jul 28 '17 at 18:11
  • @200_success I'm going to generally disagree that it's inappropriate in the U.S., but of course that's subjective to how one was raised. Up until maybe this generation, it is and still widely expected to address another adult as Mr, Mrs, Ms, sir, or ma'am, no matter the circumstance as a general matter of respect showing you are civil, and respecting them as another noble being. The respect one gets is proportional to the amount you give and the amount you demand. – user52909 Jul 29 '17 at 1:35
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Every company or organization has cultural norms. You can pay attention what others do and you will rarely go wrong.

In the US, in general, most places are on a first name basis unless the rank difference is very great. In 40 years in the workplace, the vast majority of people I have worked for prefer first names. The exceptions were 95% senior military officers. Of the civilians, I can only recall one CEO that I would have addressed with Mr. And frankly he was a jerk who treated people like dirt.

If you are culturally different from the person, particularly when they are in a different country, pay closer attention to the way they are addressed. There are countries more formal than the US. When there is a cultural difference, the senior person generally determines how he or she wants to be addressed and makes it clear to junior people. If in your culture, the CEO would generally be addressed as Mister but he asks you to call him Chad, then call him Chad. To do otherwise would be insulting. When he is not present and only people of your culture are present, you can use whatever form of address is common in your culture when referring to him.

Anytime someone senior asks to be addressed by first name, do so. This is akin to having been given an order even though it was probably phrased as a request. Sometimes people hate being called Mister or Mrs (or the much hated Ma'am) because it makes them feel old. Making someone senior to you feel bad is not a good thing.

Further by violating the cultural norms or a direct request, you make yourself seem less professional and too young to be taken seriously. This too is not good for your career.

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    It's been my experience if you are working someplace were someone demands you address them by title or title and surname... it's not a place i want to work. – Matthew Whited Jul 26 '17 at 16:57
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    I would tend to agree except for the military which has very specific cultural norms that have been proven to work best for conditions that most of us do not face day-to-day or other cultures where more formality is the norm. – HLGEM Jul 26 '17 at 16:58
  • "it's not a place I want to work" applies... beyond the fact the miltary doesn't pay well. I don't do well with people demanding things from me. – Matthew Whited Jul 26 '17 at 17:01
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He has asked to be called by his first name. It costs you nothing to honour it.

Also being less formal helps communication as you can act on the same level. You thoughts and experience is just as valuable as any other person. Indeed a new set of eyes are valuable when looking at a problem or solution

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All answers agree that the most respectful way to treat your correspondent is to honor his request, and I'm not going to disagree.

However, I would like to point that that request seems a common commercial strategy. At least it's common at my place, although it can be largely a cultural o linguistic issue.

Since you said you are asking them about their product, I assume you are their customer and their role is similar to a salesperson. An old piece of advice to salespeople is "Be your customer's friend, not a salesperson".

Personally, I don't like to be targeted with such strategy. Therefore, when salespeople make such a request to me, I am not fast to fulfil it, and I try to ignore it or even politely decline if asked twice. At least, I try to keep addressing salespeople older than me in the way that seems more natural to me. In fact, for me it's more a matter of keeping the appropriate distance than a matter of respect.

Of course, if a more senior customer or even a colleague asked me to address them using first name, I would abide to the request.

Btw. in my language (Catalan) the distinction between using first name or last name is not as strong as in English. However, we have T-V distinction (two forms of addressing people, one more friendly and another more respectful) and most of my answer is based on how I handle those two forms in business context - which I suppose is close enough as how I would handle the first name / last name issue if I conducted business in English.

Addition:

I think it is interesting to read this question from another user being unexpectedly addressed by recruiters using the German informal way. He says "that it felt borderline manipulative", and that describes very well what I try to avoid when dealing with salespeople.

  • US vs other places cultural differences. In the US, it's a bit odd in most cases for an adult to address another as Mr/Mrs, and to continue to do so after a request to use their first name is very rude. First names are the default. Bad salesmen do use the "let me be overly familiar" tactic, but generally, using a first name isn't part of that. – Karen Jul 27 '17 at 11:26
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I don't know if this has been said already, apologies if it has. When it comes to emails I think the most respectful way is to:

Address them how they sign of.

If you are starting the email chain then be formal the first time i.e. Mr. X but if they come back to you and sign of with their first name e.g.

Dear ...

blah blah blah ...

Best wishes,

Joe

Then in your next email I would say it is totally fine (and certainly not disrespectful) to address them as 'Joe'. In the UK at least this is what I feel people would expect.

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    Sometimes, the company policy controls the signature, so this isn't always true, but if they do sign it with Joe, then absolutely use Joe. So perhaps it is "Address them no more formally then how they sign of"? – Guy Schalnat Jul 28 '17 at 12:37
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It depends what you want to achieve, but as other answers have noted, if (roughly speaking) you want to show respect you should go for the first name.

Not doing this can be taken as an offensive action (which probably is not the case for your relationship, but I am adding this for completeness).

The scene below took place 25 years ago between a last-year student (top of his class) and a professor with whom they had some frictions (long story).

[professor] you know, all bright students on their last year realize that they can call me by my first name

[student] ah, this is good to know, professor.

Context is everything.

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Definitely try to call him by his first name

Think of it this way:

I'm a big fan of Derek Jeter and how he always called Joe Torre "Mr. Torre", as a sign of respect. I've always sought to emulate that practice.

What you described here is a reasonable approach. It's always good to respect people, and having a default way to respect anyone is good.

However, Mr. X has now asked you to call him by his first name. To decline to do so sends a funny message. It says "I respect everyone, and I do so by using honorifics. However, I will not respect you as an individual. Your individual preferences are not as important as my generic way of greeting all humans who have a pulse." It's not quite the message you want to send, is it?

Try to call him by his first name. If it's hard for you to do because you've gotten in the habit of using honorifics, it's find to slip up and call him Mr. X by mistake. We're all human; he'll understand. But try, because that effort to treat him as an individual is true respect. A demonstration of effort goes a long way.

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I believe you already got several sensible and polite answers for your question. However, I figured I could give some extra commentary on your point of view. This will be a very "I"-based answer and risks being ruled out as an opinion (it is), but I hope it brings some value.

I am not a fan of formality for the sake of it, as I feel it just adds complexity and arbitrary rules for a non-existent problem. In particular, I feel awkward when it comes to last names or titles. Whenever someone starts a conversation with me and addresses me by my last name, my smile automatically vanishes (already as a reflex) and I ready myself for a stressful conversation where my manners will matter more than my thoughts.

The message conveyed is clear: "we are not equal and I expect you to treat me with deference on the basis of some arbitrary achievement". Sometimes, this "achievement" is being born as part of a family (that's what a last name represents, and in some cultures, like mine, it carries more weight than it makes sense): "oh, so you are related with...". Sometimes, the achievement is somewhat more relevant, as a degree (Ms C, PhD...) or a certification (oh, how popular they are in my field of work).

My problem with that is that it brings a lot of weight on the basis of something that is not particularly relevant to determine the quality (I don't like the word, but it is what the titles aim to reflect) of a person, or even its academic worth. I have (as you, in the academic field, probably have) met more than one or two Ph D graduates that fail in life as human beings (in terms of common decency, respect or even skill on their field), whereas some diploma-less people have been nicer and more knowledgeable (and more willing to share their knowledge!) in more than one occasion.

First names, on the other hand, are a sign of empathy. They can break invisible barriers, make people closer and reinforce their role as individuals (as opposed to "member of a family", "owner of a certificate") and, altogether, feel less forced.

I do not mean to deny the fact that in some cultures and contexts it might be more appropriate to use last names. However, I want to highlight that your assumption that it is a sign of respect might be misleading and not always hold. And in particular, as some other answers mentioned, keep in mind that the stiffness of such rules keeps relaxing over time. Choose the way of addressing that leads to a more comfortable conversation environment (for both of the speakers!) and mind less about arbitrary preferences!

protected by Jane S Jul 29 '17 at 11:55

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