Yes, the first name is the sweetest word, as Mark always says. And in my opinion, in Italy, where we have a more 'formal' way of verbal communication in business and when we don't know each other very well, sometimes might seem a bit too 'direct' or inappropriate.

I'd like to know the opinion about this topic from 'non english' mother tongue.


pavodive's picture


In most spanish speaking countries we also have this "more formal" way of addressing people; and in most situations you shouldn't address people you don't know well (or who are in a higher hierarchical position) as "Carlos" but maybe as "Mr. Lopez" or even as "Don Carlos" (titles --Dr., engineer, captain, etc.-- work best, and in few occassions I've seen people asking to be addressed by their title.)

However, there's a strong trend for people in the corporate world to address people just by their given names (and outside of the corporate world as well, 15 years ago you had to call your mother in law "Mrs. Lopez" or "Dona Sandra"; nowadays most people will call her simply "Sandra.")

To worsen things, in some countries (Colombia among those), you (at least in theory) shouldn't address people as "tú" or "vos" (meaning you), but as "usted" (meaning you!, just a "more distant" and respectful you.)
I have to admit that sometimes I feel odd when the clerk at the supermarked addresses me by "tú", and that's a common feeling among people. In fact, when I've been in charge of people with direct interaction with customers, that's one of the "never forget" points: DO use the correct verbal forms (spanish = lots of conjugations) and NEVER use "tú."

To sum it up, I'd say that when you don't know people well, or when people is hierarchically (that includes age, wether you are the boss or not) higher than you, a safe bet is using [title] [last name]. But if you know the person (he's part of your team and you're older) then you can rest assured that "their names will have the sweetest sound of all the words in that language."


PierG's picture

I've the same feeling and the same 'cultural barrier'. And lately, having the same feedback from my coach (he is italian but he studied in the US) and from Mark & Mike, I started using the first name BUT always using the 'usted' (as you write, that is 'voi' in italian).

I feel easier :) to use it via email, and I feel a bit more difficult to use it on a one on one situation ... and that's way I did this post. To see if it's just me or not.


Mark's picture
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PierG and Pavo-

This is a great thread. I am always fascinated by these subtle differences, and while I believe they will go away in the next 50 years - seriously - I also thoroughly enjoy being appropriate when I am in a different context/locale.

Were I in Italy, I would be most happy to refer to a senior client as Mr. or Ms. It reminds me that a little formality is a lovely way to show deference and respect.

While I often talk about what to do, it is based not always on what I want, but rather what I know the culture can accept.

Showing respect based on age/seniority, as long as it is not taken as subservience, or lack of willingness to share ideas, would be welcome in many situations today.



juliahhavener's picture
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Interesting topic! My boss is from the Dominican Republic. She is getting married (in the Dominican) in March to an very nice man. His family is a little "old money" from New England and is made up almost entirely of attorneys. I was helping her write thank you notes for her mother-in-law's help in setting up the wedding and this exact item came up. With her background, she has always called them "Mr. X" and "Mrs. X".

A wide variety of people were brought in to consult on the greeting of this note! We finally determined that HIS family expects her to use their first names (they always tell her this when she visits), therefore she should do so on this first "official" personal communication from their daughter-in-law. We also figured out that any thank yous her groom writes to HER family should have the more formal greeting as the standard.

I look forward to seeing more on this topic!

matto's picture


A great forum topic. :D

I am currently living in Japan, and the use of names within Japanese culture is truly fascinating. Japan uses a system of honorifics, which shows respect and politeness.

The Japanese often attach the suffix, [i]-san [/i] to the person's family name. The -san suffix coincides roughly with the English equivalents of "Mr, "Mrs" and "Ms". For example: we would use [i]Sato-san[/i] for "Mr. Sato".

However, at my company, most employees avoid referring to people in authority by not using their name at all, rather preferring to use their title. The English word "manager" is often used when speaking to the manager, e.g. "Manager, could you please approve this request?". [i]Sensei[/i] which means 'teacher' is used in a school environment, whereas the company president will be called [i]shacho[/i], which simply means 'president'.


adragnes's picture

In Norway we have become pretty informal. Titles such as "Herr" and formal pronouns (akin to using "vouz" in French) are hardly ever used anymore and now sound rather quaint or even ironic. Outside a few institutions such as the army family names and professional titles are not used either.

One thing I have noticed is that Americans use people's names a lot more than Norwegians -- and a Norwegian might find an excessive use of his name to be somewhat intrusive.

I have also spent some time in other countries, one of them being Russia. There the language started to change a lot after the fall of the Soviet Union. The titles "Comrade" and "Citizen" went out of fashion and the old titles such as "Mr." came back in.

Usually, these are not used much. Instead of referring to someone using the title and family name, it is more common to use the first name and patronymic (father's name). So instead of "Gospodin Yeltsin" you would say "Boris Nikolayevich". Russians can become a bit confused when it comes to foreigners without patronymics. What would you do in English if you had to be formal and speak to someone without any family name?

When you are on more intimate terms, and this is becoming common among colleagues as well, you usually use a familiar form of their given name such as "Misha" for "Mikhail", the equivalent in English would be using "Bill" instead "Wiiliam" say. Using the full version of the given name by itself is just not done.


ccleveland's picture

See the following thread for a recommend series of books related to this topic:

[url=]The Global Etiquette Series[/url]


rwwh's picture
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The Japanese often attach the suffix, [i]-san [/i] to the person's family name. The -san suffix coincides roughly with the English equivalents of "Mr, "Mrs" and "Ms". For example: we would use [i]Sato-san[/i] for "Mr. Sato". [/quote]

Another interesting variety is "Mina-san", which refers to all the audience in a polite form. This is sometimes used in multicast communications in our company (even outside of Japan).

I guess in Texas they would say "Hi y'all all", which Mark may confirm :P

Mark's picture
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Y'all is singular.

The plural is "all y'all."

And the apostrophe above is correct. Many yankees put it after the a..not correct.


corinag's picture

Etiquette here calls for sing Mr. and Ms. and the last name until you are told that you may address them by their first name. There is even a verb for addressing someone by their first name, or more correctly, second person singular (a tutui), which I think is similar to the Spanish tutear. Guess it's a Romance language thing.

I envy the native English speakers, because of "you".

thaGUma's picture

I envy countries like Belgium where the suffix Engineer is appropriate in certain circumstances.

While I agree with the sentiment of the US 'first name' environment, I truly believe that seniority and experience should be respected. The use of formal title makes this easy. It also allows you to disagree while showing you respect their experience and seniority...'Sir James - you are wrong.'


Mark's picture
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I believe that some additional formality would do us Yanks some good, actually. I enjoy the formality of Mr. And Mrs., and the German du and sie. I think it enhances respect, and teaches dignity and deference.

We are fairly informal here, and sometimes that IS good. I admire those who use what works best in each situation...and that means being sensitive enough to know it.

I just had dinner tonight, and a VERY VERY Senior retired Army Officer whose son and I went to school together stopped by my table for a chat. One of our party insisted on calling him by his first name...and it felt off to me. Surely that is my military background...but the General, whom I know to be a friendly and warm person, noticed the behavior.


vinnie2k's picture

I've the same feeling and the same 'cultural barrier'. And lately, having the same feedback from my coach (he is italian but he studied in the US) and from Mark & Mike, I started using the first name BUT always using the 'usted' (as you write, that is 'voi' in italian).[/quote]
Wouldn't that be "Lei"?

vinnie2k's picture

In French, all 3 flavors of deference are used:

- "M. Hortsman, vous" (Mr Horstman, you formal) between people who do not know each other, customer/vendor, employee/boss, people of the same level in some organizations
- "Mark, vous" (Mark, you formal) between people at the same level in some organizations, boss/employee (at the discretion of the boss)
- "Mark, tu" (Mark, you informal) between colleagues (mutual agreement), boss/employee (at the discretion of the boss)

thaGUma's picture

bad posting - apologies.