How to address people correctly is something which is culturally determined. What is considered polite in one culture may be perceived as impolite in another. Therefore communicating effectively in an intercultural domain can sometimes prove difficult. How can you then insure that people are not offended by the way in which you address them in English? This article includes the basics so you won’t have to worry about appearing impolite the next time you visit an English speaking country.
Many people feel uncomfortable asking someone “what should I call you”, because in doing so you are asking the person to provide their status in the world in relation to yours. This can cause some discomfort. There are some professions and people who require more formality than others. Addressing people in writing has different rules than speaking. Check out the phrasebook at http://en.bab.la/phrases/ in order to find out how to address people correctly in writing.
With friends and family, first name terms are always used. The people engaged in conversation know each other well and therefore the conversation is very casual. There is little chance of offending one another and therefore being casual is the best option.
If you meet new people in a social situation then it is normal to use their first name. However, if the person is very old, for example a friend’s grandparents, it is often best to use their surnames, for example nice to meet you Mrs. Leahy. The person may then ask you to call them by their first name, in which case you always oblige. Very old people, however, sometimes prefer to be addressed by their surname as they consider it more respectful.
What about in the workplace? English speakers often prefer using first names, even when dealing with people in very different positions. Americans will generally say, “Call me John.” and then expect you to remain on a first name basis. English speakers are generally more comfortable addressing people on first name terms.
School teachers are always addressed by their surname. For example, Mr. Richardson or Ms. Gibbins. Ms. Is usually the preferred form of address for a woman as it does not indicate whether or not she is married. Male teachers can also be addressed as Sir. University professors or lecturers are generally addressed using their title. Sometimes they may ask you to address them on first name terms but it is always safer to say Dr. Jones or Professor Dunne depending on their title.
When it comes to the medical professions, nurses are always addressed by their first names but doctors are addressed with their title. It would be considered rude to address a doctor by their first name. You always say Dr. followed by the surname.
How about the tricky situation of meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents? It’s always best to initially address them using Mr. or Ms/Mrs followed by their surname. However, they will usually ask you to address them by their first name. It’s advisable to wait until they ask you to, so as not to seem disrespectful.
Members of the Catholic clergy are never addressed by their first name. They are always called Father followed by their surname. If you were to meet the Queen of England you would call her Her Majesty. A President is addressed with Mr. /Mrs. President.
So that’s it! Now you can go to an English speaking country with the knowledge that you will be able to address everybody correctly without causing offence.