I can’t get used to calling coworkers by their first names

A reader writes:

I’m a couple years out of high school, and working as a substitute paraeducator in my town’s school district’s at the elementary level (K-6 here). Paraeducators are like a paid teacher’s aide, or assigned to a particular student as a tutor or helper depending on student needs.

I’m still working with the whole “I’m not in high school” deal, and still refer to people older than me (just about everyone) by the formal “Miss/Ms./Mrs./Mr.” I have been countering this by using a similar system with the students (who find it fun to be “Miss Ally” or “Mister Tom”) and am now getting used to using first names instead of last names.

However, I know some people don’t like the titles (no one’s said anything to me, maybe because I am young), so I’m wondering what your advice is for getting over this mental block thing. Or is it just something that might fade away with time when someone else comes along and starts calling me “Miss” because I’m older than her?

Yeah, you need to stop doing that. Adults generally call each other by their first names. You are now an adult.

I know this is a weird thing to get used to at first. It was for me too. (In fact, here’s a public apology to Carla, in my first adult job, who I never addressed by name at all because she was older than my mom and I couldn’t bear the thought of using her first name.)

But the way you get over it is you just force yourself to use people’s first names. Do it for a few weeks and it’s not going to feel weird anymore. To get over that initial block, remind yourself that you’re actually drawing attention to your own age by refusing to use other adults’ first names — and that while it might feel weird to you, it doesn’t feel weird to them. And trust me on that — these are their names, it’s what they’re known by in the world, and it’s probably pretty jarring to hear a colleague addressing them so formally.

For what it’s worth, this would be even weirder if weren’t in a school environment — that’s the saving grace here, because you’re working with teachers, who are one of the few groups of adults who are used to being called by their last name a lot … but you want to present yourself as a colleague, not a student, because you are.

{ 155 comments… read them below }

  1. JMegan*

    OP, you’re not alone in struggling with that transition. I have been out of high school probably longer than you have been alive, and I still have trouble not feeling like a student when I’m in my daughter’s school.

    The other day, I had to go to the washroom while I was there picking her up, and of course the only (adult) option in an elementary school is the staff washroom. And I had a moment of “I can’t use the staff washroom…that would be breaking a SCHOOL RULE!” So I had to have a very stern talk with myself about how I’m an adult, and school rules don’t apply to me any more, and nobody is going to send me to the principal’s office for using the staff washroom. Some habits really do stick, long after they’re needed!

    So I agree with Alison – take a deep breath, and just start calling the other adults by their first names. It’ll take some practice, but it will become second nature very quickly.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I worked for a while at a library that was located in the building that had once been my elementary school. I had the same issue about the teachers’ lounge and the restroom therein, which had become a general staff lounge now that it was a library. “I can’t go in there…that’s for TEACHERS!” :D

      (I also learned that it was a tiny and sort of dismal little room. Back when I was a kid and it was forbidden, I think I thought there was a portal to Disneyland back there!)

      1. Mints*

        When I worked childcare, one time a kid asked me “Is it true there’s a hot tub in the teacher’s lounge?”
        I laughed for like five minutes when I heard that. Especially since the way she phrased it was like this rumor was going around, and she wanted verification.

      2. Anonathon*

        Same thing happened to me! I taught in the summer program at the same place where I went to school, and I felt like such a rule-breaker going into the staff lounge (not to mention talking to my former teachers where they stopped by …). I was similarly sad to learn that it didn’t have magical candy stashes or something.

        1. Prickly Pear*

          My dad worked at my high school before I was born. Long after I’d graduated, I was reminded of the big rumor that there was an underground network of tunnels on campus (we had multiple buildings). I asked him about it and he confirmed that they existed. I then joked that I’m glad I didn’t know to ask when I was a student there, because I was a teenage delinquent that would’ve cheerfully abused this knowledge.

  2. GrumpyBoss*

    Hmm… I still refer to certain adults as Mr./Mrs./Ms. I’ve always viewed it as a sign of respect, not as a childish gesture.

    1. Cruella Da Boss*

      I do too. Anyone who outranks me.

      Of course, I fell when that person invites you to call them by their first name, that you are free to do so from that point forward.

      Such as the CEO of my company, who quickly informed me that “Mr. Jones is my dad.” I still feel a little weird calling the CEO of my company Bob, but relented after he corrected me repeatedly.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’ve never worked anywhere where people called anyone, no matter their rank, by Mr. or Ms. That’s totally odd to me (although I know it happens).

        1. Tina*

          A friend worked for an organization where the executive director had been there for over 30 years. Everyone called him Mr. Insert last name here. That’s how he wanted it, and this was just a few years ago.

          In parts of my current organization, people are instructed to refer to people by their full title and last name – Associate Vice President Insert last name here.

              1. Tina*

                Though I should point out, it’s not the overall culture, just in certain administrative offices.

                1. Traveler*

                  Yeah, I was going to mention higher ed. as an example of this. There are lots of profs and what not that are fine with “Bob” but there are also a slew of them that consider anything more familiar than Dr. Smith or Professor Smith or (insert title) Smith a huge afront to their person, so I’ve always used the title until it was mentioned I could do otherwise.

                2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Ugh, higher ed. I think I need a disclaimer in the site header saying “nothing here applies in California, higher ed, or unionized workplaces. And only sometimes in Canada.”

                3. a higher ed admin*

                  I also work in higher ed, but am not a lifelong academic, and I find myself constantly code-switching depending who is in the room. In one on one interactions, I will frequently use first names as a conscious device to assert my seniority (I look a little younger than I am), but around either lower ranking people or any students, I use full titles. It’s a lot to keep up with – higher ed is weird.

                4. Thomas W*

                  “Ugh, higher ed. I think I need a disclaimer in the site header saying ‘nothing here applies in California, higher ed, or unionized workplaces. And only sometimes in Canada.’”

                  HAHA! As someone who splits time between California and Canada, I’ll say that your advice is still very helpful. :-)

          1. EvilQueenRegina*

            I once temped at a law firm where the senior partners wanted to be known as Mr Warbucks and Mr Montblanc instead of Apollo and Xavier, although most people there did use their first names.

        2. sophiabrooks*

          I found it was really common in my retail/grocery experience to call the store manager, assistant store manager, and customer service manager by Mr, Ms or Mrs.

          Now I work at a university, and we call each other by first names in the nursing school, but when I worked in arts and sciences, we addressed the professors and deans by their title. (Dean Smith, etc). I actually worked for a professor whose NAME was Dean, and he used that for good a lot! He is a great guy.

        3. Dasha*

          I am also curious to know, for people that do address others in the workplace as Mr./Ms, if you address them that way because they outrank you or if they are older than you? Or both? What if you have a superior that is actually younger than you?

          For instance GrumpyBoss, you mentioned that you view it as a sign of respect, but is it because the person is older or just in a higher position? I agree with Alison that it is a little odd to address anyone in the workplace by Mr./Ms. (unless they ask you to). I feel it is a little outdated, but I’m curious as to others’ experiences.

          1. GrumpyBoss*

            For me, it’s been both. I tend to refer to my superiors by Mr/Mrs/Ms . I sometimes use sir/ma’am. I also will use their first names sometimes too, so it isn’t exclusive. I tend to be more formal when I’m addressing a superior with a request. “Mr. Smith, would you mind sparing me a moment of your time? I have an issue I’d like to run by you”. And I’ll use first names when it’s more casual or they are addressing me: “Thanks for the feedback, John. I’ve been working really hard on this project and I’m honored that it has been so well received by you”.

            Once I had a gentleman reporting directly to me who was substantially older than me, by maybe 30 years. He was very skilled and could have been running the place, but instead, he was in the twilight of his career and just taking it easy. I had great respect for him, and I referred to him as “Mr.” as well. It just felt natural.

            I am sure a lot of it would be traced back to how I was raised. I grew up in an incredibly formal household.

          2. De Minimis*

            I call my supervisors by their first names, including the CEO–that seems to be common practice in my department—I’d be the only person calling them Mr. or Ms.

            What makes it even more confusing is that we have public health service commissioned officers here, and officially they have military titles, but I don’t think anyone uses those other than in official communications [like announcing a retirement or promotion.] If I really wanted to be formal, I’d have to refer to my supervisor as “Captain.”

          3. Skye*

            I refer to one of my coworkers by Ms., but that’s a) how she was introduced to me, b) what everyone else refers to her by, and c) also never been corrected by her. I don’t use Mr./Ms. for any other coworker.

            At a previous job as a student worker, I did use Mr./Ms. for the professors I worked for, but as “Ms. Firstname” as opposed to “Ms. Lastname”; I couldn’t bring myself to use just their first names.

          4. JayDee*

            Personally, I don’t use it in my workplace. We are all on a first name basis. But I do use it sometimes with lawyers in other firms or contacts in government offices or something. Generally either significantly older male attorneys, especially in rural areas, where it seems like they would get a little pissy about a younger female attorney calling them George or Joe right off the bat. Or someone that I really honestly respect, I won’t address them that way to their face, but definitely when talking about them. Like if I call their office, I will ask the receptionist if Ms. Smith is available; if I talk to a potential client and she says “Oh, my husband hired Karen Smith” I’ll say “Well, Ms. Smith is a pretty reasonable person, so while I think she’ll push for what your husband wants, she’ll be above-board and won’t be rude or obnoxious in dealing with you.”

        4. NavyLT*

          In the Navy, junior officers are often Mr. or Ms. as an alternative to their rank, but I agree that’s probably not normal in other places.

          Every so often, very senior officers will do the “call me Bob” thing. No one ever calls them Bob.

          1. Annie*

            This reminds me of The American President

            A.J.: Good night, Mr. President.
            President Andrew Shepherd: A.J.?
            A.J.: Yes, sir?
            President Andrew Shepherd: When we’re out of the office, and alone, you can call me Andy.
            A.J.: I beg your pardon, sir?
            President Andrew Shepherd: You were the best man at my wedding, for crying out loud. Call me Andy.
            A.J.: Whatever you say, Mr. President.

            President Andrew Shepherd: Two-ball on the side.
            [He makes the shot, and the two-ball goes into the pocket]
            A. J. MacInerney: Nice shot, Mr. President.
            President Andrew Shepherd: “Nice shot, Mr. President”? You won’t even call me by my name when we’re playing pool?
            A. J. MacInerney: I will not do it playing pool, I will not do it in a school. I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them, Sam I Am.
            President Andrew Shepherd: At ease, A.J. At ease.

            Sometimes no matter what people won’t call you by your first name.

            1. Koko*

              There was a similar running gag in Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Geoffrey (the butler) refuses to call Will Smith’s character anything but “Master William.” Will, of course, just calls him, “G” and wants a similarity level of familiarity in return.

        5. MaryMary*

          Some people at my office call our General Counsel Mr. He has been with the company for decades and is older than nearly everyone else in the office. He’s also a lawyer at a company where not everyone has an undergraduate degree. Other people call him by his first name, so I don’t think it’s at his request. I think it’s just a sign of respect.

        6. NP*

          This happens in the office where I’m a contractor. Everyone calls a certain very senior person “Mr. Smith” instead of Bob. Both when talking about him and when talking to him (they also will call him “sir”). I guess it sort of makes sense because it’s the military and he’s essentially equivalent to a colonel or general (even though he’s a civilian), but I still find it really bizarre and refuse to do it. I’ll call him Mr. Smith when talking about him, but never to his face, and never sir, either. I wouldn’t call the CEO of my own company anything other than his first name. I don’t think I’ve called anyone Mr. So-and-so since high school.

          Other civilians of similar rank or importance are also given the Mr. So-and-so or sir treatment, and I just don’t get it.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      I have no problem calling the CEO by his first name, but I always get tripped up with my kid’s teachers. I get used to referring to my kid’s teachers as Ms. Smith at home, and sometimes I forget their first names. It’s a mental gear shift. I also stumble on my former professors, some of whom I now have a professional relationship with. The ones I didn’t have in school are fine, Sara, Joe, whatever, but after having ‘Professor Jones’ for several classes, I have a hard time calling him Carl, even 15 years later.

      1. De Minimis*

        Some people refer to our executive director as “Mr.” and some call him by his first name. It would make an interesting research project–the lower ranked more blue-collar type employees tend to use “Mr.,” and the more professional level employees use his first name. I think almost everyone in his department [where I work] uses his first name.

      2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        I get called “Ms. Lastname” by lots of my students’ parents! It makes sense when they’re with their kid, because then they’re modeling respectful address to their child, but it does amuse me slightly if there aren’t any kids around. Don’t worry, though – I can’t remember names either and so think of a lot of parents as “Jessica’s dad” and “Rowan’s mom”!

        1. AMG*

          I do that! I don’t know if I should be calling them “Katie’ or ‘Justin’ but I use their last names because that’s how they sign their emails to me. I tell them they can call me ‘A’.

          My son was cute bc in preschool the teachers went by Ms Firstname. Then in Kindergarten, it switches to Ms Lastname. He kept trying to be cool and refer to them as their first names but got confused. ‘Towner taught us that 2+3 is 5. Towner read us a story’. Uh, that’s Mr Towner. It was cute though.

          1. fposte*

            Huh. Mr. Towner was the epic teacher of our middle school years who everybody remembers forever. I wonder if there’s a teaching dynasty there.

            1. AMG*

              Perhaps! I believe he is from the Northern Central part of the US but is in Colorado. He is a truly awesome teacher. The whole school adores him.

          2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

            I can’t speak for your son’s teachers, but I personally don’t mind parents calling me by my first name, last name, whatever. Heck, the kids even slip up and call me by other teachers’ names, and I just roll with it!

      3. Allison (not AAM!)*

        I get that too – mostly because my daughter always referred to her teachers as Ms or Mr… I also fell into the habit of calling my dad “Papa”, my mom “Grandma” and my sister “Aunt L”, etc…!

      4. bkanon*

        I haven’t been in school for almost twenty years, but there are a handful of teachers I absolutely *cannot* call their first names. They will eternally be Mr or Mrs Lastname.

        At my mother’s work, their previous Top Boss insisted on Mr Lastname. Current Top Boss wants to be just Firstname.

        1. Jake*

          If I ran into a high school teacher like Mr Davis or Mr Jones I’d never ever ever be able to call them Tom or Carl. Ever.

          My childhood was spent learning from them (I had both for 4 classes spread out over all 4 years), so even thinking about calling me Davis Tom makes me cringe inside.

          1. Prickly Pear*

            This for sure. The idea of calling my teachers by their first names just rocked my head a little. I refer to my niece’s teacher by Mrs Teacher, because I think I’m still a little in awe. (and yes, I’m older than her)

          2. Koko*

            I remember how hot the gossip was among the high school students when two of the school’s most well-liked teachers were seen out on a couple of dates around town. What! Teachers DATE?!? Like real people?? Do you think they fight over stupid things too??

        2. Chinook*

          It was very weird when my old high school teacher was the principal at one of my teaching jobs and, hence, my boss. In front of students, he was still Mr. but he had to keep reminding me to call him Kevin in the staff room.

      5. Connie-Lynne*

        My baby sister got a job teaching at my old high school (she attended a different school). It was super weird hearing her call her colleagues, my old teachers, by their first name.

        Even stranger was bumping into two of them while we were all half in the bag at a beer festival and realizing they were a couple and had been dating-non-married-partners forever!

        Really helped drive home the whole “so, teachers? Just people” thing!

    3. Anon*

      I think this, like using “ma’am” and “sir,” might be regional?

      I work with people who use those, but I have the impression from other commenters on this site that those terms aren’t polite or normal everywhere.

    4. Annonymouse*

      It’s irritating. I have had several employees who have had to be told multiple times not to refer to me as “Miss Annonymouse.” It starts off with a cheerful “the ‘Miss’ isn’t necessary” and always ends with a curt “please do not call me that. I really do not like it and I find it creepy. Thank you!”

      It’s far more respectful to abide by my wishes than to refer to me as a title (Miss) I NEVER use for myself in a relaxed environment where everyone is on a first name basis with one another.

  3. EvilQueenRegina*

    One of my co-workers where I work now actually used to teach at my old primary school, and at first it took me a while to get used to calling her Sue now, but over time I did start automatically thinking of her as that.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      I had the same problem with my elementary school principal. She and my Dad were good friends and would meet for breakfast (with others) after my Mom died. Even 45 years later I want to call her “Mrs. X” instead of her first name. And she is the sweetest kindest lady. Old habits die hard.

  4. StarHopper*

    I’m a high school teacher, and I only ever use Mr./Ms. when I’m talking about colleagues to my students. To their faces, it’s always first names. (Unless, in the case of being new to a school, I haven’t learned their names, in which case I do the awkward ,”Oh, you!” name avoiding.) I’ve had interns address me as “Ms. Hopper,” and I always correct them.

    1. De Minimis*

      A school setting would probably make it more confusing, since I’d guess generally everyone would use Mr./Ms. when referring to someone while talking with students.

      1. Lucy VP*

        Exactly. That is what I was thinking. The school setting can be complicated when most adults use first names amongst themselves but whenever a student (or sometimes a parent) is involved it becomes Mr./Ms.

      2. StarHopper*

        Yes. Mr./Ms. is something that students do, and it would set a weird vibe between coworkers, especially a classroom teacher and an aide. It’s really a habit that the OP should work on breaking.

      3. Meg Murry*

        Yes, its hard to make the switch that someone is “Mrs. Smith” when you are in the classroom, but “Jane” in the breakroom. Especially since it basically doubles the number of names you have to learn. I noticed that a lot of the male teachers in one school I was at were generally just were all called by their lastname (with Mr. in from by the students, just lastname by the staff) – probably because 3/4 of them were named Mike or Jim.
        I was at the bar the other night and the elementary school secretary at my son’s school was there with us. She has kids my age as well, so she’s always been “Mrs. SoandSo” to me – it was awkward to call her “Sue” at first and I kept stumbling over it, but “Mrs. SoandSo, would you like another beer?” is just weird too.

        OP, practice the first names. If you have a yearbook or website or somewhere with pictures, practice looking at the faces and saying “there’s Bob, and Sue, and Jane …” so you get used to learning them and referring to the people that way.

        1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          “Especially since it basically doubles the number of names you have to learn.”

          Yes! Whenever I’ve started a new job this has been hard. It doesn’t help that at my old job teachers went by their first names (it was a pretty crunchy-granola kind of place) but email addresses were all of the format lastname(at)schoolname.org. Then I got my current job, where everyone is Ms. So-and-so or Mr. Someone, but our email addresses are firstname(at)newschool.org!

    2. Advisor at a university*

      I work as an advisor at a university and I do the same thing. However, I have noticed that some emeritus faculty want to be called “Professor xyz” whereas the newer faculty are ok with first names. Whenever I start new positions, I always address them as “Professor xyz” and then wait to see how they respond and if they’re ok with using first names

      1. MaryMary*

        I feel like higher ed is a little different from other workplaces in terms of title. A lot of people in an academic setting are very particular about Professor v Doctor and exact titles. I worked in the Dean of Students office in college, and I had to be very careful about how I addressed people. In fact, in our office I called the secretary, the associate dean, and the assistant dean by their first names, but the Dean was always Dean (Doctor was okay, but but he preferred Dean).

        1. Elsajeni*

          Yeah, I’m also in higher ed and my experience has generally been that, while most people go by first names, faculty and deans and the like are Dr. Soandso until they tell you otherwise. (I’m staff, but my dad is a faculty member in the same college — if I’m talking to someone else and he comes up, I do refer to him as “Dr. Lastname,” but it feels weird.)

          1. ZSD*

            I’m on staff at a university, and I usually address other staff members by their first names but faculty by their title plus last name: Dr. Smith, Dean Nguyen, etc.
            I actually hate doing this because I think it reinforces some faculty members’ ideas that they’re better than everyone because they have a PhD (um, so do I), but I find it best to avoid ruffling feathers.

            1. A Teacher*

              Amen, I’m an adjunct in higher ed and there was actually a move where they want faculty to be required to go by last names. Some of us are rebelling with this idea. Just because you went to school to get a PhD you are not better than anyone else and that’s what it came down to in our environment.

              For the record, in the school district where I teach full time, our superintendent wants to be Dr. Smith. I’m fine with that but don’t act shocked when I expect you to call me Miss Emanuelson, adults are adults and if you want a certain level of formality then expect it back.

        2. Vancouver Reader*

          When I first started working at a university, because it was ages ago and the President’s Office, everyone was Dr. It wasn’t until I switched to another department that I was told to call all the profs by their first names instead, even the Heads.

          I like to bug my b-i-l by calling him Dr. because he even though he does have his PhD, he’s so laid back, he hates being called Dr.

    3. jmkenrick*

      That’s sort of how my parents refer to each other as “Mom” and “Dad” when they’re talking to me…but don’t call each other that. ;)

  5. Karen*

    It has taken me literally 12 years to call my in-laws by their first names. (To be fair, 10 years of that was dating and I was very young.) It was like ripping off a band-aid. You just have to do it, and then do it again, and soon it becomes more comfortable.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      My aunt never got her head around that in 33 years of having my grandad for a father in law.

    2. Flashback Thursday*

      I remember when we got back from our honeymoon, we stopped by my in-laws. I asked them what I should call them. My father in law said to use his first name, but my mother in law paused, then said, “You can call me Miz ____.”

      My husband and I still laugh about it.

        1. KayDee*

          My friend has been married for 11 years. She still refers to her in laws as Dr. and Mrs. XYZ. It just seems so cold.

        2. Flashback Thursday*

          Well…I mostly avoid saying her name. Her first name has slipped out a few times, though.

    3. MaryMary*

      When I was right out of college, I struggled with how to address my friends’ parents. I asked a friend how he referred to a mutual friend’s father, since he was also dating that friend’s sister. He said he called him Sir. :-)

      10+ years later, that guy is now married to my friend’s sister, and he still calls their dad Sir occasionally.

    4. JC*

      I still haven’t figured out what to call my mother-in-law. She would prefer that I call her “Mom,” but that makes me uncomfortable, but somehow also feel weird calling her by her first name. So I’ve pretty much just avoided addressing her. And I’ve known her for 8 years! Yes, I know I am a weirdo, don’t judge me. My husband just laughs about it.

      1. Vancouver Reader*

        I didn’t start calling my in-laws by their first name until up to a few years ago and I’ve been married almost 18 years. For my husband though, my parents were/are still Mr. and Mrs. S0-and-So.

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        My mother-in-law wanted me to call her “Mom,” but frankly, I wouldn’t call my own mother “Mom” if she behaved the way MIL does!

        I told her, “I’m not comfortable calling you ‘Mom,’ since that’s my own mother’s name; can we go with ‘Mrs. Surname’ or ‘Firstname?’

        She chose Firstname. It was, thank goodness, mostly a non-issue.

  6. BRR*

    I got over this by being chewed out for it once. I was starting every conversation with my boss at a part time summer job with uhh. My boss went, “You can call me Jane, uhh it was I used to call my mother in law.”

      1. Ms. Lemonade*

        No, call everybody Lindog. It’ll be much easier; you’ll only ever have to remember one name.

  7. Algae*

    I did have trouble with this once! In a past job, my fifth grade teacher was a frequent patron. While I called everyone else by their first names, I never succeeded in calling her by her first name without stumbling over it. She’s Mrs Daly and my brain does not want to think of her in any other way!

    1. Annie*

      My 2nd grade teacher took over as the Director of Community Service at my college just before my freshman year. My freshman year she said I could (not demanded) call her by her first name. I looked her in the eye and gently reminded her that she had taught me how to read a clock and bribed my class with M&Ms, I didn’t think that was possible.
      Two years later there were 6 of her former students enrolled at the college and she said she could always tell it was one of us, because we were the only ones on campus who called her that.

  8. Sunflower*

    This is one thing I can thank college for teaching me. I remember when professors asked that we call them by their first name- that felt really weird to me! By junior year I think I had kind of adjusted to it.

  9. BKW*

    It was even weirder when I worked for a while with my dad and had to get used to calling him by his first name at work. I wasn’t living at home at the time, but still saw him outside of work fairly often so going back and forth between calling him dad and his first name was a bit hard.

    1. ClaireS*

      I’ve had that problem. The worst was talking with colleagues that were also friends. I eventually fell into a pattern, when we were talking about work, I always referred to my dad by his name. In the rare instance where I was talking with them socially, I would say “my dad”.

      1. Anonathon*

        I’ve had that same issue too. I don’t work with my mother, but we’re in overlapping fields — so I sometimes have to refer to her by her full name when I’m talking about her organization and it’s never quite stopped being weird.

    2. Prickly Pear*

      I worked with my dad too. It was hard going “hey, uh, you” whenever we were in each other’s presence, but worse when I used to have to page him over the intercom. “Da-uh, Lester to the front desk please, Lester to the front.”
      To avoid the very professional “Daddy”, I ended up calling him Sir to his face when there were other people around. Neither of us still work for the company, but I still call him Sir, which gets hilarious at times, especially to people who know us both and know that it’s *not* a sign of respect from me.

    3. Ellie H*

      I work at the same place as my mom and we are occasionally in the same committee meeting and (extremely rarely) in the same work-related email chain. There have been a couple times my mom has sent a work-related email to me only and she signs those with her first name rather than “Mom,” which I find so funny (my mom and I are really close and email each other a lot so it really stood out).

  10. Arjay*

    I work in a department with a medical doctor we all call “Dr. Smith.” He’s very friendly, and we chat sometimes, but I wouldn’t call him by his first name at work. So when we both ended up at a colleague’s party one evening, I smiled vaguely, and avoided talking to him the whole night so I wouldn’t have to figure out how to introduce him to my husband.

    1. De Minimis*

      I don’t think I could call any of the doctors here by their first names, no matter where I saw them. It would just feel weird to me.

      1. hayling*

        Yeah I think doctors, in a medical setting, are a little different. I worked in marketing for a sorta-medical business, and I always called the medical director “Dr. ___” even though the higher-ups didn’t.

        1. De Minimis*

          It seems like no one here ever uses first names with the medical providers, not even our executive leadership. But in our facility, doctors are still employees.

          It’s interesting that it doesn’t seem to apply to nurses or nurse practitioners.

          1. Arjay*

            It’s interesting. There are people here – generally at the VP level – who call/refer to the doctors by their first names. The director level goes for a middle ground where they drop the title, and use just the last name. And then there’s me… LOL.

  11. Once Anon a Time*

    I once worked in a college setting with professors who all had PhD’s. They all insisted that you call them Dr. LastName or Professor LastName. You could never call them by their first names without being looked at like you did something wrong, and they would correct you if you did. Some of them were even younger than me, which felt strange. But hey, they worked hard for their titles, so who am I to stop them?

    Ironically, when I was a student in college, I had some professors who also had PhD’s and wanted me to call them by their first names. That felt strange since in this case, we were not of equal rank. I was the student and he/she was my professor. In my previous paragraph, we were all coworkers, which is on the same level. It’s funny how things work.

    1. AAA*

      That’s interesting. I used to teach at a college (I have a PhD) and I would be really weirded out if my colleagues called me Dr. Lastname. That said, my students routinely called me “Professor”, though I tried to emphasize I was fine with them calling me Firstname.

    2. Kate*

      When I was an undergrad we called all of our department professors by their first names. They all had PhDs but it was a small department and we were all close.

    3. University Allison*

      This varies so much by institution/department/professor. I had a professor who wanted to be called Dr. Soanso by her freshmen students but wanted to be called Firstname by her juniors and seniors. She felt that the juniors+ were becoming colleagues and got the firstname perk.

      As AAM says, nothing holds in higher ed!

      1. De Minimis*

        Had one professor who was very insistent on being called Dr. Soandso by students, although apparently once they graduated it was different—knew someone who served on a board with her and said she behaved much differently outside of the classroom setting. Never heard of one who treated juniors and seniors differently…

  12. Kay*

    I think I disagree with Alison slightly on this one, but only because you work in a school. Because the habit is for students to call teachers Ms./Mr. X, it can be easier for everyone to call each other that so you don’t slip up in front of the kids. But really this depends on your school culture. Do the other teachers call each other by first names, or do they default to “Mr. Smith” and “Ms. Jones”? If they do tend to call each other by first names, then you need to fall into that routine as well. However, if they don’t, then you’re probably fine. Different schools have different cultures on this one.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, but I’m assuming that it’s not the culture of her school to do this, based on what she says in her letter. (She wouldn’t be struggling with this otherwise.)

      1. Letter Writer*

        The culture here is kind of a mix, and I realized I implied my habit was worse than it is. Generally, it’s first name in break room, and last name for teachers and para-educators who introduce themselves by last name to students.

        Some of the Para-eds go by their first name, others go by last name, and sometimes when I’m told to speak with Teacher X, and they say “Marie” I have to pause and run through a mental checklist of which teacher’s first name is Marie.

        Thanks for answering, AAM!

  13. LouG*

    I can see why this may be a challenge while working in a school specifically, OP. I work in education as well, and I call the teacher Miss/Mrs. or Mr. when I am in front of students, and their first names when I am not. Sometimes it’s hard to remember to switch back and forth!

  14. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    I do want to say that this is LOTS less weird in an elementary school than in another professional setting. I’m a teacher, and the way I refer to my colleagues is very situation-dependent. In the faculty room eating lunch: “How was your weekend, Minerva?” In the classroom, to a student: “Take your finished paper to Ms. McGonagall.” In the classroom, not to a student but in front of them: “Ms. McGonagall, could you help Sam while I help Claire?” If kids might or might not be listening (passing in the hall, for example), then I’ll go either way. The kids find it really funny when we do call each other by our first names – I think they forget that we HAVE first names.

    So in the hearing of the kids, OP, I think it’s fine for you to keep using “Ms.” and “Mr.”, but try to use first names when you’re in an adults-only setting. You’ll get used to it, I promise!

    1. fposte*

      Isn’t that pretty standard for parents, too? I would find it weird for parents to refer to each other by their first names to their child if the kid didn’t call them by those.

      1. De Minimis*

        Also, try being a teacher’s kid, hearing your parent refer to their co-workers by their first name and visiting with them socially, but then being in their class and having to call them “Mr./Mrs.”

        1. De Minimis*

          Not to mention the dilemma of what to call your parent if you’re in their class…..I think I went ahead and said “Mom” because it would have been even more strange otherwise.

        2. Prickly Pear*

          My issue was a little sideways to yours- I grew up in a culture where adults you knew had a title to acknowledge your kinship. Grownups that weren’t relatives got called “Brother” or “Sister” Lastname. I always had a few that worked at my school and it felt weird to put a Mr or Mrs in front of their names. I also had spiritual aunts and uncles, and I still refer to them that way (the looks I’ve gotten from coworkers!).

          1. De Minimis*

            Oh I had that a lot at church…I don’t think it was really that we were taught to call them that, it was just that we usually saw them at church and that’s what they were called there.

            I graduated from a private high school that had an outright rule that you had to address all staff formally [although “Coach” was considered as formal as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss…” and generally I don’t think anyone went by “Ms.”

      2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Yeah, definitely. I mean, I heard my parents call each other by their first names even when I was little, but to me they’d always say things like “Ask Mom if she knows where the car keys are.”

        Though I don’t think they ever directly addressed each other as “Mom” and “Dad” – like, “Dad, what should I order on the pizza?” – that would have seemed odd to me. Similarly, my mom called her mother “Mother” when addressing her, but would refer to “Grandma” if talking to me.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          My mom will say stuff to me like, “I told Joe, your dad, blah blah blah.” Like I don’t know who Joe is unless she qualifies it with “your dad.”

          1. Claire*

            My mom will say, “So John and I – I mean, Dad.” I think by now I can handle hearing my parents referred to by their first name.

          2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

            Haha! I had a friend in high school who did that with her boyfriend, Tim, even though I’d known Tim as long as she had. I think she was pretty excited to have a boyfriend.

          3. Elsajeni*

            I have a friend whose dad identifies himself in voicemail messages as “your father, Dad.” Like he might have forgotten who ‘Dad’ referred to?

    2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Also, I’m curious: What do the kids call you, OP? First name, Ms./Mr. lastname?

      IMO, if the school culture is that students call the teachers “Mr. Flitwick” and “Ms. Frizzle,” then they should do the same for all adults that work at the school unless the adult specifically requests otherwise. Our maintenance crew’s uniforms used to have their first names embroidered on them until a few years ago someone pointed out that it seemed kind of problematic to send the message to the kids that teachers deserve a title while people that take care of the buildings don’t. (The fact that all our maintenance crew members are Hispanic, and that our student body is pretty well off, added to that.) Now we’re consistent about sending the message to the kids that every adult is “Ms.” or “Mr.” – I think the only exception is that the woman who runs our cafeteria asked the kids to call her “Chef Emily,” which is kind of adorable.

      1. Letter Writer*

        I introduce myself with my first name unless there is a student with the same name.

        “Miss Firstname”.

  15. Language Lover*

    I was kind of fortunate in this regard. My mother was a teacher in the district where I went to school and she was friends with many of my teachers. Even when I was a child, I knew all of her friends by their first names whether they were teachers or not.

    In “social” situations, I’d use their first names. When I was in school, I’d refer to them as Miss, Mr. & Mrs. [LastName].

    It made the switch to using first names in a professional setting much easier as an adult. I struggle now that I work with people with PhDs. For whatever reason, my instinct is to throw the “Dr.” in front even though we’re all peers.

    1. MaryMary*

      My Mom taught at my elementary school, and while I knew all of the teachers first names, I never called them by their first names, even out of school. The only exception was the school secretary, who is also my godmother. For her, I switched between Mrs and Aunt.

      1. De Minimis*

        I was lucky that my mom taught higher grades so I didn’t have any classes with her or her colleagues [whom I knew by their first names] until junior high and by then I guess I was socially aware enough to know I needed to be on a more formal basis with them in the classroom.

  16. De (Germany)*

    Gosh, how I sometimes wish it would be as easy here as it seems to (usually) be in the USA. While with my department, everyone is called by their first name, it gets really complicated when interacting with other departments or companies, so people often just try to avoid using names altogether, but that also gets complicated very fast . Languages with formal second person pronouns suck…

    1. Jen RO*

      Oh yes… I’ve said it before – I feel so lucky working in a company where I write mostly in English! (And the people in the local office are usually my age and not very senior, so I can call them by their first names without an internal struggle.)

    2. YALM*

      As today’s threads show, it isn’t always as easy in the US as it should be ;-)

      When working with US, Asian, and Eastern European colleagues, regardless of department or title, we use first names.* When working with execs in Germany, however, many of whom have PhD’s, we use Herr Doktor so-and-so far more often than Hey Jonas. I admit it is not reflexive, so I always try to be more careful, especially in pseudo-social settings.

      * Within my department, we have hired a number of very junior colleagues who are in awe of some of our older and wiser team members. Given the respect they have for their more experienced peers, and taking into account different cultural backgrounds across the team, they frequently use Miss so-and-so. It’s always said in a playful way, and the convention has spread across the team. I wouldn’t advise this approach in most cases, but it works for this group, so we don’t push people to change. I’m sure other people in the company think we’re nuts, though, and they’re probably correct.

  17. Peep!*

    Oh man. I had a hard time with this… I worked for a year at the school I went to for 7th-12th grade, about 7 years after I graduated…most of the teachers I had were still there, and it was REALLY weird to hunt them down to remind them to turn in grades so I could send home report cards. It took a while to get used to it. (You knew me when I was a horribly awkward 11-year-old!) Even weirder was making the students call me Ms. Peep.

    I always felt really weird in graduate school though, I felt I didn’t know my professors well enough to call them by their first name, but a lot of students did, so I always felt left out (even though it was me making up the imaginary rules, dumb me!).

  18. MaryMary*

    My mom taught elementary school for nearly 40 years, and eventually she had a couple former students become colleagues. Once they became coworkers, they called her by her first name (with a tiny bit of awkwardness).

    My high school also had a couple alumni become teachers, coaches, or assistants and they called their coworkers by their first name. Even the ones who only had a few years between graduating and coming back. In fact, the basketball coach had a standing rule that you could call him Mr. or Coach or Sir, but you could not call him Bill until you had a diploma.

  19. SW*

    I was a teacher in a high school and later, college. At both schools it was no big deal either way. For some people Mr./Mrs. Whatever just seemed to fit better and other people I called by there first name. It was easier for me to stick with last names though, than to try switch back and forth depending on the situation.

    I also think you’ve mentioned that in certain regions it’s really common to call someone significantly older than you Mr./Ms. First name. I’ve had colleagues, in my exact position, yet several years older than me that I called “Ms. Jane” without fail, it was totally normal there.

    I do want to remind the OP, you are an adult now. It’s your choice, you are their coworkers now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with calling someone by their first name. It’s okay, promise!

  20. TotesMaGoats*

    I’ll admit that I still call my college advisor, who is now a colleague/coworker, Dr. X. I can’t, to her face, call her by her first name. Four years of Dr. X is hard to change. Added to that she got remarried and is technically Dr. X-Y. It’s a running joke between all of us that we can’t break that habit.

    Slightly related, the former president of my university was ALWAYS Dr. X. Never ever ever by the first name. Current president is always only first name. That was hard to adjust to but very welcomed.

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      I’ll add that at the daycare my son goes to the teachers call me Ms. First Name. I find it very weird. They are either my age or older. I need to correct them on that but it’s probably policy. They have a policy for everything.

  21. AAA*

    I work for a fire department and there is a lot of calling the firefighters (especially those more senior in the ranks) Captain Lastname or Chief Lastname, and for those junior firefighters just Lastname. I’m a civilian, so everyone calls me by my first name. I also call everyone (including the Chiefs) by their firstnames, but I refer to them (when speaking to a 3rd party) as Chief Lastname. But other than in paramilitary organizations, I think it is strange not to be on first-name terms with your coworkers.

  22. Andy*

    I’m a higher ed admin, from Charm City, and I’ll be calling women “miss ____” till I die.
    It’s shibboleth here. If you refer to me by my first name I KNOW you didn’t come up around here. If you refer to me as Miss or Mrs. Excellent I will have a good idea of whereabouts the beltway you’re from.
    No shame in my game.

      1. Andy*

        yup. Although that’s less of a thing around here.
        Also, for the sake of just being me, I tend to say a miss/mister first name last name when I see someone after a while.

  23. MR*

    I went from graduating high school to being on the school board less than two years later. Talk about having to make the last name/first name conversion quickly. I didn’t even know the first names of some of the teachers who then, in a round-a-bout way, reported to me…

  24. Ketura*

    I used to work in the education field and I’ve never been in a school where the adults called each other by their first names during the school day, so it can be hard to transition to calling people by their first names off the clock (especially if you’re not invited to).

    Growing up, we were not permitted to call adults by their first names, so it was a big adjustment (once I moved out of education and into cultural heritage) to refer to adult by their given names, particularly when they are much older than myself. It was always kind of awkward territory to make email contact first and then meet in person. I tended to be more formal in my emails and if uninvited, didn’t want to presume they wished to be addressed by first name.

  25. Jayhawker*

    Oddly enough, here (in the South) there a more than a few people that use Ms./Miss/Mrs./Mr. Firstname for everyone with the only exceptions being close acquaintances. I’m from the Midwest and it was and still is really awkward for me to hear that. I also have a problem with using Firstname for people who seriously outrank me. I usually just go with Boss until I get a little more comfortable and can use their name.

  26. Dorothy*

    I work in law — Judges are always “Judge,” don’t have to add their last name. No matter where they’re seen, in the courthouse or outside the courthouse. Always.

    1. bridget*

      I haven’t found that to be true, depending on the judge, and the speaker’s relationship with the judge. With the judge I clerked for, he had us call him Judge Smith while clerking, and then insisted we switch to Bob after the clerkship was over, even though we were practicing lawyers in his jurisdiction. With all other lawyers he was socially friends with, it was Judge X in the courtroom or formal legal events and Bob in all other circumstances.

    2. Cat*

      Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it? I can’t imagine calling the judge I worked for by her first name.

  27. Us, Too*

    In my first job just after college, I called my boss “Mr. Smith” and he never invited me to call him by his first name. At the time, people sometimes used first names and sometimes used Mr./Ms/Mrs LastName. It appeared to be related to position: you referred to peers and subordinates by first name, but superiors by a title and last name. That seemed to change almost overnight. Suddenly everyone was going just by first names. Now, last names are pretty much unheard of in the business cultures I’ve been in. I got to witness a name revolution, I guess. :)

    Having said that I am now having a hard time with my baby’s daycare. The workers there all go by “Ms. Firstname”. I think I’d be able to naturally conform to Ms. Lastname or just Firstname, but the Ms Firstname thing is really hanging me up. I am slowly getting the hang of it, but I really have to be careful to remember the “right” way. It feels so old school south and foreign.

  28. Student*

    Academia cured me of this habit. Using the wrong title is taken as a dire insult, no matter who you talk to, so you get into the habit of not using titles at all.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      I went to a college where most professors invited students to call them by their first names. The one exception I encountered was the lab coordinator for the chemistry department. Upperclassmen made sure that freshmen knew not ever to call her Jane – she was ALWAYS Dr. Barker. Rumor had it that she was touchy about being perceived as less of an academic than the professors.

  29. Mena*

    Higher Ed seems to like (and need to hear) their titles.

    I work in market research and have never come across this … as an intern in a boutique firm at age 20, I was told to call the CEO/Owner/Founder (white hair) “Dick.” Way low key ever since.

  30. Waiting Patiently*

    Oh gosh please don’t call me Miss Tiffany as a way to transition to the using first name only… I cringe at that because that seems like I’m a contestant for some southern pageantry for kids. FYI I’m a southerner..

    In front of students we address each other Ms/Mrs/Miss Lastname
    but otherwise we use first name.

  31. ExceptionToTheRule*

    I call our new head honcho Mr. Head Honcho. He asked me about it one day and I told him it was because I didn’t know him.

    He attended some presentations I was giving in his first few weeks with us and I introduced him to the members of the community as Mr. Head Honcho and it kind of stuck. It’s a bit of a joke now. I’ll probably always call him that to his face.

  32. Waiting Patiently*

    I think it is a “grown up” thing. Once you realize you are an adult, you will see how silly it all sounds. When I worked in hotels, I remember only calling my GM by Mr. other than that everyone — first name. A few people called him Bob, he never specified either way– but the youngest of us couldn’t seem to formulate our mouths to say Bob. Now that I think about it, most times if someone said Bob, I would look at them like who then they would say Mr. So and So, and I would say oh ok.
    Then as years passed and I moved on to other jobs, I realized that for the most part most people prefer to be called by their first name.

  33. CCT*

    Speaking as someone working as a high school aide right out of college, my advice would be to think of it this way: who are you closer in maturity level to-your students, in elementary school, or your colleagues? (Even if they are decades older, the answer will be your colleagues! I know that while I was only 5 years older than some of my students, my colleagues who are all a decade-plus older didn’t think that I was more of a high schooler than a professional adult like them.)
    In my experience, it’s not the title or honorific itself that represents respect, but doing the best job you can in supporting them and honoring their personal preferences, naming and otherwise. My fellow aide in her late sixties was nearly always “Ms. Lastname,” or at the very least, “Lastname” to ALL of us; the other aides, who were all in their thirties, and I called each other “Lastname” most of the time in front of students, but occasionally would use first names quite easily with each other. I am sure that being a substitute colors this dynamic for you a little (especially if you get moved around the school and thus have less face time with any one group of coworkers), but just remember that you’ll be respecting your colleagues by making them feel more comfortable!

  34. Anon1234*

    Wherever there are a number of PhDs/MDs etc….stick with Dr. till told otherwise.

  35. D. Dee*

    Recently went to Japan to visit a friend from Uni, and although I know people append “-san” to a person’s name in public especially, (when refering to a customer “-sama”) but I was suprised that she refered to her husband as “Fumio-san” and he to her as “Haruka-san” everywhere.

    Having been led to believe -san was the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Ms.” it was really hard for me to use it with them after hearing it in their home… since after that I couldn’t shake the (icky but unjustified) feeling that I was refering to them by private pet names.

  36. Cassie*

    Here in higher ed, I call faculty Prof. __ or Dr. __ (they all happen to have PhDs), unless I’m told otherwise. There are a couple of faculty that I have a more friendly relationship with and I call them by their first names. Some staff call faculty “Professor” without adding the last name which works when you don’t want to butcher a last name.

    I just saw an article in the news about how Starbucks “requires” their employees in South Korea to adopt English/American nicknames (Starbucks clarified that it isn’t “required” to be an English name, but just that many employees choose to pick English names). This is so employees can address their managers without using formal titles (e.g. Manager). It makes sense to me because in some cultures (many Asian cultures, for example), you don’t call people by their given name. It just isn’t done outside the immediate family or with friends. You use relationship names such as Older Brother, Aunt, Grandfather, even for strangers. In the workplace, you would call people by their titles like CEO Johnson, or Manager Smith.

  37. Stephen*

    I only use Mr./Ms. when I am writing to someone I don’t know– a client or a manager a couple levels above me. Theoretically, I would use it to adress someone I hadn’t met before, but the practice here is always to introduce yourself by first name, so it never come up.

    In university, I used Dr./Prof. lastname to adress instructors unless they requested their first name, which most did. A lot of students would try to be polite by calling all their instructors Professor so-and-so, which drove me nuts, for two reasons: Firstly, is someone asks you to call them Anne, the polite thing to call them is Anne. Secondly, professor is a rank which not everyone who teaches a university class holds– non-tenured sessional instructors are not professors (and really should correct students who call them that without understanding the distiction).

  38. MidAtlanticMan*

    I wonder how much of this is cultural…

    To me, forcing first names seems strange, like a forced form of intimacy. If I happened to sit next to someone on the bus, I wouldn’t expect them to act like my friend, because the reality of it is that we are strangers sharing the same space due to a common goal — getting from one place to another. Are workplaces really that different?

  39. Letter Writer*

    Thank you for writing this! I knew I needed to get used to using first names, but I wasn’t sure how to start doing that. This is my first job out of highschool and I spent the year after on a job search, and I am working through the habit-breaking.

    Luckily for me, only about four of the twenty teachers taught while I was a student (the rest retired or moved) so they didn’t know me when I was a little kid.

  40. LucyVP*

    Pathetic request but I need someone to jump start my brain.

    One of my team members gave her notice today – it was unexpected but she got a great professional opportunity and it makes sense for her to take it.

    I need to send an email announcement to our whole staff but I am still in shock and i cant seem to write anything reasonable. I want to send the email soon so it is officially announced before the gossip starts, but I also want to say more than just “Her last day will be 9/28” because she is awesome, she deserves more and she is really moving on to something very cool and interesting and we want to support that.

    Anyone who can help me with some verbiage to get me started – I will be forever grateful.

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