new employee insists we call her “Mrs. ____” even though we all use first names

I’m moving this week so some posts this week will be reprints from years ago. This one is from February 2014.

In this letter, names have been changed for anonymity. A reader writes:

I recently hired a new employee in my 7-person department. I am very excited, as she has a great experience and her references were wonderful. She will be a real asset to the team. She started this week and as I usually do, I took her around and introduced her to everyone as “Catelyn” (as we called her in the interview). At the end of the day, I brought her into my office to see how things were going and if she had any questions. I was slightly taken aback when she said she preferred to be called Mrs. Stark and not Catelyn.

Normally, I am fine with people’s name preferences (e.g., nicknames), but we have a very informal office. Everyone from the receptionist to the CEO are called by their first names here. Her previous employer (whom she was with for over 10 years) had a much more formal workplace and I assume that is the way things were done there. I tried to explain how we do things, but she said it was what she was used to. I told her it’s not the norm but we could try it and see (maybe not the best way to handle it – I was just stumped). She seemed fine with that.

Note that this woman is mid-forties – only a few years older than me – and my team’s ages run from 26 to 54; so it’s not a “respect-your-elders” thing. Aside from this, she’s actually pretty relaxed. Good sense of humor and nice and seems to be fitting in the group.

I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by making her uncomfortable but I do see this as an issue. We deal with outside clients often who know us as casual. It just seems odd to have a meeting where I introduce the group, “Renly, this is my team: Robb, Bran, and Mrs. Stark.” And I worry she will become a sort of joke and I don’t want that at all. Any thoughts on how to approach this without it sounding like an edict?

This is fascinating. And weird and awkward and all the other things I love.

I think the first thing you need to do is to figure out your goal here. Is it just to give her a friendly heads-up about your culture and to warn her that people are likely to find this really strange — but leave it up to her from there? Or do you really need this to end with her going by Catelyn?

That second option might feel too heavy-handed, but I’d argue that when it comes to interacting with clients, this is very much your business … because clients are going to get a very different feel if she insists on being addressed this way. Some clients, particularly younger ones, are going to find that laughable and/or alienating (and/or hear echos of every government bureaucracy they’ve ever dealt with — which is the only time I can recall another professional wanting me to address them this way), and that affects your business.

So it’s an issue about your culture — both internally and the culture you project to clients — and I’d address it that way. For instance: “I thought more about our conversation about names the other day. I want to be honest with you, I think going by Mrs. Stark is going to strike people as odd. We’re all on a first-name basis here, at every level of the organization, and I’m worried that using Mrs. Stark is going to seem out of sync with our culture and even standoffish. Especially with clients, where we deliberately cultivate a warm, friendly tone.”

If she still says she wants to stick with Mrs. Stark, try to find out more about where she’s coming from. You could say something like, “This is new to me. Can you help me understand why you prefer Mrs. Stark, in a context where everyone else is using first names?” It’s possible that you’ll learn something that will cause you to feel differently about this … although I’m having a hard time imagining what that might be.

But ultimately it’s reasonable to say to her, “We do use first names when we’re interacting with clients. Will you be comfortable with that?”

office insists we refer to higher-ups as Mr. or Ms.

{ 193 comments… read them below }

      1. Infinity Anon*

        I do like the update. It seems like she really didn’t think through what she was asking and once she saw it in action realized just how weird it was.

    1. Emi.*

      I wish it included more detail about how they handled it–did she go around and tell everyone “Actually, just call me by my first name,” or what? That sounds pretty awkward.

      1. Taylor Swift*

        A little awkward, sure, but not, like, relationship-ruining awkward. If I were her coworker I think I’d get over it pretty quickly.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Actually, let me rephrase that. I wish I wasn’t so unobservant because I didn’t notice that Alison DID link to the update.

        1. BMO*

          It wasn’t that obvious and I missed it too. I wish it was a part of the post and not under the You May Also Like section :)

    2. Sarah*

      This is one of my pet peeves, that being friendly means calling someone by their first name. I work in an office where everyone does it so I don’t say anything different but I don’t see why calling someone by their last name is a sign of being stuffy or unfriendly. When someone is way younger, like a kid or teenager and calls me by my first name, I find very disrespectful. I agree it’s a little weird for this lady to insist when no one else does it, but as someone else pointed out, in other communities, for instance HBCUs, it would be the preferred thing.

  1. HR Artist*

    I wouldn’t end with, ‘would you be ok with that’ if the end game is to keep with the culture and call her by her first name. Maybe something like, I appreciate where you are coming from but in keeping with our work culture, we refer to each other with our given names. I can call you by another first name if that makes you more comfortable but Mrs. Stark is too alienating for your peers and our clients.

    Just leave it at that and continue to call her by her name.

    1. Snark*

      Yeah, I’d make this kind of a requirement. Delivered kindly and with understanding, but this is going to be very weird for her coworkers and clients, particularly in the event of that supremely awkward “And I’d like to introduce you to my team, Jane, Wakeen, and Mrs. Stark” line. She needs to be told to let it go.

    2. Dan*

      Same. When things are directives, I hate having them posed as if I have a choice. It puts me on the spot, and makes me feel like I have to give the “right answer” even if I don’t feel that.

    3. Lucille B.*

      I think there’s a big distinction between “Will you be okay with that” (what the answer says) and “Would you be okay with that”. What Alison says in the letter indicates that this *will* be happening and is more of a check-in to see if it’s going to be an issue when the employee is called by their first name.

      As an aside, I have to laugh at the notion of there being a bizarro version of “No, really, PLEASE call me FirstName,” considering how hard it is to convince people to drop that formality sometimes.

  2. Snark*

    “This is fascinating. And weird and awkward and all the other things I love.”

    As a conoisseur of awkwardness, I find this to be a particularly subtle and delightful specimen. It’s so out of sync with modern workplace norms. Yeesh.

    Ultimately, I think this is too big an ask for her to make. She may be used to it, but it’s going to be so, so very awkward, and so out of step with a warm, casual workplace environment. And, frankly, it’d be like this anywhere and everywhere she works, so best get used to it.

    1. Courtney*

      I wish the update had been included in this post too, because I remember it clearly – she realized very quickly that although it was what she was used to for her last job, it was going to be weird here. If I’m remembering correctly she was kind of embarrassed, unmade her request, and things were going just fine.

    2. Savannnah*

      Just a comment on modern workplace norms- If this person is coming from a predominately African American institution background into a predominately Caucasian work environment, this disconnect doesn’t feel at all surprising to me. At any HBCU this formality would be the absolute norm and it does take some getting used to switching in and out of different cultural work environments.

      1. Myrin*

        Yeah, it’s “out of sync with (white?) American modern workplace norms” – I’m from a culture where it’s not unusual to be on a first-name-basis with coworkers but it’s not strange not to be, either. From what I gather, we are more formal than Americans in general, though, not just in this resepct.

        1. Tau*

          +1, from another German.

          …this is a really interesting conversation to follow! I thought the UK was really informal, but it must not be a patch on the US judging by the number of people saying it’s inconceivable not to use first names in the workplace. (Or with clients!)

      2. Ypsiguy*

        I was going to make the same comment.

        In the United States, there is a history of African-Americans being called by their first name in situations where white people would be called by their last name. For example, it was a commonality in courtrooms in certain parts of the country for white lawyers to address white witnesses as “Mr./Mrs./Miss X” while addressing African-Americans in the same situation by their given names.

        This history is recent enough that many African-Americans will still make it clear in professional situations that they expect to be addressed as “Mr./Ms. X.” I have no idea if this particular set of circumstances might have applied here, of course, but it’s something to remember.

        1. Government Worker*

          This is why my workplace is so confusing. It’s a big government agency with a lot of African American staff (and we’re not far from the Mason Dixon line, to throw that cultural aspect in, too). Use of Mr./Ms. versus first names is extremely uneven. In the white-collar departments it’s all first names, but in the blue-collar departments (which have mostly African American staff) most people seem to go by Mr./Ms., especially once they become supervisors. And it seems especially important to some of the African American women in mid-level management positions who have worked their way up from blue collar jobs.

          Senior executives are usually referred to by Mr./Ms. by staff, except at the higher levels of the white-collar departments where people refer to everyone by first name regardless of hierarchy. And we have some new senior execs recently who seem much more comfortable with first names, so in the same conversation I’ll refer to them by first name and someone three levels down by Mr./Ms.

          It’s enough of a mishmash and enough people feel the Mr./Mrs. is a sign of respect that I err on the side of formality if I’m unsure, especially in written communications.

          1. Late reply*

            I also work in a very diverse government agency and see this. Our Director (like CEO) is FirstName to everyone, but some older African-American staff, almost entirely at junior levels, go by Mr or Ms FirstName, though generally only among their immediate coworkers. It can be confusing, especially when meeting with outside people, and while I used to try to navigate it when I first started, now I just call everyone by their first name because I think it’s most appropriate to follow the Director’s lead on things like this.

            It’s interesting to me that our Assistant Directors and Senior Managers who are African-American prefer informal address – so in a way it almost has the opposite effect from an honorific standpoint, as the most senior people don’t buy into this cultural tradition.

      3. TCO*

        I caught this, too. If this could be applicable in this situation, OP should tread carefully and sensitively.

      4. Aurion*

        I can definitely understand it for a cultural norm kind of thing. I mean, if I started working in Japan, I would probably raise eyebrows if I call my coworker “Hiroshi” rather than “Matsuda-san”, and I imagine the reverse would be equally jarring if Matsuda Hiroshi started working across the pond.

        But while cultural differences can be jarring, the insistence for your new colleagues to go against their cultural norms is even weirder, and I’m glad Mrs Stark adapted to her new environment.

        1. Savannnah*

          Yes- although I don’t think the country to country cultural difference comparison is as helpful- since we are assuming this is all within one country. Variation in cultural norms don’t make them foreign.

  3. Imaginary Number*

    Whenever I think of someone (especially a woman) being referred to as “Mrs. So-and-so” in the workplace, it automatically brings an image of the older admin who’s been around forever, takes care of everyone, and basically runs the place. It’s possible she’s been in that position (not necessarily admin, but the older woman in the workplace who sort of takes care of everyone) for a long time and is accustomed to be referred to as “Mrs. Stark” and thinks there’s nothing abnormal about it.

    1. Snark*

      I get the same connotation, which is why a career professional in their 40s should not be dying on that hill.

      1. Lora*

        The more I think about it, the more I like it, actually – like Mrs. Peel from the Avengers (the first one).

      1. Allison*

        I vaguely recall Don Draper having an older secretary on Mad Men. Can’t remember her name, but they were definitely calling her Mrs. when she’d died at her desk and Peggy was trying to wake her up.

      2. SC*

        Yes, but in the show at least, the culture was hierarchical, and basically all the characters outside the core “staff” went by formal levels of address to almost everyone else–the President, VP, First Lady, the military personnel, the cabinet members, the members of Congress, the diplomats. In that context, it didn’t seem unusual to call the President’s secretary Mrs. Landingham. Plus, IIRC, her backstory was that she was a secretary for Bartlett’s father, and Bartlett grew up addressing her as “Mrs. Landingham.”

    2. Oryx*

      It’s a very Upstairs/Downstairs thing. The women in charge — like Mrs. Hughes, from Downton Abbey — go by Mrs. as a title regardless of their marital status.

      1. Christmas Carol*

        But Mrs Hughes was really not a Mrs. until after she became Mrs. Carson, but they decided that would be too confusing so they continued to call her Mr. Hughes

          1. housemouse*

            I recently read in “Life Below Stairs: in the Victorian and Edwardian Country House” that using “Mrs” for the head housekeeper was universally done as a sign of respect.

  4. The IT Manager*

    Great, but surprising, answer. It does seem heavy-handed to insist, but it is very much singling someone out to refer to them differently than everyone else. OTOH it is so odd, that Mrs. Stark realized it on her own within days and the LW didn’t have to insist. (<– see update)

  5. Roscoe*

    Yeah, my opinion of this hasn’t changed. That isn’t the culture that already existed, and you can’t just demand to be put “above” everyone else, including the CEO. Glad the update was good though

  6. Dan*

    When people talk about “cultural fit”, this is a perfect example.

    And yes, I would laugh and make jokes behind her back. Sorry, but I will.

    I work at a company where a majority of the technical staff hold an advanced degree, including many PhDs. A couple summers ago, one of the interns introduced himself to the department, in part by saying, “I work for Dr. Johnson.” We all roared with laughter — everybody else calls the guy “Bob”.

    1. Amelia*

      And yes, I would laugh and make jokes behind her back. Sorry, but I will.

      This seems like something to avoid, regardless of context. Asking to be called Mrs. Stark is odd, sure, but it’s not deserving of ridicule.

    2. Marillenbaum*

      I can understand why it would be funny to y’all, but also–this is an intern. It isn’t unreasonable for them to assume they are held to a higher standard of formality than full time staff.

    3. all aboard the anon train*

      I think it’s a little cruel to laugh at an intern for such a mistake. Many are still straddling that weird line where they think they have to call an adult by a formal title. I know it was a big adjustment for me to go into the workplace and realize I could call my boss by her first name, since many of my professors still had us call them “Professor/Dr. LastName”. No one explained it to me, I just was always taught to treat authority figures with a formal title, and it was something I had to awkwardly learn on my own in the workplace those first weeks.

      If it hasn’t been explained to interns that everyone goes by first names, it’s mean and unprofessional to ridicule them for knowledge they didn’t know or a cultural aspect they’re not used to yet.

      1. periwinkle*

        Agreed. I am an adult, with a job and a mortgage and all that adult stuff. However, I am also working on my second graduate degree (the first one was completed just a few years ago). In academia it is customary to call a faculty member “Dr. Tyrell” unless she specifically says you can call her Margaery. All of the faculty in my first program and most in the current one encourage students to use first names; these are professional-oriented degrees and most students are in their 30s or older, so it seems a little odd to do otherwise. Nevertheless, about a third of my current faculty expect students to call them Dr. [whatever], and we do.

        With interns still in their undergrad programs, yes, they are most likely going to default to the formal title for anyone with a Ph.D. It’s a Pavlovian response.

        1. Close Bracket*

          This must be a departmental thing. As a freshman, sophomore, I called my profs “Dr.” By the time I was a senior, I had switched to first names for many, though not all. As a grad student, it was all first names, except, oddly, my advisor, whose students all called him “Dr.”
          At some point, a new student asked him what he liked to be called, and he said he preferred his first name. He had never bothered to correct anyone during all those years.

      2. BMO*

        It seems like they laughed because Bob was referred to as Dr. Johnson, not “ooh stupid intern, bahaha!”

        My boss is Dr. Pocket, but everyone calls her Polly. She spent her first 2 weeks making sure everyone called her Polly. People have laughed when anyone calls her Dr. Polly because she we all know how adamant she is about being called Polly. It’s all good :)

    4. always in email jail*

      I work with many medical/Phd doctors, and always default to “Dr. so and so” until I’m explicitly told otherwise BY THAT PERSON to just call them so-and-s0.

      1. Geoffrey B*

        I used to snicker at people who stood on “Doctor”, assuming it to be a sign of ego, but I’ve since come to understand that people (especially non-male and non-white people) can have very good reasons for insisting on the title.

      2. LHH*

        I did my residency in a practice with a more traditional culture. My attending (who was also the owner) insisted everyone be called by their formal title of Dr. So-and-so at work, even in private conversations but especially in front of staff or patients –no matter how informal our relationship was outside of work. But he also extended that rule to himself in how he addressed me (the lowest on the totem pole). He also insisted I make patients address me as “Dr. Doe” He always said, “They are not here to see Jane, they are here to see Dr. Doe.” (Obviously he could not enforce that with the other doctors, but as his resident/student he required it)

        To make it more awkward, I started going to his church, and naturally everyone knew him by first name there. Once I slipped and referred to him by his title, as I am used to, and I got a laughed at pretty good.

        Fast forward to me joining a large group practice later on where every doctor referred to each other by first name and I probably looked like the uptight weirdo who kept using formal titles! Of course I caught on and relaxed how I addressed my colleagues to fit in. But I most definitely use Mr/Mrs for patients as a default until they insist otherwise!

  7. Argh!*

    If a trans person can insist on being called they/them then a person ought to be able to request being called Mrs.

    1. Savannnah*

      This is very much not the same thing. One is another pronoun, one is a level of formality.

      1. LCL*

        But it is the same thing, if etiquette says we refer to people the way they wish to be referred to. I understood that it was considered too formal for this office, and that Mrs. Stark eventually switched to Catelyn after settling in. But da@# it so many responses to that letter made me angry, and I am still angry about it. Unless a person has deliberately chosen an alternative name that is offensive, address them how they wish to be addressed.

        1. Amelia*

          They’re the same as far as choice is concerned: you choose which name you want people to use, which pronoun, and which honorific, and which of these is used in any particular instance varies according to circumstances. A person who asks that they always be referred to as “Mrs. Stark” and never their first name, or a person who asks to always be addressed as “him” and never by name, or a person that asks that people always refer to them by name and never use any pronouns can’t expect that their demands will always be met.

        2. Savannnah*

          I think the push back here is that one (chosen pronoun) is seen as correct or incorrect where the other (first name or last name) is seen as a degree of preference.

          1. Zip Zap*

            But that depends on the culture. In some cultures and traditions, going by Mrs. Stark would be standard, not a matter of preference.

            I think the professional thing to do is just call people what they want to be called and stay out of their personal business.

    2. Oryx*

      Apples and oranges.

      Mrs., Mr., Miss., are titles and fall under the same honorific umbrella as Lord, Dr., even Mr. President

      They/them fall under the pronoun umbrella of she/her, he/him. Nowhere near the same thing.

      1. Snark*

        And pronouns are a reference to one’s identity and presentation in society – male, female, trans, whatever – whereas honorifics are a matter of social formality. I am entitled to use the honorific “Dr,” and in formal occasions I am introduced and referrred to as such, but the use of that honorific is so tied to social context that it would come off as exceedingly bizarre to insist on being so called by my clients and professional contacts.

        1. LCL*

          But you CHOOSE not to use Dr. People CHOOSE to use pronouns that they believe best reflects who they are. It’s the choice that makes it the same.

          1. Snark*

            Nope. I do use Dr. when the social situation merits that level of formal address. It is sometimes appropriate to call me that, just not in typical workplace interactions or my everyday life. “Dr.” is in no way essential to my identity, and its use is entirely optional.

            It is always and without exception appropriate to refer to someone with the name and pronouns most appropriate to their identity, which is a constant in any social interaction or level of formality whether or not they use the name and pronouns assigned them at birth or one which they have chosen as more reflective of their lived experience.

            1. Snark*

              So, in practice: Catelyn Stark is properly referred to as “she” or “her” if those are her preferred pronouns – and they may request “they” if they feel that is a better match for their gender expression. Her/their surname is properly regarded as “Stark” not “Tarygarten” if she chooses to go by her married, rather than maiden, name. She should be referred to “Catelyn” rather than “Cate” or “Cat” or “Kate” or “Katers” if she has expressed a desire to be so called.

              But “Mrs. Stark” is a form of address that would only apply in situations which are formal. It is a conditional form of address.

            2. LCL*

              But it doesn’t matter whether or not it is essential to your identity. It matters what you choose to use in any given human interaction. Yes, one shouldn’t be that jerk who is Bob this week, Robert next week, then Bobby the week after and scolds people for not getting it right. But there’s nothing wrong with asking to change it every week, as long as Roberto doesn’t get upset when people choose the not preferred that week method of address.

              1. Snark*

                “But it doesn’t matter whether or not it is essential to your identity.”

                You can think it’s wrong and silly, but this is how human social interaction works and it’s the terrain we’re all walking on, and so not up for debate.

                1. LCL*

                  How human social interaction works isn’t up for debate? I disagree, that’s one of the main attractions of this column!

        2. Buffy Summers*

          I would totally insist that everyone refer to me as Dr. Summers. Family included. My kids could be a little less formal and call me Dr. Mom….


          1. Snark*

            I did it for like a week after I graduated, and then it was like, yeah, now I sound like a holdover from 1948 and I need to stop that today.

            1. Close Bracket*

              I have a friend who just graduated. Formality is appropriate in her workplace, and she is going to go by “Dr.” rather than “Ms.” As a fellow PhD holder, I am containing my eyerolls, figuring she will eventually figure it out.

          2. Nic*

            As the child of two Ph.D.s I often referred to my parents as Dr. Mom and Dr. Dad for amusement.

            I also got a lot of mileage out of Mr. Dr. Smith and Mrs. Dr. Smith when I was referring to one of them in conversation.

    3. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      1) They/them is not a trans* identifier, it is a non-binary identifier that both trans* and non-tans people use
      2) As pointed out above, gender identity and honorifics are not the same
      3) This is an absurdly hostile statement, whether you intended it to be or not, and has no bearing on the question at hand

      I know the original letter resolved itself, but had it not, I think AAM’s advice is spot on. I think pushing the issue when interacting with clients at the very least would have needed to happen

      1. Argh!*

        No hostility intended. If people can insist on a pronoun they should be able to insist on an honorific, nickname or whatever. We should all have the same right to choose how to be addressed.

        1. Oryx*

          But calling someone Catelyn instead of Mrs. Stark isn’t denying the woman her married status. Calling a nonbinary individual She instead of They IS denying them their gender identity.

        2. Lissa*

          I think this is a matter of “do you want to be right, or do you want to make friends.” If someone decides their hill to die on is to be referred to by something out of sync with the environment, sure they “can” do that, but it is going to come off in ways that they likely do not intend, and in fact may be confusing enough (at client meetings, people assuming Mrs Stark has a different, higher title than the other people) that her supervisors are not wrong in stepping in.

          I think of it kind of like dress code. I should be able to wear clothes appropriate to my gender identity, but I still need to stick to the appropriate formality level in most situations.

        3. Akcipitrokulo*

          I think it gives every appearance of being incredibly hostile. It is an irrelevance to the subject at hand, and it is not unreasonable to infer the only reason for bringing it up was to demonstrate hostility.

          1. LCL*

            It’s completely relevant. It doesn’t seem relevant to you, but to those of us who believe you get to choose your name, it’s relevant. Whether I choose to use my first name, my last name, my middle name, a combination, a pseudonym or any of my multitude of user names, I’m not trying to be hostile to anyone else.

            1. Idi*

              Exactly! And yet they called me mad!

              His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular

    4. Shadow*

      I want everyone to call me “the most interesting human being that ever lived” and I deserve to be called that for the same reason you cited

    5. SarahTheEntwife*

      It’s really not analogous. You can ask to be called Mrs. rather than Mr. or Miss, but that’s choosing a title at an agreed-upon level of formality. You don’t normally get to demand a level of formality that’s different from everyone else in the same context.

    6. Akcipitrokulo*

      No. Two completely different things. And wildly inappropriate to bring that axe to grind into a conversation about formality.

  8. Genny*

    How is this any different than Katherine wanting to go by Katie (or, perhaps more accurate to this example, someone insisting on using their formal name instead of a more informal nickname) or a Nicholas wanting to go by Nichole? Call people what they want to be called. It’s not your business why they want to use a different name. You already mentioned how it might be awkward and she chose to keep the name anyways. You don’t get to keep badgering her about it; it’s just rude.

    1. Amelia*

      Preferred names are still names–they’re a part of a person’s identity. “Mrs.” is an honorific.

    2. Snark*

      “It’s not your business why they want to use a different name”

      Actually, it is, if it creates a weird gulf between the person and their clients and coworkers, I think it is absolutely and literally OP’s business. And it’s not the same as asking to go by a nickname instead of a full name, because one is an identity and the other is simply a level of formal address that is entirely optional and contextual.

      1. Genny*

        I strongly disagree. People get to determine what they want to be called within the bounds of reason. There’s nothing unreasonable about preferring a formal address. As far as the coworkers are concerned, their potential awkwardness is not a good enough reason to tell someone that they don’t get to be called what they prefer. Clients are a little different, but I have a hard time believing they would care all that much about her name so long as she is a competent professional, which she is according to the OP’s description of her.

        1. Snark*

          “People get to determine what they want to be called within the bounds of reason.”

          And demanding formal address is outside the bounds of reason. Conundrum solved.

          “There’s nothing unreasonable about preferring a formal address”

          There is, because when a social context is not formal, it’s not reasonable to insist on an inappropriate degree of formality and it is guaranteed to make you seem pompous and standoffish at best and at worst like you’re claiming a superior social standing. People would think I was a lunatic if I insisted on being referred to as Dr. Snark.

          1. Snark*

            Here’s a good parallel: wouldn’t it be inappropriate and odd if someone insisted on wearing a three-piece suit or an elegant dress to an office where the dress code is business casual? People choose the gendered clothing styles most appropriate to their identity, but dressing up in a casual circumstance would be odd and offputting.

            1. AMD*

              I don’t think anyone is saying it wouldn’t be odd. But if I felt strongly that my identity was tied to dressing extremely formally (“Ah am a Southern *lady,* and a lady is nevah without her white gloves and parasol”) then I wouldn’t feel wrong insisting on dressing that way regardless of culture unless there was a specific rule against it. (And would probably be well advised to seek out work environments where it wouldn’t be as out of place!)

              I agree that formality of address is not the same as pronoun selection, but I do think the boundaries are a lot more blurry than “This is clearly outside the bounds of reason.”

            2. Lissa*

              Ha, Snark, I just made this exact point above and then see you also did.I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said here. I understand why people are equating this to “call epople what they want to be called”, but I think there’s absolutely room for debate here about ‘bounds of reason’. If going by Mrs. Stark is going to cause confusion or discomfort for clients especially, it isn’t unreasonable to take that into effect.

              There are a lot of things that could be part of someone’s deeply-felt identity that still need to stay out of the workplace, so I don’t think “it’s a big part of my identity” is a trump card here. I mean, it’s obviously important, but sometimes it’s not wrong to consider the impact on everyone else over the coworker not being able to do what they’d prefer.

            3. finderskeepers*

              How could it possibly be “inappropriate and odd” for someone to dress more business-formal than the dress code expects? It’s not as if they’re wearing a mao-suit

        2. Aurion*

          I feel like enforcing a level of formality that is out of sync with not only company culture, but American workplace culture, is pushing that bounds of reason. A formal address when no one else–not even the CEO!–has such implies authority and a power differential that does not exist.

          1. Snark*

            Or it implies a mistaken belief in a power/class/status differential that comes off as pompous and out of touch.

        3. Viktoria*

          I don’t think there’s anything inherently unreasonable about wanting a formal address, but it could be unreasonable in certain contexts.

          And this is utterly dependent on the type of work they do, but if it were any kind of situation where I was “shopping around” for a provider, I would probably pass up the one I had to call Mrs. Stark. So yes, I think it could definitely alienate clients depending on the type of business they are in. (Off the top of my head, I have never wanted to call any medical providers by their first name, but I can’t think of anyone else I’d really feel comfortable addressing with an honorific).

        4. The Vi*

          So in your opinion it would be totally a-okay if I started a new job and told my boss that I would like to be called “cockmaster” by my colleages? The awkwardness of having them call me that is not a good enough reason to tell me that I don’t get to be called that?

    3. Roscoe*

      Its different because you are putting yourself on a different “respect” level than literally everyone else there. IF the CEO is going by first name, but new person demands to be called Mrs. Last name, then they are presuming that they deserve a more formal, respectful greeting than the head of the company.

      1. IowaGirl*

        You’re assuming her motivation though. Maybe Caitlyn just hates her given name. Maybe it was used a some sort of bludgeon in her last job (see conversation on POC). Maybe Mr. Stark died recently and it gives her comfort to hear that name still used. Couldn’t someone also assume the motivation of someone using the pronoun “they” has some nefarious reason (political agenda, for example)?

        I really don’t see why so many commenters want to police one scenario and not the other.

    4. Thegs*

      Yeah, I agree. At the last place I worked my coworkers went by a mix of FirstName, Mr./Ms./Mrs. LastName, or just LastName based upon their preference. It wasn’t weird or overly formal at all, I would go from cracking wise with Mr. LastName to asking FirstName for help debugging a script.

  9. Zip Zap*

    I think you ultimately have to leave it up to the employee. Names are very personal and often have religious or cultural associations. In other words, this could be an issue of respecting someone’s personal beliefs. Violating that would be wrong and would open you up to potential law suits. It’s a tricky thing to ask about too.

    So I would respect her preference. But maybe there’s a respectful way to have a conversation about how to avoid misunderstandings with clients. Or a strategy you could put into place, maybe emphasizing that your team is diverse and welcoming? There has to be a middle ground somewhere. Now I’m going to read the update. :-)

    1. Snark*

      “In other words, this could be an issue of respecting someone’s personal beliefs. ”

      Except in this case, it’s very obviously not, it’s just a holdover from a previous long-term position at a company with a more formal culture.

      And no, this is not an issue of personal beliefs. Preferring a more formal level of address is not sacrosanct.

      1. LCL*

        It turned out to be a holdover from a previous culture, but none of us knew it at the time of the original question.

      2. Zip Zap*

        How do you know that? It’s a workplace; people aren’t necessarily going to reveal their real reasons for their personal preferences.

    2. self employed*

      Can you clarify which religions would require the use of an honorific? I can’t think of any.

      1. Zip Zap*

        I’m not sure, but having traveled a lot, I know that customs vary greatly and what means one thing in one culture might mean something else in a different one. I don’t want to list any examples in case I’m wrong, but I have been to places / communities where “Mrs. Stark” would be standard and would not seem unusually formal. Some societies treat marital status, who you are married to, and your status as an adult (using an honorific) as a more fundamental part of your identity.

    3. Lindsay J*

      It’s not at all a tricky thing to ask about.

      You just ask. “Are you wearing that headwear as part of your religious beliefs?” “Is your request to have all Sundays off due to your religious practices?” “Otherwise [because we have a no hats policy/everyone here is required to be on call both weekend days/whatever] we wouldn’t be able to allow you to do that, but we will of course be willing to make this accommodation for your sincerely held religious beliefs.”

      You can also not be held liable for violating religious beliefs that the employee has not stated that they have and have not requested religious accommodations for. (You can be held liable for harassment for religious slurs or other forms of harassment, but asking once if something is part of their religious beliefs/practices is neither of those things.)

      (Asking every day when someone comes in wearing a different hijab if it is a religious belief could be harassment, or asking about whether they go to church on Sundays when the job doesn’t require Sunday work, but asking once when it is job related would not be.)

      Nor is it practical or incumbent on a manager to assume that anything anyone might possibly do is related to someone’s race, religion, disability, or other protected status. Some things are common or obvious, and I might – if someone is wearing a yarmulke I’m going to assume it is their religious beliefs. If they have a cane I’m going to assume it’s for disability related reasons. Certain food restrictions I will assume either religious, medical, or both. (Peanuts – medical, pork – religious, shellfish – either/or).

      In this instance, I would not assume it is related to their religious beliefs, as I am not aware of any religious beliefs relating to forms of address. I know it is entirely possible that there is one, but it is not a common or widespread practice, so it would incumbent on the employee to inform me that it was part of their religious practices if I asked them to change their form of address and it made them uncomfortable. Once they do tell me that I should accept it, but I cannot possibly know that it is a religious thing until they tell me because the span of religions and how they are observed and practiced is so huge.

      Bringing up religion, when you are the manager and the topic is relevant to work related accommodations, is not a problem. It is not legally forbidden in any way. Most people are reasonable and would not be offended if they were asked for a legitimate work-related reason.

      You could run into trouble if they did inform you it was part of their sincerely held religious beliefs and then you continued to ignore it, but not before. (That would also strike me as wrong in the moral sense as well.)

      However, in this situation the employee explicitly explained that the form of address was what she was used to in her previous workplace, which was much more formal. That does not sound religious etc in nature at all and so assuming that it was would be more inappropriate than acting on the information you were given that it wasn’t.

      You can’t function as a company assuming that every little thing an employee possibly does is related to being in a protected class in some way. And legally, ethically, and practically, if you have a reason for needing to know (you’re their manager and need to make an accommodation in some way) there is nothing wrong with straight up asking and I’m really starting to push back against the idea that there might be.

      (Again, as long as you ask once and then accept it, rather than badgering them about whether they’re sure they need to [have that day off/wear that/be addressed in that specific way/really not lift anything over 50 lbs] because [I’m a Catholic and I work Sundays/I’ve never heard of that before/when Suzy was pregnant she was still able to do that right up until she went into labor] – that type of questioning/badgering is uncool.)

      It’s like with service dogs – you can ask “Is that a service dog?” and even, “What tasks is it trained to do?” You just can’t be like, “Well, it doesn’t look like a service dog,” or ask, “What disability do you have?” You can even go up to people with a dog and say, “I’m sorry, we don’t allow pets in here,” at which point they can go, “Okay, sorry,” and leave or go, “Actually, it’s a service dog” at which point you allow them to stay.

      1. Zip Zap*

        Yes, but if it’s as simple and easy to accommodate as calling someone what they ask to be called, why inquire about it?

        Asking personal questions in a business environment tends to open cans of worms. I think it’s best to respect people’s choices and privacy unless there is a reason to do otherwise. Asking if an animal is a service animal would be an example of something that is worth asking about because bringing an animal to an office obviously could have an impact on the building and the people working there. I know you could say the same thing about name preferences, but the impact is less tangible and more hypothetical, and there are plenty of easy ways to work around it.

  10. Katie Fay*

    Assuming the LW uses this writing, “We do use first names when we’re interacting with clients. Will you be comfortable with that?”

    What does LW do if she says “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” Perhaps better to be more straightforward, drop the question inquiring about Catelyn’s comfort and simply state: “This is how we do things here.”

    I think the second sentence, the question, needs to be dropped. This employee’s desire to be referred to in a more formal manner than colleagues and clients will alienate those around her and likely cause her own isolation.

    1. Lindsay J*

      Though presumably, if the employee said, “No, I won’t be comfortable with that,” you wouldn’t just drop the conversation. At that point, if this is really the hill you want to die on with this employee you push back with, “Well this is how we do things here, and if you’re not comfortable with it then perhaps this isn’t the right fit,” or something.

      Though, I agree, I would likely leave that bit out. I was taught in my education classes to not leave “softening phrases” in my statements at all when what I needed was compliance. Not, “Could you please bring me the scissiors,” just “Please bring me the scissors.” Not, “Bring me the scissors when you get the chance, okay?” just, “Please bring me the scissors at the first available opportunity.” Not “I need you to bring me the scissors. Could you do that for me?” Not even, “I would like you to bring me the scissors.”

      It just makes the conversation clearer – the other options make it seem like there is an option to say, “No, I can’t.” (Even though most adults will understand that it’s really more of a command than a question, some will not. And some will feel annoyed that you’re presenting them with the illusion of choice when the choice to say “no” may not exist or may come with implied or hidden consequences.) Saying “Please” and “Thank you” after they do it makes it polite enough without introducing a lack of clarity or feeling of manipulation.

  11. LawLady*

    I think I would have felt very differently about this letter if she had wanted to be referred to by Ms. Stark instead of Mrs. Stark. The difference between Ms. Stark and Catelyn is about level of formality. But the difference between Mrs. Stark and Catelyn is also about marital status, which makes it feel even weirder to me.

    1. Elizabeth H.*

      Eh, not really. Ideally whether or not someone is married shouldn’t make any difference to how you think about them. It is less common, I think, for women to use “Mrs” but I don’t think it should be regarded differently. I think underlying this is the idea that women who use “Mrs” want to be represented by their marital status or identify strongly with their gender or relationship role, and that there’s something wrong with wanting to be identified that way. I don’t think using the marital honorific (in a situation when it’s appropriate for people to be using honorifics!) should be considered differently from wearing your wedding ring.

    2. LS*

      Being okay with Ms but not Mrs says to me that you’re okay with calling her what she prefers, but only within your own parameters of what’s acceptable.

  12. Camellia*

    I’m glad the update went so well. Kudos to this person for realizing and adjusting to this new paradigm. (Sorry, hadn’t had to use a buzzword in over an hour, had to get that in.)

    On a side note, does anyone remember the correct form of the full name when one is using ‘Mrs.’? Without the title, I am “Camellia Sinensis”. With the title I am “Mrs. Wakeen Senensis”. Yup, not my first name but my husband’s first name. One of the reasons that many of us championed the use of “Ms.”, you know, back in the day.

    1. Emi.*

      Traditionally, if you were referred to as “Mrs. Camellia Sinensis,” it meant you were a divorcée.

    2. Been there*

      This caused quite the rift between me and my MIL- totally social situation and not work related, but interesting all the same.

      I was addressing our wedding invitations and my gram always introduced herself as Mrs. Wakeen Senensis. So I learned early on about this tradition (for reference I’m in my early 40’s). Anyway, was addressing the invitations and I asked my then fiance what his great uncle’s name was. His response was laughably typical “Umm Unc?” Ok not what I was after. I explained that I was addressing Aunt Penny’s invitation and I needed his Uncle’s name to be proper. So he called his mom.

      His mom argued with him that he didn’t need the name, the invitation should be addressed to Aunt Penny. I not so gently said that it didn’t matter what she thought, there was only one thing about our wedding that was formal and it was the invitations. There was no way on earth I was not going to address these ‘right’ to the two matriarchs of each family. Long story short I finally got ‘Unc’s ‘ name and was able to address the invitation correctly.

      I heard from several family members from that side that thought the funniest thing they had seen was Aunt Penny and MIL discussing the invitations and MIL saying something about the fuss I made to get the name. Aunt Penny sided with me and said, but why wouldn’t she need it, how else was she to address an invitation the right way.

      I loved Aunt Penny

  13. LadyL*

    I have the inverse problem at my job. I work with kids and my bosses all tell the kids to call us Miss/Mr. First Name. I correct it to Ms. First name (because I don’t see why my marital status is relevant here), but honestly I’d rather the kids just call me by name. I don’t really think the Ms. lends me any authority that I don’t already have, and it feels like a relic of a bygone era. Plus we’re not teachers, we’re doing informal education, so it feels out of place. It doesn’t seem worth bringing up to my boss, so I just tell the kids my name without the title and don’t correct them when they call me either.

    1. The IT Manager*

      How old are you? I ask because when I was younger it felt weird when parents insisted their children call me Ms IT. It still feels a bit weird because I don’t interact with often, but I am much more comfortable now that there’s a 20 year age gap between me and the kids.

      I think you’re wrong. I do think it’s still appropriate for kids to refer to adults as Mr/Ms. I think it is a part of manners that should not be rendered obsolete. There’s value in making the distinction for kids about respectful titles at appropriate time (which in this case is when a child is dealing with an adult).

      Side note: My mother was a teacher. Her school tried and I don’t think they succeeded to transition kids to Ms Lastname instead of Ms Firstname at some point.

    2. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

      The Miss/Ms./Mr. First Name is very, very, very common in that situation. I cannot think of any setting that my kids have been in where this wasn’t expected. Even the teenage swim instructors were Mr./Miss First Name. And I do not live in the South where it is even more common.

    3. Emi.*

      If it helps, I called adults Mr./Miss Firstname as a child, and I never thought the “Miss” had anything to do with marital status–it was just the female honorific that went with first names, as opposed to last names, and I used it for married and unmarried women alike.

    4. Andie Elizabeth*

      Ugh, I am having a weird version of this same problem where one of my coworker (nearly 10 years older than me) sometimes takes to calling me “Miss Firstname” even though I’ve told him he can just call me Firstname. It’s weird and I think it’s his way trying to be friendly, like, being a little too formal in a goofy way? But it may also very well be a passive aggressive…thing…I’m not even sure what the point of the thing would be, I just know that this particular coworker is really two-faced and we’ve had some conflicts before, so it might be a weird subtle dig where he won’t just call me by my name and instead makes a Thing about it? I’m mid-twenties so I’m at the age where I’m weird about formality in general, but everyone in the company, up to the President and CEO, go by their first names here. It’s weird.

      So, solidarity! I hope you find a better solution than my “try to ignore it and be quietly annoyed” approach.

      1. Zip Zap*

        I have the same problem. People call me “Miss Firstname”. I’m in my late 30s and it hasn’t stopped. It’s always just me. The same person will address all of my peers as just Firstname. I think that in some cases the person is trying to be friendly, but I don’t like it and I don’t think it belongs in the workplace. I wish I knew what was provoking it so I could make it stop.

    5. BananaPants*

      It is very, very common in that kind of informal setting to use Mr. Firstname or Ms. Firstname (which often sounds like “Miss” when said by small children). Our kids’ daycare caregivers and teachers have always been referred to in that way. Same goes for their teenage swim teachers, sports coaches, scout leaders, etc. And this is in the Northeast U.S., not the south.

      1. tigerlily*

        I don’t know exactly how this started, but sometime in the last year or so all the kids at the preschool I work at seem to have transitioned out of calling us Miss and Mr and instead call us all Teacher. So instead of Mr Peter and Miss Tinkerbell, they call them all Teacher Peter and Teacher Tinkerbell. I’m the Office Manager and they include me in that as well. I’m not actually a teacher, but they call me as Teacher Tigerlily. It’s not something that came from any of the staff, I truly think one kid started it and all the rest just glommed onto the practice. And now the teachers do too.

  14. Little Miss*

    I had a colleague at my last workplace insist on being called Mrs. Tully, but it absolutely was an age/respect thing– she’s in her early 50’s, I’d guess? So, firmly in the baby boomers, really not old at all. As a new hire I heard longtimers calling her by her first name, called her by that once, and got the iciest glare you could imagine in return. Meanwhile, she called me and other people in my age range “Miss Susie”. I’m 30 years old and married, in the same lateral position as she at the organization. It was obnoxious, and it extended to other parts of her personality. I called her Mrs. to keep the peace, but… it was silliness.

    1. George Willard*

      It would infuriate me to be called by a title + first name. It sounds completely disrespectful.

      1. ACS*

        That’s a Southern U.S. thing. Very regional, but it seems to bridge the gap between familiarity and respect.

  15. LoiraSafada*

    The last time I referred to someone as ‘Mrs.’ in anything that could be considered a professional setting was high school. I can’t imagine calling one of my coworkers Mrs. Coworker. I honestly would have guessed that the coworker was in her 70s, not her 40s.

  16. MacAilbert*

    I don’t know that I’m really comfortable with either side, here. I’m with the employee. As a California millenial, one thing I utterly despise about my culture is our lack of formality, and I don’t really like the familiar, overly friendly terms of address we use in the workplace. I especially don’t like referring to superiors by first name, because that’s just wrong. On the other hand, the workplace norm is what it is, like it or not, and one is expected to conform. And Mrs. generally connotes an air of experience and authority that may not be particularly warranted here. End of the day, I guess the employer’s in the right, but I feel really, really crappy saying that, because I hate that kind of casual culture in the workplace, and that’s the norm in basically every workplace in my industry.

    1. self employed*

      It’s not “just wrong,” culturally speaking; it’s just not your preferred level of formality.

      1. self employed*

        Didn’t mean to seem curt; as a solution (since this is a widespread cultural thing), you may behave more formally even when using first names. You can shake hands instead of hug; you can opt not to give out personal information; you can wear a tie instead of a tshirt. But sorry, the first name ship has sailed.

    2. LBK*

      I especially don’t like referring to superiors by first name, because that’s just wrong.

      This has nothing to do with California culture…this is normal in the working world, period. Unless maybe you’re talking to the president of the company, you don’t call your boss Ms. Smith. You just call her Jane.

      Since you’re younger, it feels like maybe this is a holdover from school where you’re accustomed to calling teachers and professors by titles? But that’s not how it works in the office, and it would be really weird to be calling regular managers by anything other than their first names.

      1. tigerlily*

        Especially because your superiors have superiors. It would be so weird to have an organizational chart with several levels and everyone at the bottom level calls people Mr and Mrs/Miss/Ms, but then each level up has a different mix of first name vs last name. That would be bananas.

    3. Roscoe*

      Here is my take, and it may ruffle some feathers, but I don’t really care. In the work place, if we are equals, I’m addressing you as my equal. If my boss demanded to be called Mr. Smith, I may be annoyed, but I’d do it since he is responsible for my pay check. If Jane who is doing the exact same work as me, but is 20 years older, demands that, just no. You don’t get more respect just by virtue of living longer. If you have done something to warrant that, sure. But in the office, we are equals, and I’m not playing games to let you feel superior

      1. LBK*

        Yeah, I more or less agree with this too. And I think it hits on something I couldn’t place when I was thinking about this earlier, which is that I don’t think calling someone by their first name is informal if you’re peers. Using titles is about deference, not propriety, so there’s no reason to defer to someone to whom you have no reason to defer.

    4. Oryx*

      It’s not “wrong” — it’s just maybe not what you’re comfortable doing or are familiar with.

      Everyone in my company (large, midwest city) goes by their first name. I call the CEO by his first name. I used to work in Academia and even there the campus presidents (I saw two in my tenure) were called by their first name.

      1. BananaPants*

        If the CEO of my Fortune 50 company walked up right now, I would be expected to call him by his first name, not with his honorific and surname. We are not a deferential bunch.

        1. Oryx*

          Yeah, I can’t imagine the reaction I’d get if I started referring to him as Mr. Lastname

        2. Amber Rose*

          Same with my company. Worse, because so much of management is family. They’d be asking me which Mr Wakeen I was talking to if I tried to be formal.

          Anyways, there’s no need to be deferential. The owner isn’t a king or something, he just has a different set of skills than I do. I may be working for him, but that’s because his skills create the product we sell while mine are of a more support based nature.

  17. LS*

    I know this was resolved happily but I’d like to put in my 2 cents anyway.

    How people address each other is something you can get a read on in the interview, probably even more easily than you can suss out the dress code or meeting etiquette. If you really want / object to being called Professor P or Ms S or Colonel M, you need to make sure that’s the office norm before you take the job. You can’t really ask for an exception to be made, without seeming a little weird and/or clueless.

    For those who relate this to age – I’d hate to be called Ms Anything and I’m way, way older than most of my colleagues. But I’ve never worked in an environment that formal except… maybe my first job where I think the directors were addressed as Mr Thingummy. But it’s so long ago that I can’t really remember. LOL.

  18. AMPG*

    I have a colleague with a Ph.D., the only one with a doctorate in my office. He clearly would have liked to go by Dr. Snow, but we just aren’t that formal among the executive team, and it would’ve seemed silly. So he’s “Jonathan” to his peers and boss, and “Dr. Snow” to his team.

    1. periwinkle*

      My former boss (who is still in my chain of command) holds a Ph.D. He usually goes by his first name, like everyone else where, but will strategically deploy the Dr. title when making a point based on research evidence (which is very relevant to our field). I aspire to this!

    2. Yorick*

      I go by Yorick, but I do want to be called Dr. Lastname if that level of formality is happening.

  19. Lumen*

    I read the ‘update’ from this LW from 3 years ago and this ended so nicely. I wonder how it would have gone with an employee who insisted even after being told that it was causing awkwardness. Thought experiment time!

  20. Justin*

    I do employee training for gov’t workers and in my very first class there was a woman whom, I was told, prefers Ms. (name). I remembered this letter.

    But ultimately, everyone called her by her preferred Ms. (name) and I didn’t think I’d be the one person who refused. It didn’t seem like a big deal. And we call our superiors (all the way up to the director of this massive city agency) by their first name.

    I think we’re right to think we should hope she adjusts. But unlike this letter, our student was 70+ and the only thing I could have brought upon myself was grief. She was a very very nice woman, and when I called her Ms. (name) she said she appreciated it. Like someone wrote above, I think some reject our more informal culture, and you know, I’m somewhere in between, so I am happy to just… do as people prefer. But again, I’m not their manager, just their teacher.

    1. Snark*

      That strikes me as a little different, because she’s an elder, and elders are traditionally afforded a level of formal respect.

      1. Justin*

        Yes, though to me a 40-something person would be an elder too. I also wonder how long she’d insisted on it, having worked here for 30 years.

        1. LBK*

          I don’t think “elder” literally means anyone older than you (I mean, someone 2 years older than you clearly isn’t your “elder” even if they technically are), so unless you’re a young teen I wouldn’t think of a 40-something person as an elder.

          1. Chinook*

            I believe use of the term “elder” is appropriate when referring to someone who holds more cultural/institutional knowledge than you and is seen as an expert. That person can be younger than you at work (especially if they started at 18 and worked at the same company all her life) but it usually takes time to earn the life experience that title requires.

            I don’t see it used too often in white culture any more but, within in N. American tribes, it is not unusual for one of the tribal elders to be in their 30’s because they have been training since they were a child at a grandparent’s knee to take on a traditional role like tribal leader. We had one of those elders give us a talk a few months back and he was in his 50’s and held his role in his tribe for at least 10 years.

      2. Lindsay J*

        It strikes me as different as, at least in the she situation described, there was not the disparity of forms of address with outside vendors to deal with.

        A single class (possibly with people from multiple workplaces or teams, possibly full of people you might not interact with again) also strikes me as different than a small team where you interact with everyone every day. If I’m emailing Ms. Graham once in a blue moon to ask what a certain account code is, it wouldn’t bother me much to address her as Ms. Graham. If I’m asking my coworkers whether or not they want anything from Starbucks it would be odd to me to say “Jim, do you want anything? Chrissy? Meghan? Ms. Graham?”

  21. Beancounter Eric*

    I’d like to pose a question to the group.

    Why is a first-name basis superior to formal modes of address?

    Expanding upon this, Is a less formal workplace better at creating wealth for it’s investors than a more formal environment?

    1. self employed*

      Our culture has moved to more casual dress, speech, etc. It’s not just business.

      It’s not “superior” as much as it is following current norms.

    2. Aurion*

      It’s not superior. See Japan, where the typical address to a colleague would likely be “Takaishi-san”, which would be the equivalent to Mr/Ms Takaishi.

      But addressing with given names is the cultural norm here, and whether or not that is the preference of any individual, it is really weird to be enforcing a level of formality not in sync the rest of the workplace (and most workplaces in the country). It’s reminiscent of a power play because for a lot of people, the last time they use Mr/Ms/etc honourifics was when they were in school, where their teachers were definitely in a position of authority toward them.

    3. SC*

      It’s not superior, but it follows cultural norms in the U.S.

      I’d guess that having outward-facing employees follow the cultural norms of the city/region/country where an office is located is better at creating wealth for investors.

    4. Snark*

      “Why is a first-name basis superior to formal modes of address?”

      It’s not. It’s more appropriate in context. Formal modes of address are appropriate in formal situations. A workplace where the established culture is informal and personal is not that situation. Would you go into a neighborhood pub and demand high-class table service? Would you wear a three-piece suit to a business casual office?

      Your question about creating wealth is almost a nonsequitur. This has nothing to do with creating wealth and everything to do with not acting in a way that is offputting, pompous, and out of step with social context.

    5. Amber Rose*

      It’s superior in North America, because that is the culture. To call someone Mr/Mrs. Smith, for example, would make me feel childish, because only children do that anymore. It feels like going back to using Mommy and Daddy. It’s uncomfortable.

      Your second question is dependent on too many variables and therefore doesn’t have an answer, aside from “in some circumstances yes, in others no.”

    6. Fledermaus*

      I work in Germany and Denmark on large complex projects. The two cultures are surprisingly different although they’re right next door: In Denmark first names are used, and in large German companies it’s more likely that last names and titles are used. I guess what you call your coworkers doesn’t really mean anything, but in this case it’s also a marker of whether the work environment is very formal and hierarchical or open and collaborative.

      My current experience shows that open collaboration is actually far superior than hierarchy in project execution, but that’s clearly not a worldwide consensus. I’m really interested in hearing differing opinions.

      I can’t imagine being able to give effective feedback which I’ve found is key to collaboration on the big projects I’m currently working on in a formal/hierarchical setting. I’m really curious about how that works effectively. I mean clearly both large formal companies and even more formal examples like the military execute large projects, I just don’t understand how it can be as effective.

      I know that personally I learn far faster when I collaborate honestly with coworkers and management and am able to give and receive deep and difficult feedback. My experience in more formal settings was that feedback had to be buried under so many layers of niceties that it was easy to miss or ignore difficult things. Not to mention that a formal approach is in my experience much more likely to lead to no one even trying to warn the boss about problems. That’s was seen as subordination. I know that particular company was toxic in other ways, so maybe someone can explain how they’ve seen a formal company deal with these concerns effectively.

      I’m honestly interested in hearing an argument to why a formal environment can be as effective as one emphasizing openness and collaboration. Can you have a formal hierarchy that also does this?

      Or is this entirely off base for this discussion since in the US context formal address is not really correlated to formal working structure?

    7. Lindsay J*

      I would like to push against the idea that the only role of a workplace is to make money for it’s stakeholders – which seems to be implied by the phrasing of this question.

      There are plenty of things that might not be directly beneficial to the stakeholders that we do because businesses employee human beings rather than machines. Continuing to employee an employee who has become less productive due to old age, or illness, or injury might not be directly beneficial to creating wealth. But firing someone because of those reasons is a crappy thing to do.

      Giving people holiday bonuses or gifts might take a bit away from the bottom line, and might not directly influence the employee’s performance. But it still happens because it’s nice.

      And all of these things contribute to creating an environment that attracts and retains high performing employees, which do tend to do better at creating wealth for its investors. In America, a highly formal environment would be out of sync with what many people expect and prefer, and those that have options might choose to go elsewhere over it.

      1. Zip Zap*

        Customers too. Sometimes providing good customer service is not in the short term best interest of the investors. I think it almost always pays off in the long run. But there are times when you just plain lose money for the sake of doing right by the customers.

    8. Zip Zap*

      It’s a little bit political. It de-emphasizes gender and marital status. First names are easier to personalize. It sends more of a, “We’re all equal and we’re all individuals,” type of message. I know that’s open to debate. Just my perspective on it.

      I bet there are studies on the correlation (if any) between organizational culture and profit. Without looking it up, my guess would be either no correlation or that more casual workplaces do better. If your office is more like a home, you’ll work longer hours and be able to focus better, among other things. It’s a hot topic of discussion these days. It probably varies a bit by industry.

  22. ACS*

    One common exception I’ve found to the first-name workplace is when there are multiple men with the same first name. In my experience, they often choose to go by last name with no honorific. So Tony Stark, Tony Davis, and Tony Smith go by Stark, Davis, and Smith. When this happened with women (again, in my experience) the names in question tended to lend themselves easier to multiple versions of nicknames (Beth, Liz, Lizzy) and so the issue was side stepped.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      Interestingly, at mine, we had two men with same name… they got called first name if it was obvious, full name, surname or sometimes a diminutive of the surname (like Rodney would be Rodders). Now one of them has left… the other is *still* called by surname/surname diminutive from time to time.

    2. Anon for this*

      We have Sparks (Mark), Jax (Jacqueline), Vissie (Viaan), Fuz (Farai), Zee (Zaheera), El (Elandre), Smokey (Orville), JZ (Jurgen). Not to differentiate between people with the same names. Just because. Guess our space is a little less formal than some – although I work for a bank :)

      1. Allie Oops*

        Okay, this is NOT a bank. Your group sounds like a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries! I’m pretty sure this is a movie with Jeffrey Dean Morgan. :p

  23. Lily Rowan*

    The “related posts” led me down such a delightful rabbit hole! I got to re-visit “Lindog,” which still makes me laugh. (Even though I FULLY UNDERSTAND why people thought it was terrible — don’t @ me.)

  24. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    There are some really fascinating latecomer comments on the original post. It’s a nice side benefit of reprints here that we get the opportunity to go back and see what someone added a year later.

  25. Amber Rose*

    I feel like this would be impossible to enforce with clients. I’ve never had ANY customer call me Mrs. LastName. The closest to formality I’ve had is Miss/Ms. Amber. I’d be forever asking people to call me differently, and having that awkward conversation over and over for the rest of my life is too ridiculous to contemplate.

    For the record, I don’t think it’s particularly awkward to ask for a nickname (Cat instead of Catherine) because that’s just asking people to use the right name. But asking people to treat you more formally than they are is awkward. More formality means distance, it suggests that you are keeping people at arms length or that you are placing yourself above others in some way. If someone asked me to do use Mr/Mrs, I’d read it as arrogance or coldness probably. And it’s hard to work comfortably with someone who thinks so little of you that they won’t even let you use their name.

    As a side note, on a personal level I find it easier to use titles than honorifics. I have no problem calling someone professor Smith or doctor Smith, probably because I feel like you earned that, it’s a part of your identity. Whereas I feel like honorifics are identity removed. “All you need to know about me is I’m a member of the Smith family. One of any number of generic Mrs. Smiths.” This is beyond asking for courtesy, it’s asking you to treat someone like a total stranger.

  26. Stellaaaaa*

    I’d have pushed back on her request, since to outsiders it would make her look like she was the team lead or even CEO. It’s all optics: I have no way of knowing whether Mrs. Stark intended this (probably not), but her request has the appearance of demanding more respect and deference than anyone else on her team receives. As a customer or a client, if I were sitting in a meeting with Robb, Sansa, and Mrs. Stark, I’d probably subconsciously address her as the ultimate authority even though she’s not at the top of the food chain. It’s just not something that a business would want to have to continually correct.

  27. Greg M.*

    honestly I’m actually against the advice given here. A coworker gave a boundary and said clearly what she wants to be called. I get touchy about names especially after having to argue with my manager to stop calling me a nickname I hate for 2 years and threatening to make a complaint with HR to get him to stop. She’s made a fairly reasonable request, maybe outside the norm but fair. I say just call her Mrs Stark and devote energy to more important manners.

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