when is it okay to address someone I don’t know well by their first name in an email?

A reader writes:

I have a quick professional norms question regarding email. I’m a man, late-20s, in a career (journalism) that involves me frequently interacting with people I don’t know very well, many of whom are in different industries and frequently much senior to me. When it’s over the phone or in person, I’m awesome, but I never have felt fully comfortable with the first name/last name rules for email salutations.

Current example: I recently applied, and was accepted, to a three-day program at a prestigious university. I’m thrilled. When I sent in my application, I headed the cover letter “Dear Dr. LastName” and attached it to an email with the salutation, “Good morning.” In his email telling me I was accepted, he started it “Dear FirstName” and signed it with his full name, no Dr. I know that first names are normal in most professional contexts, but as I compose an email thanking him and looking forward to more information, etc., I feel very uncomfortable writing “Dear FirstName” in reply.

I’m sure I’m overthinking this, but situations like this come up so often, where I’m corresponding with senior business leaders, government officials and academics, that I’d really appreciate any guidance. When is it presumptuous for a younger person to address a more senior person, in a different field/organization, by first name? When they address me by first name, is that a signal I should do the same for them? Is it transparently awkward if I rely on work-arounds like “Good morning”?

Honestly, in most fields these days, first names are the norm. I know everyone got taught at some point that they were supposed to address strangers more formally than that, but in most fields, it’s really, really normal to open a correspondence with “Dear FirstName” or “Hi FirstName.”

But if you don’t want to do that, then yes, you should pay attention to the cues they give you in their response. Specifically:

1. If someone addresses you by your first name, that’s a signal that you can address them by their first name. There are a very few exceptions to this, such as the queen and extremely old people who you want to show special deference to. But in the normal course of business? Their use of your first name means they’re saying “we’re on a first name basis.” (Or at least, that’s the norm. There are a handful people who want to call others by their first names while still being addressed as Dr./Mr./Ms. themselves, but those people are pompous and I don’t recommend indulging that kind of rudeness unless your career depends on it. If they want the courtesy of the title, they should return the courtesy to you.)

In most cases, if you ignore this rule, you’ll come across as inappropriately formal if you continue to address the person as Dr./Mr./Ms. For example, if you’re applying for a job and the hiring manager’s correspondence addresses you as Fergus, it’s going to be weird if you keep calling her Ms. Bumblethorpe. You’d be ignoring a clear level of formality/informality that she’s set.

But in other cases, like with high-level government officials, continuing to use their last name probably isn’t going to rub them the wrong way. They’re used to getting addressed formally and it’s unlikely to to feel as off as it would in other situations. So if you feel better erring on the side of caution in that context, it shouldn’t hurt you.


2. If someone signs their email to you with just their first name, that’s an even clearer signal that you should call them by their first name. They’re calling themselves by their first name in talking to you! You should abide by that one, or you’ll be ignoring pretty clearly stated preferences (as clear as it gets aside from them actually saying “call me Esmeralda”).

3. And if you want to avoid this altogether, I don’t think it’s transparently awkward to just open with “Good morning” or so forth.

But I do think you’re stressing about this a lot more than you need to. It’s a very rare person these days who will think, “The audacity of that young man, calling me by my first name!”

{ 268 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous Educator*

    I often address people professionally by their first names, and I’ve never gotten even an askance look for it.

    That said, I do think that some of this may be regional or cultural. On the East Coast (New England), I felt more people would address me with formal salutations, but on the West Coast (California), people almost always address me by my first name.

    1. Merci Dee*

      I was thinking that some of this, in certain instances, might be regional. I’m in the Southeast, and we typically use first names with colleagues here. But there are a small handful of women that I work with who are somewhat older than myself, and who have a great deal of influence with some of the major decision makers at my facility. They’re wonderful women, but as a matter of courtesy, I frequently call them Miss — Miss Brenda or Miss Norma, for example. I think part of this goes back to the manners my mom taught me (or tried to) when I was growing up. Of course I’m an adult now, so I don’t feel the need to do this with every person I meet. But I still occasionally meet an older lady or gentleman who has such a certain gravitas that it feels appropriate to call them Miss or Mr. So-and-So.

      1. ScoutFinch*

        Good Lord above, I understand where you are coming from. I am in the southeast as well.

        However, there is a person on my team (read:peer) that keeps calling me (and our boss) Miss XXXX. She is a bout 15 years younger than me (and has 2 young children). But I have no influence on anything around here.

        I feel like I am in an episode of Romper Room.

        1. MarylandLibrarian*

          I’m having the exact same issue at work! My coworker (who is a few years older than me) calls everyone here Miss XXXX. I have zero authority over him.

          1. ScoutFinch*

            I have told her that I prefer ScoutFinch. Hasn’t stuck.

            She has other issues, and I am just not willing to put the energy into this battle.

            I just let her go.

            Reflection on her, not me.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        I do this too, just a little differently. In general, it’s with women who have that kind of gravitas AND with whom I have a relatively casual relationship — it’s actually a step down in formality (from just “Tina”).

        (I’m in the Midwest, so it’s a very different cultural context, of course.)

        1. Merci Dee*

          See, if I were talking with a lady that I have a more casual relationship with, I probably wouldn’t call her Miss at all. My former landlady is in her late 80s and almost like a grandmother to me — I call her Nanny, because she kept kids at her in-home daycare for over 30 years. My daughter was one of the pre-school kids that she kept, so it still feels natural to refer to her as Nanny.

          Sister, Sis, and Sissy are very common nicknames for older ladies here. They’re usually nicknames the women were given during childhood, and the names just stuck around. Older gentlemen are often called Brother or Bubby (not to be confused with Bubba — my landlady and her younger sister have called their brother Bubby his whole life, simply because the younger sister couldn’t pronounce “brother” at first. It took me a while to realize that Nanny had talked about her brother so much around my daughter and me that we’d started referring to our cat as Bubby sometimes).

        2. Anion*

          When I was a receptionist, I noticed that the accountant–an older lady–in the office always seemed rather chilly to me, and I had no idea why.

          One day when I called up there, I said–unthinkingly–“Hi, Miss Jane, you have a call from X.” Her reply to me was considerably warmer than it had been before.

          From then on, I always referred to her as “Miss Jane,” and she was suddenly very fond of me. :-) (When I trained my replacement, who was even younger than me [I was twenty-two], I just told her from the start to call Jane “Miss Jane,” and she never had any issues with her at all. I’ve often wondered she in turn instructed her replacement to do the same, and if twenty years later Jane is still being called “Miss Jane” by receptionists in the office. Hee.)

      3. Snow*

        Frankly race also plays a role with this in the South. I’m a relatively young white Midwestern transplant to the Southeast and have found most workplaces include middle-aged or older African Americans who prefer Ms FirstName and Mr/Mrs last name. I’ve noticed the younger you are the more backlash for informality, regardless of level in the organization. I completely understand the area’s long history of whites talking down to black elders, and I’d rather err on the side of formality rather than risk the perception of racist disrespect.

        1. Jenny*

          Yes to the cultural/racial aspect! I’m young and Asian working in local gov in the South and there’s certain older black employees who have been with the city for a while who get called Ms./Mr. Johnson and instead of just John or Kate. While the people themselves won’t say anything about not using Ms./Mr. there’s a sort of collective group shaming if someone else hears you.

        2. HR Bee*

          Yep. In my previous office my African American boss would refer to everyone by their first names, as was the norm for our office, with only one exception – the African American associate who was several decades older. He got Mr. Lastname, even though she had a higher position in the company. She told me it was because of their shared culture.

          1. Anonymoose*

            We had a recent letter not too long ago about how an african american male boss only called his female african american staffer ‘Mrs’. I forgot if she was older than him, and I’m thinking she was, because culturally this makes a lot of sense.

      4. Anonymoose*

        I’m on the west coast in an academic setting and we always start out with Dr….and then when the person responds with their first name, then we thus use the first name. I would imagine it’s like this in litigation/court or other sectors with ‘power’ titles too. I wouldn’t want to email a judge with ”Good morning Larry” when I’ve never been in front of him or her before. I would use ‘Dear Honorable so and so, or whatever the formal salutation should be’, and then back off that when I see how they approach their response to me. Same with a CEO and the like. Say they have an MBA, I’d start with Dear Ms. Silva, instead of Dear Hannah. It’s a matter of deferring to their position – which is always classy.

        So, keep it classy/respectful, and then play by ear, has always worked for me. :)

        1. Anonymoose*

          Oh! And when I’m writing on behalf of my director (who has a PhD), I always always always refer to her as Dr Stevenson in the beginning, instead of Brenda (these are fake names, BTW), so as to note my directors position so the recipient is aware of my directors….stature. I hate that word for this, but I still think it’s appropriate until we’re at the casual stage.

        2. not a litigator*

          I believe the custom is to address judges always as Your Honor, particularly in a courtroom.

    2. Awkward Emailer*

      I’m in a weird spot regionally – I work and have spent most of my life in the midwest, but spent my early childhood in the south, which probably skews my sense of when is or isn’t normal to switch to first names.

    3. Specialk9*

      OP, I think you’re blowing your age up into A Thing by being so focused on being respectful to your elders. As an elder, I wouldn’t want you to do that – I’ll assume we’re peers, even if not the same seniority or expertise, unless you get weird about it.

      If you’re unsure, in a field with extra formality (medical doctor, academia), or working across cultures – yes, so exactly what Alison suggested. But take the hint when they invite you to first name formality (eg using your first, first in signature).

    4. Actuarial Octagon*

      I was born, raised, and currently live in the Pacific Northwest and I can’t think of a single time I’ve referred to anyone except teachers as Mr. or Ms. Lastname so this whole problem is completely foreign to me.

      1. whinge*

        I teach English as a second language and it’s a struggle because in many cultures, it’s a mark of respect to call your teacher “teacher”, and quite difficult to convince them that it’s rude in English. I’m usually willing to compromise on Teacher Whinge if they won’t just say Whinge. I did find it rather charming when I had a group of students who were from Taiwan and had been told to call their teachers “sir” and “miss”, very old-school British-like; it helped that they were all young teenagers and not adults.

  2. Tiny Orchid*

    One other setting – where the person has a gender-neutral first name. I’d much rather be called by my first name than to have someone take a guess (my name is used for both men and women) – fixing that usually results in a more awkward conversation.

    1. Your Weird Uncle*

      Agh, yes. I had to write a form letter to someone who had a gender-neutral first name recently, and when that happens I usually try to look them up on their company website. I couldn’t find this person, so I addressed the letter as ‘Dear Firstname Lastname’. It seemed oddly formal, but I couldn’t see addressing a form letter with ‘Dear Firstname’ either. (Email, sure! Form letter, nope.)

      1. Kim*

        This is why I sign all e-mails with my full name and tuck a “(ms.)” in front, just so people will not be confused. I wish more people would do so.

        1. Tiny Orchid*

          It’s also getting more common to see a note in the signature that indicates preferred pronouns – which can be its own pickle, but also can be a way to address this.

        2. AMT*

          Slightly off-topic, but I’ve found that at certain social services agencies, for some reason, the convention is for staff to introduce themselves as “Ms. So-and-so,”* no first name. Even if I ask the person’s name for my records, they’ll usually just say “Ms. So-and-so” again unless I specifically request a first name. They will invariably refer to other staff members as “Ms. Such-and-such,” which means that there are some agencies where I literally don’t know anyone’s first name. I don’t know whether it’s an attempt at security (maybe in case an angry client tries to find them?) or whether they somehow consider it more formal, but it’s so weird to hear people who aren’t elementary school teachers introduce themselves that way.

          * I don’t think I’ve ever heard this from male staff, but my sample size is pretty small, since there are very few men in these positions.

          1. Specialk9*

            That would hit my ear as a rebuffing level of formality. Well, fine, you can call ME by my title and last name too!

          2. Samata*

            This is interesting to me, as I have a friend who works at a social services agency and they use FIRST names only in all correspondence, written and spoken, as a way to protect their staff. Somehow a client still figured out her last name, tracked her down and she had some problems with stalking and harassment.

            1. copy run start*

              The one social services agency I’m familiar with uses fake first names for that very reason — no last names at all, fake or real.

              When I worked with clients in a social services adjacent setting, I used my real first name, but ensured my last name was not present on anything publicly viewable/accessible. I kept my name off my desk and the drawers locked at all times, took different routes home, didn’t go straight home, etc. due to a couple of clients who gave bad vibes, and one in particular who wanted to “sue me” and his “lawyer” said he needed to personally get my name and contact info to do it.

              I do not miss that job.

          3. GreyjoyGardens*

            That would also strike me (West Coast born and raised) as icy formality and a snub. I can’t help but feel that agencies who do this *want* to strike that note with their clients. (But if you need both first and last name for your records, it’s ridiculous to try to withhold it.)

          4. Anonymoose*

            It can also be used to inform the recipient that there should be a more formal relationship between the agency rep and the client (like, I’m not your buddy, I’m here to get you back in the working world, or what have you), to keep things impersonal. But yes, also for security sake.

      2. Kiki*

        I have a male coworker whose first name is technically gender neutral but usually a woman’s name (ie: Ashley). To make it worse, his last name is a common male name (ie: James). A majority of correspondence for him comes in for Miss/Mrs./Ms. Ashley James, and sometimes people get it way wrong and address it to James.

    2. beanie beans*

      This is huge! I think this is a much bigger risk than whether or not to look too formal/informal! And there are a ton of names that might not look gender-neutral where you could guess wrong!

      1. Justme*

        Like Chandler. I had no idea that could be a female name. And I was wrong. I even come from a family where female Taylors and the like are common.

          1. ThatGirl*

            Technically those were her brother’s triplets, and Chandler was named after adult Chandler, but yes. :)

      2. Specialk9*

        I knew a girl Chandler from well before that show, and she hated that his name was Chandler.

    3. Facepalm*

      As a woman with a very traditionally male name (along the lines of Peter or Steven or John), I agree 1000%. On the one hand, it’s great when telemarketers call and ask “Is Mr. Jon Snow there?” and I can cheerfully and honestly say he isn’t. On the other hand, I’ve had salespeople accuse me of fraud when signing my name, customer service reps refuse to talk to me even when I answered all 10 security questions correctly, etc.

      In business, I find it very useful. I get prompt responses to emails, always get interviews when applying for jobs, etc. I go by my full name, but men always shorten it (Like I’ll sign David or Peter and they’ll write, Hey Dave/Pete! like we’re dudebros).

      But it’s always awkward when I am going to meet someone face-to-face, like for an interview, and I have to send an email saying, Heeeeeey, just so you know, I’m a woman named Jonathan.

      1. Kiki*

        This is super fascinating, thanks for sharing. I’ve always secretly wondered how I might be treated differently if I was presumed male (hard with a name like Kiki!) so it’s cool to hear from someone who has had that experience.

        1. BenAdminGeek*

          Just add a Mr. to your signature! “Mr. Kiki Vandersnoot.” Try it for 6 months, see if you like it.

        2. Mari*

          There is currently a male dancer on SYTYCD who goes by Kiki, so the presumption might change :)

      2. KarenD*

        My actual name is unusual (most people guess Scandinavian) and pretty gender-neutral. And I have also noticed that people tend to respond more promptly and are generally more compliant when they assume I’m male. So I never mind getting addressed as “Mr. D.”

        1. Anonymoose*

          “…generally more compliant when they assume I’m male”
          I’m happy for you that it makes your life more convenient but that still totally blows, socially. At least you’re getting something out of it!

    4. Awkward Emailer*

      This is a whole separate can of worms, yes. Any time I’m AT ALL unsure about gender, I definitely default to the ‘good morning’ workarounds.

    5. peachie*

      I do this, too. For a first communication, I will use Dr. _____ if I know they’re a doctor (they tend to be, in my field) and switch in subsequent messages based on tone, but I really only use Ms. or Mr. ____ if it’s VERY CLEAR that that’s correct. If I have any doubt, I just do Hello [firstname].

  3. Your Weird Uncle*

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been wondering about this for years – I usually go with first names, but if it’s someone I’m asking a favor of I err on the side of caution and use Dr or Professor (I work for a university, so that’s the norm).

    1. pinyata*

      I’ve been dealing with this too – I’ve been going by the “what the professor signs their name as” rule, but this particular professor is just using his signature and not signing off! He calls me by my first name, but as he is faculty and I am working with his papers at the library, it doesn’t seem like enough to take his first name use as a guide. Maybe it is, and I’m being too formal by sticking with Professor?

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        It’s hard for faculty sometimes, too! I have a friend who’s a professor at a business school who had a hard time figuring out what students should call him and how to sign emails when he started. He felt that the convention in his (kind of stuffy) school and the types of working relationships that he had with his students meant that undergrads should use Professor but grad students should use his first name. But he felt totally pretentious signing emails to undergrads “Professor So-and-So” and would opt out of signing them or use his initials. I’m not sure he’s found a great resolution.

        1. Your Weird Uncle*

          To be honest, I’ve only ever come across a handful (and I can only remember one of them in particular because he was such a pompous nutweasel, but I’m sure there are one or two more more) of faculty members who go by Professor or Doctor. I have worked in a lot of university departments, and they generally all prefer to use their first names (at least with staff and the grad students – I don’t know about the undergrads). But then again I’ve been in pretty informal academic programs…maybe it’d be different if I was, say, in a law or medical program.

          1. Guacamole Bob*

            Yeah, for him it was the context of big lecture classes for undergrads at a stodgy east coast business school that made him tend towards the formal. For grad students and staff it was definitely first name only.

          2. ket*

            I go by Dr. with my students (in mathematics, at a university) because I’m a young-ish woman in a male-dominated field and I hate the “Oh really? You have a PhD? I *never* would have guessed!” conversations. My students just don’t know better and it’s less embarrassing for everyone if the title points it out.

            Just that signal really helps me avoid getting questions about relationship advice etc. While it’s heartwarming on some level if freshmen think I can help them with their roommate trouble and remind them that homework is due every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it’s not actually what I’m here for and it does not serve them well. I’m no good at being their mom or friend, and I don’t want them thinking that as their mom-friend they can guilt or sob their way into a higher grade from me. I am good at helping them learn math, and helping them learn that women can have PhDs.

            It’s all fine to say that people who use Dr are pompous, as Allison said, but for some of us that pompousness is a shield against the insidious undervaluing of our credentials that happens if we don’t use the title. And in my work with professional students earning a professional masters degree, I use Dr because I want the students to know what they’re getting: they work with a lot of practitioners from industry, who bring that industry experience to the table, and I bring theoretical math and research experience instead. Once students are out of my class I drop the Dr. and switch to first name.

            (Do I sound a little touchy about the mom/friend/big sister/guilt/sob/homework reminder business? My first two years teaching after the PhD were two of the most traumatic years ever because of all that… and these are heavily sanitized versions of what came up. I did not solicit the above conversations or the ones about reproductive health and decisionmaking.)

            1. Specialk9*

              I don’t think Alison was addressing the use of title/no title *in a school setting* as pompous! You’re following school convention – teacher/prof is title last, kid/student is first. That’s totally appropriate.

              It’s also a norm I’ve seen in heavily military industries (eg DISA – a technically civilian agency staffed by lots of soldiers). When people’s email addresses specify “CAPT Miller, Stephanie” then even the non military will often default to Mr/Ms.

              In a business setting, it would be jarring and yes, pompous, if someone said “hi, I’m Tim, this is Sheila and Siobhan” and you said “hi I’m Dr Miller”. (There was a letter about that, from a woman from a military setting who was told she couldn’t go by Ms Last, because it didn’t fit the culture.)

              Lastly boom, yeah math PhD! Congrats on slogging through that – great achievement!

              1. Nye*

                I’m a female biology PhD and new faculty, and don’t use the title since my field tends to be very informal. (But I do also get tons of, “Oh, are you a new grad student?” questions, which is irritating).

                I once had a summer intern who had done his BS after a stint in the Army. He referred to me almost exclusively as Dr. Firstname Lastname, which was pretty endearing. Even better was his lab notebook, which he labeled “Intern Name, Lab of Dr. Firstname ‘HMFIC’ Lastname.” When asked what the middle initials meant, he said, “Head Mother F*****r In Charge”. I wish I could put that on my business cards! He was a terrific intern, too.

            2. DaddySocialWorker*

              I don’t find the academic use of titles offputting or pompous, but decidedly out-of-touch with contemporary professional norms. As a social worker, I sympathize with the need for advertising one’s credentials, but post-nomials are just as effective and more in keeping with standard professional norms.

              1. ket*

                Interestingly, in the math world people would find it dreadfully pompous to write My Name, PhD. It is something people would make fun of quickly. Fascinating differences! I do know all my social worker friends put credentials after the name, and we don’t laugh at that. Post-nomials seem very “humanities” to me.

                1. Tau*

                  I always wondered about this – Firstname Lastname, PhD always seems so pompous to me, but I kept seeing people talk about it as normal so I thought it was a geographic cultural distinction. Interesting that it’s field-based instead.

                  (Hi fellow maths PhD! Nice to see another around! I mostly gave up on my own title as I left academia, but can totally understand why you’d use yours in those circumstances.)

            3. blackcat*

              What you describe is typical of young-ish women in academia, so far as I can tell. In my department (also STEM), the Dr. X vs Firstname line seems to fall between big lecture classes and senior undergrads. Professors are Firstname to everyone except intro-level students, who are taught in large lectures. Female faculty, particularly young female faculty, are more likely to default to Dr. X with all undergrads.

              I did, however, face the awkwardness of having to break the convention as a non-PhD holder who happened to teach a large lecture class. (This never happens in my department). I explained my ABD status and said students could call me Firstname or Ms. Lastname. I also recounted the one time a high school student referred to me as Ms. Discipline (the first letter of Discipline and Lastname are the same, but otherwise they sound really different!), and sorta made the joke of “And that’s my favorite!” It was a reasonable ice breaker, and most students landed on Firstname.

              Fortunately, while teaching college, I have never run into the same personal oversharing as you (and it was actually part of the job as a high school teacher, and I did not mind it then). That has actually been the big difference between age groups, in my experience. My college students ask for academic and professional advice, only mentioning personal stuff when it is relevant to the course (eg “I have [illness or family emergency], may I have an extension?”). With the high school kiddos, I got it ALL, in part because I was so young (21 when I started teaching 14-18 year olds). I seriously do not miss conversations about reproductive health…

            4. Detective Amy Santiago*

              Setting an expectation that your students will use your title is perfectly reasonable.

              I might think it was odd if you insisted your colleagues do it when everyone else uses first names.

          3. Veronica*

            It isn’t always pomposity. As Alison often points out, different workplaces have different practices. At my university, it is customary for undergrads to call their professors “Dr.,” so I go by “Dr. Jones.” If the custom was first names, I’d go by “Veronica,” instead.

            What irritates me are the students who call my male colleagues “Dr.” but call me “Mrs.” Or, the worst case ever — the student who came by my office, saw me sitting at my own desk, and said “Oh! I’m looking for Dr. Jones! Do you know where he is?” Grrrr.

          4. Portia*

            Huh, I feel like I’ve run into a LOT of professors (in the humanities) who want to be called Dr or Professor, even by grad students until they develop a pretty strong relationship.
            I’m currently taking an online course because I need an extra credit for a certification, and the professor knows I have a Ph.D. Nonetheless, he addresses me as “Portia” and signs his emails “Dr. Smith.” I follow suit and address him as he clearly prefers to be called, but it chaps me a little! (But maybe I’m just grumpy that I have to take the course to begin with.)

        2. hermit crab*

          I had a handful of professors in grad school who always signed with their initials. The department had a very strong culture of “use Dr. So-and-So until you are on the inside with us” but it was really unclear where that line was. I was hoping for a clue from these emails, but no, definitely not opening emails to my new advisor as “Hi GGG”! It didn’t occur to me that it might be a way to avoid feeling awkward on their end.

        3. ProfDocIdunno*

          It is SO hard for faculty. I have a doctorate, but it’s a practice doctorate (think PharmD) that’s not an MD. So I can technically go by Dr. LastName but I find it rather ostentatious, especially since I don’t have an MD or a PhD. The colleges I’ve taught at have all encouraged me to go by Dr. LastName to undergrads (with my grad students I always go by FirstName). I either go by Dr. Lastname or Prof LastName in emails – but it still feels really weird. I usually do Prof LastName because it feels a little more breezy/casual than Professor LastName, like it’s my happy medium? It’s odd.

          As an aside, an undergrad emailed me this morning with a question and started the email with “Hi Mrs. Lastname, This is so-and-so from your class…” and I was so bizarrely offended by that, so this topic is quite timely for me right now as I try to parse out why I am so offended by this. Yes, I am married. I did not take my husband’s last name (I have publications under my maiden name and didn’t want the added complexity/stress). I never go by Mrs. LastName. It just felt so jarring.

          But it’s so true that I feel really weird as a professor for universities with what to go by, particularly with my degree.

          1. blackcat*

            The only way to go wrong in academia is to use Mr./Ms./Mrs. (particularly Mrs!) All other options (including first names) seem pretty safe to me, unless you are a undergrad (then Dr. or Professor unless corrected.)

            Also, I’m in the Mrs. should never be used in professional email camp, and I always mention this to students (I teach a lot of first gen college students).

            1. Eliza*

              In my country and field, people who “only” have a doctorate get Dr., but professors are Mr./Ms. Calling a professor Professor is generally fine too, but calling a professor Dr. is a mortal insult.

              1. Julia*

                My professor wants to be called doctor, in a country (Japan) where professor (sensei) seems more common. Neither he nor I are Japanese, but most of his other students are.
                What I find a little weird is that he calls us grad students by our first names. I’m 28 years old, not 13, if I call you Dr. XYZ, why am I just Julia?

                1. Juniper*

                  I so agree with this! I spent the last 2 years in grad school, as a 27-29 year-old, and felt the same way. I’m happy to use honorifics, but if we’re not on a first name basis, we’re not on a first name basis, and I shouldn’t be known simply as “Juniper.” Even my high school guidance counselor called us by [Title] [Lastname] ;) And to be honest, at my university, I felt like I had never been treated so disrespectfully (i.e., like a child) since maybe middle school!

          2. Thing1*

            I had a student address me as “Mrs Lastname” when I was a TA–not yet married, and not yet a PhD. It was a very, very strange moment. These days, at my current fairly informal college, I’m happy to go by either my first name or Professor Lastname (some students prefer that, and I told them either is fine), but I would get fairly annoyed to be called Ms. or Mrs. Lastname.

      2. Cheesecake 2.0*

        The professor I work for signs her emails “tx-L” which means “Thanks – Laura (her first name)” (And sometimes “yptx-L” for “Yes, Please, Thanks- Laura” if I asked a yes/no question). She also sends ghost/sleeping face emojis if she’s emailing late at night. I don’t think this is the norm among professors though.

        1. attie*

          Maybe not the emojis (yet?), but “the faster to type, the better” is definitely professoral email norm! There’s even a comic about it (linked in my name)…

      3. Anonymoose*

        If you’ve already set up a relationship with them (you’re currently working on a project for them), and work in administration (which it sounds like you do), then I think there first name is totally fine.

    2. Lily Rowan*

      I’m so mortified to call deans by their first name in writing! Even when we’ve been fairly casual in person already. I’m not sure why that freaks me out so much. (Am new to higher ed.)

      1. Murphy*

        Thank you! This makes me feel better. I’ve been stressing about whether “Colleagues” is ok for an email to a group of associate deans. My boss does it, but he’s on the dean level. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to call myself a colleague of theirs. Probably they don’t really care.

      2. DecorativeCacti*

        A lot of people have anxiety around emails and I think it’s because you’re missing context. There’s no social cues to pick up. That’s why things can go so wrong with tone. Even skilled writers can screw it up.

      3. Anonymoose*

        I only call them by their first name if I’m working on a grant/project with them and I’m meeting with them personally. If I’m scheduling something with their assistant or talking about them generally, I’ll use their title/degree. We have a dean that is an MBA and I usually call him Mr, and when leaving him say ‘thank you sir for your time’, etc.

  4. Shoe Ruiner*

    I work in academia. All through my undergrad and grad school days, I learned that you must address a Dr as Dr until you yourself have a doctorate. I do not have a doctorate. It’s so hard for me not to call people Dr. But at work, it’s all first names, and I would be the weird one if I addressed people as Dr.

    1. It's almost lunch wahoo!*

      My grad school adviser did this. I had to refer to her formally with title the entire 7 years I worked with her. After my PhD defense she actually said to me: “Now you may call me First Name.” Ugggghhhhh.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        There was someone in the exact same position as me (and many others) at OldJob who insisted on being called Dr. Firstname when the degree had zero to do with our position. It really came across as ridiculously self important.

        1. Elemeno P.*

          Wow, seriously. The first name thing is super weird. I call my friends with doctorates “Dr. Firstname” when I’m asking them something relevant to their profession in casual conversation, but if they expected that of people, I don’t think I’d be friends with them.

        2. Dr. Ruthless*

          I have a friend who has instructed her children to call me Dr. Ruth and it sends me into a bit of a cringe (but it’s been so long! too late to correct! awk!)

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            LOL you could start giving them really inappropriate advice…

            (don’t do that)

          2. Your Weird Uncle*

            I would love to see an open thread topic of ‘mistakes that someone else made and are way too late to correct now’!

            One of my former coworkers thought I was married for years.


      2. AndersonDarling*

        I work in healthcare and Doctors are called Doctor. They are referred to as Dr. Smith, and correspondence is addressed to Dr. Smith. There is a strong hierarchy in hospitals and research centers, so it is best to err on the side of formal greetings.

        1. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

          Same here. I work in a pathology lab.
          We can get a little more informal with our pathologists because we work so closely with them, but that’s shown by just calling them “Doctor”. We never ever ever refer to the doctors by their first name.
          When referring to them in conversation with our peers, sometimes we drop the “Dr” because internally that’s a given, but we still don’t use given name. We refer to them by their surname instead. (e.g. Doctor Jones becomes Jones).

          1. Anon for this*

            Same here. I always call our pathologists Dr. Lastname. I would only change if one of them expressly asked me to call them by their first name. Even if they sign emails with their first name, in our organization that’s not seen as an opening to calling them Firstname.

        2. Jackie*

          Yes! I came here to right this. I think it’s more casual in other parts of academia, but having worked in a major hospital for 5 years, medical doctors want to be called doctors, full stop. Definitely the one area where I’d err on the side of formal.

        3. Specialk9*

          I feel like MDs are the only default titles around. Dr Lastname is a convention with sticking power!

        4. AnonMinion*

          Came here to say the same thing. I work in a hospital and MDs are definitely Dr. so and so. NEVER first name.

          1. MommyMD*

            I’m a doctor who calls other physicians Dr unless we are personal friends or otherwise have an informal relationship. I would never call specialists I page by their first name no matter how they signed an email.

        5. NicoleT*

          I work in science publishing, and my default is to begin all e-mails to authors with “Dr. Lastname -“. Scientists can be VERY sensitive (read: cranky) about you omitting the “Dr.” when they have it, so I assume it should be used even if it’s not clear.

          They also default to “Dr. NicoleTLastname” when they reply. I don’t have a doctorate, but I don’t mind. ;-)

        6. Public Healther*

          I was going to say the same thing. Doctors are always “Doctor”. Of course some don’t care, but I would never make the assumption that someone doesn’t care based on age or gender, because that is the accepted convention. Even those that don’t care rarely insist on being called by their first name (accept in very informal environments I suppose), because that’s just what people do.

      3. TeriJ*

        I knew a professor who routinely encouraged his students to call him Firstname instead of Dr. Lastname, and after graduation practically demanded it. But for some reason, virtually no one wanted to (as, per them, it would be “too weird”), to the point where even when some of them ended up working with him as colleagues they still couldn’t do it (but did decrease the formality level to just Lastname).

        1. Your Weird Uncle*

          I remember my first ever undergrad course where the professor introduced himself as Gary, and had to assure us that all of the professors used first names in our programs. As an 18 year old not used to addressing other adults on a first-name basis, much less a professor, it was really hard to get used to!

        2. A Teacher*

          I teach at a college and they want all of us to use formal titles. I’m a holdout. My students call me by my first name, and GASP, the world hasn’t ended!

        3. GMA*

          When I was a freshman in college, I got a job in a lab. On my first day, I needed to ask him something, and said “Excuse me, Dr. Smith?” and he responded with “Before we get to what you need, I want to clear something up. I don’t care what you call me when you talk ABOUT me, but when you talk TO me, you gotta call me Phil.” It felt really weird at first, but it didn’t take long before I was used to it, and came to really appreciate being in a department where everyone, regardless of rank or degree, used first names.

      4. Murphy*

        When I was in grad school, I called all professors Dr. Whatever unless they told me otherwise. Plenty of them did. My advisor did not. He did, however, tell other students this. So lots of other students would call him Dave, and I always called him Dr. Smith. It was weird.

    2. Justme*

      I work in the same department where I am a graduate student. It’s hard for me to not address my faculty by their honorific, but on a day to day basis they’re Bob and Sue rather than Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones. In emails they’re always Dr. whatever, but not in general conversation.

    3. memyselfandi*

      This was not my experience in my doctoral program. Compared to my undergraduate program the culture was disconcertingly informal. However, I got some good advice from an older student. She reminded me that even though we were calling faculty by their first names and socializing with them, they still held a great deal of power over us, and to not be fooled into thinking they were friends. She recounted tales of students who were stunned when they got into an oral exam (or some similar marker needed for progress in the degree program) to find that the faculty would be as challenging as they were. There is lots of ego in Academia and it can play out in odd ways.

      My advice to the letter writer is to use formal address until invited to do otherwise. It is the same if you have a nickname that you prefer people use. “Oh, yes, my name is Althea, but please call me Tubby.” In this day of changing norms and cross-cultural interaction, people should get accustomed to asking and be gracious and comfortable in responding with their preference. There is a common nickname for my name that I detest. People sometimes use it, and I am not at all uncomfortable letting them know I don’t use it making it clear at the same time I am not offended.

      1. blackcat*

        “There is lots of ego in Academia and it can play out in odd ways.”

        Oh man, yes. My advisor insists all students (including freshpeep undergrads) call him FirstName. He is, in many ways, one of the kindest, most nurturing academics I know. And yet, AssholeOldWhiteDudeAcademic totally comes out in some circumstances. It’s very strange to watch when it happens–fortunately, he only does it to 1) people on his level (so other Very Senior Well-known types) or 2) mid career or senior people who are being condescending towards/talking over younger female academics (I call this his Papa Bear complex).

        When it does happen, I always wonder “Where does that pompous asshole come from? Where does he hide so much of the time?” Rather than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he is Dr. Asshole and FriendlyBob.

    4. Anony Mouse*

      I’ve found this to be generally true in the US but not so much in the UK. (Granted, I was not at Oxbridge, which operates on its own rules.)

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      Back in the 80s, someone did a linguistics project on what to call professors. In the south, the professor could try saying “It’s Bob” but “Dr Bob” was the most familiar anyone was going to get.

    6. em2mb*

      Fellow journalist, and when I need to reach out to an academic with a doctorate, I do lean toward using “Dr. Professorname” in email correspondence, even though normally I’d use a person’s first name. Nine times out of ten, the person signs their reply with their first name, and I use that from that point forward.

      The reason I do this is because one of my very good friends, one of only two women in her department at the university I too work for, once told me she didn’t care if graduate students wanted to call her by her first name, but it *did* bother her that the same students who assumed they could call her “Jane” also would defer to “Dr. Professorname” when addressing her male colleagues. I know how hard I’ve worked as a female journalist to still be taken less seriously than male colleagues with less experience, so especially when women have worked hard to earn degrees, I try to respect it.

      1. Awkward Emailer*

        LW here. Thanks for raising this point – I do sense that there’s a gender dimension to this question, and I worry that maybe I’m more willing in some cases, not just academia, to default to first names with women than men.

        1. em2mb*

          I’m lucky to work in a newsroom with a lot of women in leadership positions and have thoughtful (for the most part) male coworkers. But it drives me batty when they’ll refer to female politicians informally by first names — one of our senators is female — but still refer to their male counterparts as, “Senator Lastname.” Absolutely batty.

          But I know I’m guilty as well. During the election, it was always “Hillary” and ‘Trump.” We can argue that Clinton branded herself that way (she did), but I really think it was a matter of she had to.

          1. Deep Thoughts*

            I was at an academic talk where the presenter thanked “Dean Jones and Jane” for their help. Dean Jones was a white man, Jane was a black woman… and also a dean.

          2. Detective Amy Santiago*

            I never really thought about people defaulting to Hillary because she was a woman so much as because of Bill. Kind of like how people referred to GW Bush as Dubya to differentiate from his father.

          3. Julia*

            I have always thought that women get addressed by first name more often, and I’m fairly confident if I looked up empirical research, I would find my assumption correct. (I have yet to do it, though.)

    7. Antilles*

      All through my undergrad and grad school days, I learned that you must address a Dr as Dr until you yourself have a doctorate.
      I went through undergrad and grad school about 10 years ago and saw the same custom.
      No professors actually made a specific mention of it and I don’t think any professor would have been offended if you’d called him Jim or Stephen or whatever…but it was just the accepted practice that students (even those directly under him) would refer to the professors as Dr. Lastname when talking with faculty. When we were just discussing informally amongst ourselves, we’d drop the title and just call them Lastname (“did you do Smith’s homework yet?”)…but even amongst ourselves, I don’t remember *ever* hearing a single student refer to a professor by their first name unless the professor explicitly made a point to be called by their first name*.
      *This point was usually made on the very first day, often with a lame joke like “I’m Brian, don’t call me Mr. Griffin, that’s my father hahaha”.

    8. MicroManagered*

      I work for a university, but in a non-academic unit. When a PhD contacts me for non-academic reasons, I address them the same way I would a janitor who has contacted me: by full first name (Michael instead of Mike, at least until they reply as Mike). The only time I don’t really do this is if I’m copied on an email where someone else is already referring to them as Dr. So-and-so, and now I need to reply and use their name.

      1. Murphy*

        I’m also in a non-academic position at a university. I frequently have to email professors that I don’t know, or don’t know well. I always start with Dr. Smith and will see how they respond. If they sign with their first name (which most of them do), then I’ll immediately switch to first name.

        1. MicroManagered*

          The thing is, I often can’t tell without googling them. If I know for sure they are a PhD or MD, then I would probably start out with Dr So-and-so. But if I am replying to a one-line email “Sent from my iPhone” with no salutation to me or signature from them, first name it is!

    9. Jesmlet*

      As an undergrad, my thesis adviser told me to refer to her by her first name. Also had several other professors that I was on good enough terms with who said I could use their first names. I don’t think the Dr. thing is universal, just depends on the size of their ego.

    10. Specialk9*

      I love the stories from academia and nonprofits. It makes me appreciate the mostly sane approach of my field.

    11. Turkletina*

      My partner finished his PhD before I finished mine. I guess I should have been calling him Dr. Partner for three years!

      In all seriousness, I did my PhD in hippieville, and I absolutely cannot imagine calling faculty in my department Dr.

        1. Awkward Emailer*

          I mean, I did give an example of me talking to an academic, so it’s on topic. Fortunately, most of my interaction with academic-types is by phone, where it’s a lot easier to feel out cues, but I certainly remember well from my own college experience how political the naming conventions for instructors, professors, Dr.s and so forth can be!

    12. Emily*

      The culture around this must be really variable – in my department, most of the professors are fine with students calling them by their first name. I can only think of one person – my current advisor, who is somewhat traditionalist and fussy – who absolutely wants to be addressed as Dr. Lastname.

      Hilariously, after I was admitted to the program but before I started attending, I sent him an email about something and addressed it “Dear Firstname,” assuming it would be okay. His response came back signed as Dr. Lastname, which I noticed immediately. Oops! I didn’t apologize for my gaffe, but I was embarrassed by it (and obviously switched to the more formal address in my next message).

    13. Phil*

      I had one memorable professor who insisted that if we were to call him Professor Smith, he would call every one of his students Professor Jones, Professor Nguyen, Professor Bechstein, and so on. He was a delightful eccentric in many ways.

  5. L.*

    I’m a member of a minority group who used to work in government. We had a woman who was supposed to lead a “diversity initiative” to help young people of color get promoted, better jobs, and so on. It wasn’t a side duty — this was her whole job. She was horrible, and I realized how much so during a panel event where she declared she deleted anyone’s email that started, “Hi” or “Hello [first name].” I was stunned — REALLY? Lady, you’re tasked with helping young people of color, who may have no clue about office norms in general, and you take on a position where TEACHING THAT STUFF IS YOUR WHOLE JOB, and then you do them like that? She’s no longer in that job, thank God, and I have a pet peeve for people who cling to formality like this ever since. Unless your name is Diana Ross, you cannot demand to be “Ms. Whatever” wherever you go.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*


      Maybe this is a regional thing, but I’ve noticed that a lot of younger black people default to calling older folks Mr. or Ms. Firstname. Like, my colleague introduced me to her children as Ms. Amy. That kind of cultural aspect is really important to consider. Our entire team ended up calling an older black woman on our team Ms. Mary because of it.

      1. Justin*

        This is real (at least in my Northeastern-but-descended-from-Southern black family). I was told to call older family friends Mr/Ms FirstName until I was an adult.

        I don’t do that at work, though we had one student (I do professional development) who wanted to be called Ms. LastName, and so we did and she said she appreciated it. She had her ways, but was a very pleasant student.

        I basically do whatever people prefer and indeed the key is to pick up on that and/or ask.

      2. L.*

        That’s true! But, that wasn’t the story with this person (she’s not black.) And, even if she was, I would still think it’s DEEPLY uncool to just delete emails from young people asking for advice/help because they don’t abide by your preferred practice in their first try. I keep saying it, but that was her whole job! At least say, “FYI, it’s the norm here around here to say Mr./Ms., so please use that in future correspondence” or something like that.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          OH for sure what she was doing was not cool. What was she hoping to teach them by deleting their emails?

          But I would think that would be important context for someone who was teaching young POC about business norms.

      3. Specialk9*

        I’ve seen that too, both south and north. I also associate Ms/Mr firstname with the South, and with conservative Christian sects.

  6. Janonymous*

    In a job early on in my career, I worked for an elected official caught me being deferential to a real turd of a guy on the phone, and I said something like, “Thank you, Mr. [Turd],” at the end of the call. When I hung up, he came out of his office and said, “Hey. You’re an adult. They’re adults. Unless it’s someone with an elected title, just call them by their first name. They’ll never take you seriously if you keep talking to them like you’re not on their level, and you are.” It was some of the better professional advice I’ve gotten.

    1. Your Weird Uncle*

      That’s interesting! I used to work in a role where I regularly had to email people with some real doozies for titles or ranks (think ‘Lord Schmiddledeediddle’, or ‘Frank Wutherford, MBE’ etc.) and would tie myself up in knots learning the etiquette. Then a coworker – who also often had to write these emails too – said that her rule was that, if they wouldn’t call her Ms. So-and-So, then she wouldn’t either. So after that, it was ‘Dear Frank’. It made my life much easier!

    2. Specialk9*

      Thank you – that was what I was trying to say to the OP. Stop being quite so deferential, it’s undermining you.

    3. GreyjoyGardens*

      It can be quite a transition from being told to respect adults, always call them Mr. or Ms. Lastname, to being one of the adults and calling everyone by their first name.

      I’m in the “everyone should just use first names or chosen nicknames” camp. I do know people – even here on the West Coast – who still hold on to the Children Should Respect Adults And Call Them By Title.

    4. Jenny*

      That’s a really interesting point of view that I haven’t considered before. I currently work for an elected official and do a lot of constituent services (in a majority black constituency with an aging population) and people have snapped at me for referring to them by their first name and not using Ms./Mr.

      However, now that you mention it, the office next to us serves a white, upper middle class constituency and they generally do seem to refer to constituents by first name, which isn’t something I hadn’t ever really thought about before.

      1. Janonymous*

        It’s definitely a cultural thing. I’ve been sent on campaigns to places where I’ve worked with older black constituents who were very big on the Mr./Ms. Lastname (or sometimes Ms. Firstname) convention, and in the case of constituents you’ve got to adapt to expectations for that area/population. This particular conversation was in the context of talking to other government staffers, lobbyists, organizations, etc.

  7. SusanIvanova*

    Please, if you see what looks like a middle name, assume they aren’t being overly formal and that’s actually part of their first name. Rob Jon Stark really is Rob Jon, and calling him Rob annoys him because you’ve just mixed him in with all the other Robs.

    If you call them Rob once and they sign it “Sincerely, Rob Jon” that’s a clue. Learn from it.

    If you aren’t sure, stay formal. Or ask!

    Sincerely, your friendly neighborhood double-first-name owner.

  8. Buffy Summers*

    The queen?? Aw hell no! If she calls me by my first name, I’m calling her by her first name. Or maybe Liz. Or Betts.

    I had this very issue emailing someone I don’t know well. I addressed her as Ms. Smith and her response to me gave me no clues whatsoever. There was no salutation at all. Just jumped right in to the message. Then closed with, “Thanks!”. No signature. The nerve of some people.

    1. Purple snowdrop*

      You’re missing a great opportunity there- call her Buffy, Buffy!!

      Or apparently her family call her Lilibet, you could try that :)

  9. 2nd anonymous educator*

    I normally just lurk here, but Hoooooly Cow do not do this if you are pursuing an academic (i.e. professorial) position. Some professors are A-OK with being addressed by their first names, but others are not, and it can surprise you who’s in the “not” category. I used to work with people in the federal (U.S.) government as well, and the same rules ran.

    If you’re the junior colleague, it’s much safer to wait until they explicitly say it’s okay to call them by their name. People who prefer first names won’t get upset at having to ask you to use them, but people who prefer surnames will be upset that you don’t use them, and because they see it as basic manners, they won’t be so rude as to correct you – they’ll just stew and have a lower opinion of you.

    I’d second Anonymous Educator’s point about the East Coast-West Coast divide as well. I got my doctorate on the West Coast after living on the East Coast my whole life, and it amazed me how much of what the locals think of as their “laid-back” nature would be considered rude and self-centered back home.

    So, I guess I’m saying, know your industry and locality.

    1. RabbitRabbit*

      This. I would rather err on the side of having them tell me years later ‘no really, you can call me Bob’ than get overly informal because they reflexively sign their e-mails with their first names/their mail program does that for them.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That is where this comes in:

      There are a handful people who want to call others by their first names while still being addressed as Dr./Mr./Ms. themselves, but those people are pompous and I don’t recommend indulging that kind of rudeness unless your career depends on it. If they want the courtesy of the title, they should return the courtesy to you.)

      1. maggiegirl98*

        I think this is a bit more complicated when you’re a woman of color in academia. There are undergraduate students–usually men, usually white– who will call you by your first name to attempt to put you in your place. It’s just something to think about. What I prefer is for students to call me Dr. Lastname in class and by my first name out of class. I don’t think I’m being pompous with this.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          You’re not. This is something that I hadn’t thought about, but makes perfect sense once you say it.

        2. Lily Rowan*

          Wow, that’s horrifying.

          What I think Alison is calling pompous is the idea that non-faculty colleagues should call you Dr. Lastname while you call them Firstname.

        3. ket*

          I wrote my mini-novel above, but am with you 100% and have the same habit as you indicate in your last sentence.

        4. Specialk9*

          Oh my gosh, that’s terrible.

          But also, in a school setting, you are absolutely right to go by Mr/Ms/Dr Last and to call them by first name. In business, oh heck no, but in school it’s good.

        5. Properlike*

          Oh, THIS. I am an instructor in academia. When I teach in the undergrad STEM course, I go by “Mrs. Properlike” or “Mrs. P.” I’m a white woman, but I’ve also had students deliberately use my first name to put me in my place because they think they’re “grown” now that they’re in college and no one can give them feedback. It’s like showing up late to class simply because you can. I also tell them that “Professor” is always acceptable, but never “Dr.” unless the person has a PhD (and it’s always amusing to get mail addressed to Dr. Properlike from the professional societies that should know beter.)

          HOWEVER – depends on the field, because I also teach at a different school an entertainment course, and all the professors go by first names (or Professor, if the kids feel weird about FirstNaming their teacher.) It’s not weird to me if they do that there, because that’s standard for the industry they’re going into.

          1. Wheezy Weasel*

            Academic support staff here, and the ‘Professor’ instead of Dr. has been my go-to for 15 years now. You’ll oftentimes get an explicit request to use first name but you’ll have a low risk of angering a random Associate Dean. It’s still formal enough to get across the intent, even if they are not currently teaching.

            1. Miso*

              Hm, question: How does being a professor (including the title) work in the USA?
              Because in my country it’s a higher title than Dr. Not every Dr. is a professor, but (I think) every professor is a Dr. In theory the correct title would be Prof. Dr. Or of course Prof. Dr. Dr. ;)

              1. Myrin*

                Switching to German here because it’s easier to explain that way:

                Ich bin mir ziemlich sicher, dass es den Titel “Professor” in Amerika gar nicht gibt – bei uns muss man sich ja extra habilitieren, damit man als “PD” (Privatdozent) gilt, und ist erst “Professor”, wenn man ‘nen Lehrstuhl hat (oder einen vertritt), in Amerika verläuft die entsprechende Karriere ja auch ganz anders. Wenn die “my professor” sagen, dann meinen sie sowas wie “mein Dozent” in Deutschland, also halt einfach einen Lehrer auf einer höheren Schule.
                (Ähnlich wie ein “JD” keineswegs mit einem deutschen “Dr. iur.” vergleichbar ist – das klingt immer so großartig aber meint einfach nur, dass man einen gewissen Abschluss in Jura hat, und nicht, dass tatsächlich eine Doktorarbeit verfasst wurde.)

                1. Miso*

                  Ah, okay, I actually didn’t realise they don’t have that at all. Thanks for the explanation!
                  (Und ist es nicht schön, dass man sofort weiß, um welches Land es geht, haha)

                  I can’t even imagine calling total strangers (and older than me strangers!) by their given name without them explicitly telling me to *shudder*
                  Isn’t formal and informal language great…?

      2. 2nd anonymous educator*

        I was thinking that the bit about your career depending on it could use some specifying. I have come across a number of grad students (often the younger ones) who e-mail everyone with a variation on, “Hi Firstname”. Plus, since the letter writer is in journalism, they may not think of their career as depending on any single interaction/interview, but if they ignore the different industries and local practices of the people they’re contacting, their work will suffer in the long term.

        Someone else mentioned that titles like “Doctor” are earned, whereas others are not. In that case, I can see there being a point to one person using the earned title (to show respect for the achievement involved) but the other using a first name (to build rapport, like with a student or patient). It can be difficult to get a student to open up to you if they are having problems, for example, but if the student feels *too* comfortable, they can start expecting you to act like their mother or friend.

      3. FCJ*

        It’s not rude or pompous to expect that your students address you as “Dr.” or “Professor” while you call them by first names. That’s normal. Some professors prefer to go by their first names with students, but unless that’s the overwhelming culture at the institution, the etiquette is to wait until you hear that from them.

        In fact, I would suggest that the LW take your advice here with a gigantic grain of salt, since his interaction with this person is in an academic context. As in, he’ll be studying under this person, even if only for three days. If he were contacting them in his capacity as a journalist what you said would make more sense.

        1. Julia*

          I’m curious. Why is it normal to address adult students by first name only when you expect to be called Professor?

          1. FCJ*

            Credentials, and the particularity of the student/teacher relationship. In most boss/employee situations, you don’t necessarily have different credentials than your boss, just a different level of experience. Getting a doctorate takes a ton of time and work, and addressing your professor by their honorific is a way of acknowledging their expertise and the role they have in teaching you (as opposed to managing or guiding your work, which takes different skills and more experience but isn’t normally the same thing as being a teacher). A few other comments in this thread have said the custom is similar if you work for, say, lawyers or medical doctors, probably for similar reasons apart from the teaching element. I know some professors who address their students as Mr. or Ms., but at least in the United States the default is generally toward first names for students and more formal address for teachers/professors.

  10. Naptime Enthusiast*

    I’m currently setting up phone interviews for summer interns, every single one of them has addressed their email to “Ms Enthusiast” (even though I am only a few years older than them, though they don’t know that). I know that is what they are taught because that is what I was taught as well – until someone directly tells you to call them by their first name, you should use Mr or Ms/Mrs. My adult self cringes at my student self…

        1. Your Weird Uncle*

          Yeah, I used to work in the UK and saw (and used it myself) this quite a lot, especially as I worked at an old stuffy academic library where there was a lot of deference to the library patrons by default. I think it worked well in that setting, but now I’m in the US and that’s just not really phrasing I’d use here.

    1. Bette*

      Definitely a British thing. I worked for a British company, and both saw and used this quite a lot. I think it’s a good idea if you’re really not sure how someone is going to take being addressed so familiarly.

      1. Kiwilib*

        If I received this, I would spend 5 minutes wondering what they meant. But New Zealand is pretty casual all round.

    2. Dana*

      I’ve received “if I may” thing in an email a couple of times. The first time I found it slightly offputting–it was just drawing attention to the fact that they were being informal *even more*, which, if I hadn’t liked it, probably wouldn’t have helped?

      Personally, I think if you’re in doubt it might be better to just use the formal address for the very first contact. I’m young, but I like a level of formality in the very first email from a complete stranger. They can write it to “Ms. So-and-So” and then sign it with just their first name, at which point I’ll of course respond informally too, but it just seems more polite not to start straight off with first names if there has been no indication that that’s okay.

    3. NicoleT*

      I don’t think you need a salutation line at all if it’s being sent to one person. It’s a hold-over from letter-writing etiquette that could be abandoned in that case. You and the recipient both know who the email is supposed to be going to.

      If there are multiple people to whom the e-mail is being sent, then I would add a salutation line if it needs to be clarified (e.g., you send to one person and cc a few others).

  11. Kim*

    This is so difficult, and unfortunately I’ve learned that you’ll just have to play it by ear. I work in legal, and usually only start adressing people with their first name after I’ve spoken with them over the phone and/or have exchanged several e-mails with them that are friendly in tone (e.g. not strictly business-like). I do make it a point to always open with a greeting (hello/dear/good morning/- afternoon) and close with warm regards, because immediately cutting to the chase is very rude, IMO. This only applies to business associates, never with clients.

    If only clients would adhere to these rules. I hate when people I’ve never once sent an e-mail to or spoken on the phone reply with
    “Hey Kim,
    that’s okay,
    greets Anthony
    Sent from Iphone”

    But I guess that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

  12. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

    I work at a University and always greet with the day: “Good morning”, “Good afternoon”, or “Good evening”. I use first names only when I know the individual personally or when I have communicated with that person via email and they signed using their first name.

    Otherwise, I would stick with Mr, Ms, or Dr as appropriate until the individual gives permission to use the first name. Using courtesy in email is never wrong.

  13. Guacamole Bob*

    I think with elected officials you can’t really go wrong by addressing them (or referring to them) by title at first if you’ve never interacted with them or their staff before. Yes, “Dear Councilmember Jones” or “Dear Commissioner Smith” is a little stilted, but there’s a weird deference to formality for elected officials in many jurisdictions it seems safer than going straight to first names. Look for articles about them in the local paper to see how they’re referred to there if you aren’t sure of the title for the county planning board members or whatever.

    The issue I have is when I have the impression that someone goes by a nickname or middle name, but I’m not sure. I don’t want to use a nickname inappropriately, but you also look like you haven’t done your homework or you’re a spammer if you do the equivalent of addressing an email to Bill Gates as “Dear William”.

    1. Specialk9*

      Oh, yeah, agree.

      Ok, so US professions that default to title last:
      -MD doctor
      -Elected officials

    2. The Vulture*

      My mom was on the school board (including a few years as board president) for many years, and often got “The Honorable My Mom’s Full Name” (I assume that’s the correct convention, because people did, but I have no clue), which she couldn’t care less about, as she’s not a formal person (although she didn’t really love it when her own children called her Moms First Name instead of Mom, so we did, cause we’re jerks like that).

      As far as being school board president went, it came with some small amount of local prestige, but it wasn’t a high paying or high-respect position, really. Of course, some people take this sort of thing much more seriously…I watched an episode of a TV show where some kind of rich snotty girl got into a deliberate car accident/insult fight with another girl (was this some kind of TV version of 10 things I hate about you, maybe?), and threatened the principle with the fact that her dad was president of the school board, and of course the principle caved to her unreasonable demands, and oh, how I laughed and laughed.

  14. HannahS*

    I think the you should also consider the professional norms of the people you’re writing to. I’m guessing that as a journalist, when you write to people, you’re not really their colleague, yes? So, if you’re writing to someone in their professional capacity and they’re in a profession where everyone who isn’t a colleague refers to them by title+lastname, I think title+lastname is the way to go until/unless situations 2 and 3 that Alison described happen.
    My mom gets called “Dr. Lastname” or “Dr. Firstname” by nearly everyone she interacts with professionally, from patients to pharmaceutical reps to admins from professional organizations. The only people who don’t call her that would be colleagues (doctors, admins, nurses, janitors) within the clinic, and then only when not in front of patients (rather like teachers, clergy-people, and professors). When she writes to other professionals, like doctors outside the clinic, psychologists, or therapists, they call each other Ms/Mr./Dr. Lastname until they get the “Please, call me Firstname” or the person signs the email with their first name only. It would be out-of-touch with norms if someone wrote to her in her capacity as a physician and opened with “Hi, Firstname.”
    To be frank, I see this as so normal that it would be weird to assume that by calling a professor “Dr. Smith” they should call you “Mr. Jones” when you’re taking a seminar from them, or when writing to get their professional opinion on something. I don’t think it’s pompous, either. Socially, yeah, definitely. But at work? Seems pretty normal. But maybe Canadian culture is a bit more formal.

    1. Specialk9*

      “Pompous” refers to a title/first mismatch in business. Not to academia or medical doctors.

      1. HannahS*

        Right, but the situation that spurred his broader question was about how to address a professor when he isn’t a university student. So I’m saying that despite the fact that they’re interacting professional to professional, most professors will expect to be addressed as “Professor/Dr. Lastname” regardless of whether the person contacting them is doing it as an enrolled student, a person taking an enrichment course, or a journalist asking them to comment on an area of their expertise.

  15. TeriJ*

    The decision to use Title-Lastname versus Firstname can still be surprising fraught in some settings!

    For example, a friend and I are both clinical pharmacists, and one of our major roles is basically to convince specialist physicians to follow our therapeutic recommendations, which will often contradict their plans. He is a big believer in never addressing physicians as “Doctor So-and-so” (unless in front of patients, etc) as it creates the idea of a power differential where there shouldn’t be one (given that we are all doctorate-holding medical professionals). I agree with him! But I also question whether he has more leeway with the docs as a fellow middle-aged white male than I would (as a young female clinician). It’s a tough decision whether to risk offense (potentially impairing your ability to do your job) versus end up placing yourself in a subordinate position.

  16. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*

    I’d also like to add: when it comes to Doctorates, I ALWAYS use the formal Dr, even if I know them personally. It takes hard work to earn that title and I want to respect and honor them by using it. And I’m in California – I’ve had professors ask students to use nicknames in class. My favorite is Uncle Dino, my former statistics professor with two doctorates. He clearly didn’t take himself seriously.

    1. Public Healther*

      Ha! My sister is a professor out in Washington state, and I think she usually asks her students to call her by her first name (I’m not 100% sure about undergraduates, but definitely graduates). She has a graduate student who she has worked closely with for a couple years and is actually friends with her husband, who insists on calling her Dr. [Last name] despite being repeatedly told that her first name is fine. He even refers to her as Dr. [Last name] in conversation with her husband, when she’s not around. She doesn’t find it annoying, but it’s become a joke in our family.

  17. CatCat*

    I work with judges and even judges who I know and who sign their emails with the first names, I always address as Judge Lastname in any email.

    1. CatCat*

      Same in meetings.

      The judges also do this with each other, as far as I have seen in any meetings or correspondence. Thought sometimes they end up accidentally saying in person, “Judge Firstname” because in a less formal setting, they would just call each other by their first names.

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      Oh, definitely use “Judge” for judges. It would be weirdly out of touch to do otherwise, and some would be super annoyed.

      Basically, if someone has a title other than Mr. or Mrs. that they use professionally, use that in your first email and stick to it unless you get clear signals otherwise. Judge, Governor, Rabbi, Professor, Officer, Colonel, etc., would all be cases where I’d default to the title, and many people with those titles would bristle at being addressed immediately by first name.

      1. CatCat*

        Excellent advice.

        (To be honest, I’d find it a little annoying if a judge said asked me to call them by their first name in work correspondence because now I have to remember that one special preference that just isn’t consistent with norms in my field.)

      2. Anon for this*

        I am an attorney who works for a court. Everyone here calls each other by first names, EXCEPT that we call all of the judges “Judge” or “Judge LastName.” Some judges would prefer to be called by their first names, but that is only done judge-to-judge or by the judge’s personal staff behind chambers doors!

      3. Specialk9*

        Ooh yes, rabbi, especially women rabbis! I’ve heard female rabbis complain about how many people walk up and start calling them by their first name, but not the male rabbis.

        There seem to be a whole host of shifting rules to when to use rabbi, and first vs last. (Rabbi/Cantor Lastname at temple or temple events, Rabbi Firstname at each others’ houses in a Jewish context, just Firstname at a purely social context. But there are more rules.)

        1. Specialk9*

          Oh, another clergy context rule. My dad worked with a female pastor in a small group and was invited to call her just Firstname. He didn’t context shift when he was speaking publicly in front of her church – he said something like “thank you Firstname”.

          She was very upset that he was disrespecting and undermining her position, by not using her title in front of her churchgoers — and (white man to black woman) for disrespecting her based on both gender and race by going informal instead of formal. All of which were valid complaints!

          He apologized humbly and said how thankful he was that she told him instead of being privately offended, so he could apologize and learn not to do that again.

          1. Anonymous 40*

            Huh. This makes me really curious about the denomination and region and maybe even time frame. Across two southern states and several different denominations, I’ve never known any clergy who weren’t universally addressed by their first names.

            1. Laura*

              A few ministers ago, the UMC where I attend started calling them “Pastor Jack or Jill” especially to the kids and in front of the congregation. FirstName is okay between other adults except ones that want to #JesusJuke others.

            2. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

              I can tell you that very few people refer to a Catholic priest by their first name. It is almost always “Fr. Lastname” or sometimes “Fr. Firstname”. Even my 80 something year old mother calls our 50 year old priest “Fr. Firstname”.

      4. blackcat*

        My late grandfather always insisted that anyone who was remotely dismissive to him call in Colonel. He often did this with doctors once he was decidedly elderly (over 80 or so) and a lot of doctors would talk down to him. If someone talked to him like a child, he’d snap back “I have my wits fully about me young man/woman. And it’s Colonel Lastname to you from now on.”

    3. Awkward Emailer*

      Oh, gracious yes. I’ve gotten emails from judges signed with their first name, but as far as I’m concerned, those names exist only for first reference in the second paragraph of court articles, not for personal communication.

  18. AFineSpringDay*

    A sales colleague once called me up to his desk to scream at me because a woman who worked for me in shipping called a client by his first name in an email chain he was part of, even though the guy had flat out said “call me Bob”. This was about 10 years ago. I yelled back at him and went back to my office. Later he got fired for sending a VERY inappropriate company wide email (which lost the rest of us the ability to send company wide emails). He was a very unhappy person in general.

  19. RabbitRabbit*

    Word of caution – I’ve worked in the medical field for well over a decade and I literally cannot remember any doctors ever signing their e-mails to me as “Dr. So-and-So.”

  20. paul*

    I always hate this; I’m in my 30s but anytime I hear “Mr. lastname” directed at me my first thought is “oh no what’d I do”, and I always still feel incredibly awkward referencing someone I don’t know moderately well by their first name.

  21. MsMaryMary*

    I would lean towards formally greeting anyone who has earned a title fancier than Mr/Mrs/Ms. A lot of doctors (MDs or PhD or otherwise) are very particular about being called Dr. I’d also go with formal address for elected officials, clergy, military, etc. I can’t think of a situation where someone would be insulted that you called them Mayor Smith or Reverend Brown or Captain Rodriguez, but I can think of plenty of people who would be upset if you didn’t remember their title.

    I work with several public sector clients. The mayor is always the Mayor and police and fire chiefs are always Chief. First and last names get dropped before the title does.

  22. Vicky*

    I work in a law office and often have to correspond with high ups etc. Really the only time I use Mr and Ms is if the person is quite a bit older like, approaching 70, where they may still expect that sort of thing professionally, being part of the old guard and what not. it’s worked so far

  23. Former Hoosier*

    The exception to this is in healthcare. Physicians do seem to expect that you address them as Dr. Snow rather than just Jon.

    Additionally, I believe in higher education students should ALWAYS address their instructors as Dr. Snow, Professor Snow or Mr. Snow (if the instructor doesn’t have a terminal degree). First name or Ms. FirstName is way to informal.

    Otherwise I think first name is almost always acceptable these days.

    1. Janelle*

      Ah this is true. I even work with doctors and almost always call them Dr. Smith. Some peds Go by Dr. John more so the children can say their names and relate easier. Much like pre school teachers and such.

    2. Noah*

      When I was a paramedic, the ER physicians almost always told us to call them by their first names. It is confusing though because I always tried to refer to them as Dr. LastName in front of patient and FirstName otherwise. I agree though, until told otherwise, the default with physicians is always Dr. LastName, at least for those who are not also Dr like some nurses and all pharmacists.

      1. Not Necessarily*

        This may be true in some parts of the country but it’s definitely not universal. In the Pacific Northwest I haven’t had a doctor introduce themselves as anything other than FirstName in at least 20 years.

  24. ThatGirl*

    Funny side thought, my dad is a pastor (born in 1952), but was always uncomfortable with the title “reverend”. He always preferred “Pastor Dave” to “Rev. Smith”.

    1. NewHerePleaseBeNice*

      We used to have regular visits at primary school (to assemblies, and on special events) from a Pastor who would play the piano and teach us hymns. He used to tell a cheesey joke at the start of every school year – Hello Children! My name’s Pastor (Name). Wouldn’t life be so much more interesting if my surname was Parcel.

    2. Noah*

      Moving to the Bible belt, it took me a long time to realize that most pastors are not comfortable being called Father, which is what I grew up calling priests.

  25. insert pun here*

    In academia, you should also take note of the distinction between “Dr.” and “Professor” and always use the latter in your first communication, if the person is in fact a professor. For example, a postdoctoral fellow is a Dr. but not a Professor. Professor is actually the more senior title. With that being said, 99% of people will cut you slack if you’re not, yourself, in academia, and thus not sensitive to these things.
    I have seen German academics with multiple terminal degrees refer to themselves as Dr. Dr. Lastname. On some level I appreciate the rigor, but it seems a little…much.

    1. N S*

      That’s not a very commonly observed distinction -at all- in the US. It is very common to consider “Professor” an acceptable mode of address for anyone teaching at a post-high-school level, but “Dr.” does attach specifically to people who have earned doctoral degrees.

      Although not all doctoral degrees are equal, either: PhD and MD typically = “defaulting to ‘Dr.’ is polite”, JD = “defaulting to ‘Dr.'” would be very weird.

      1. Judy (since 2010)*

        In my experience, at a top level research university, “Professor” was the higher title, there were 2-3x as many PhDs on campus that had only research duties. All of the Professors were PhDs. But at a smaller, teaching university, not all of the Professors had PhDs, so you called the ones with PhDs “Dr” while the rest were called “Professor”.

        My BS was at a major university, while I have done several certificates at a smaller university.

      2. ket*

        At a university, most people do hew to this Dr-Prof distinction (although will not generally make a big deal about it). I rarely use the title Professor because I am not tenure-track, although I do have “assistant professor” as a courtesy title. (No, I’m not an adjunct, either — it’s kind of a program-development job but I also teach a class.) To maintain harmony with my colleagues I stick with Dr. and don’t use Professor, because they want to differentiate between postdocs, alt-ac types, and the chosen tenured few. Whatever.

        1. N S*

          I’ve been working at R1s for over 15 years. They were all in the Midwest, so maybe that’s skewing the experiences, but it’s not a common distinction around here in terms of -address-.
          Complicating this: “Professor” functions both as a position title (or part of a title, as in “Assistant Professor”) and a form of address. As a position -title-, “professor” usually means something specific and more permanent and/or senior than “instructor”, “researcher”, “postdoctoral fellow”, etc. – all of whom may be Drs. But “Doctor” doesn’t usually correspond to a position title at a US research university except -maybe- in the med school; it is almost -only- used as a form of address, and then only for people with particular degrees.
          In terms of written, or even (if being that formal) spoken salutation, it would be odd for anyone to get offended at the use of “Professor” for anyone who is teaching at this level. (As you describe, Ket, people who are not in “Professor” positions may correct people for misusing this – sometimes to avoid ticking off the actual professors, sometimes because they want to raise student awareness of contingent academic labor, etc, etc. But IME, no one would normally be upset at someone choosing that as a default respectful form of address.)
          People who are not doctors (as in, don’t possess a doctoral degree) are more likely to correct/redirect someone misusing it in an address, in my experience, but still unlikely to get offended.
          TL;DR – in academia, calling someone “Dr. So and So” -or- “Professor So and So” is unlikely to cause offense in any case, though it might sometimes get redirected. And almost everyone’ll almost always reply to an email with a signoff that gives an indication of their preferred level of formality. (Firstname is pretty common.)

          1. Dana*

            I tell my students that I’m not technically a professor, but that it’s okay if they call me “Professor,” since I don’t expect them to pay attention to my official position in the university hierarchy. (Indeed, it would be pretty crappy if they *did* pay attention to that, except when deciding who to ask for letters of recommendation.) “Professor” is not always strictly correct, but it’s such a standard respectful term of address for a college instructor that no one is likely to mind it. By contrast, addressing someone as “Dr.” who doesn’t have a PhD is straight-up incorrect–and not all college instructors (or even all professors) have a PhD, so that’s a riskier title to default to.

          2. insert pun here*

            Right — “Dr. Lastname” isn’t wrong, if they have a doctorate, but if you’re a journalist buttering up a potential source (as OP is), it doesn’t hurt to flatter a little and go with “professor,” if it’s applicable.

            In my experience (decade and a half in academia), this distinction is not often enforced, but it is for sure noticed. I get called Dr. or Professor sometimes (I am very, very much not either of these things) and I am not offended… mostly just amused.

    2. Lison*

      I think that is to do with the conventions in the German language. There are actual Germans on here so they could contradict me but my grandfather told me in Germany he was called Herr Doctor Professor Lastname because he was Mr, he had a doctorate, and he earned the title Professor in Germany. (Apologies for the mistakes in spelling the German words). He told me this many years ago so it may no longer be true)

          1. Tau*

            Ohhh yes. You don’t know first name/last name woes until you try to talk to someone without ever using the word “you”.

            For bonus points, I feel like this is currently in the middle of a major cultural shift, aka not only do I no longer understand the rules, I’m getting the feeling everyone else is making it up as they go along too. I saw a waitress calling a customer Du recently, and this guy I’ve been e-mailing about a repair job on my bicycle went to first names straight away, but then it was Sie all the way with the janitor and the optician and conversations with random strangers have been about 50/50 so… are we flipping coins now or what?

            1. Properlike*

              Okay, this is my question with the Spanish speaking support staff at my college, and in general – I have used “Como esta?” with our janitor, for instance, and been corrected (by him) that it’s “estas.” But he uses “esta” on me and always calls me “Teacher” and not FirstName. Am I being rude to use formality? Obviously, not a Spanish speaker here.

    3. Specialk9*

      Germans have to do that though, throwing all titles in. Herr Doktor (etc) is just the convention.

    4. SamSam*

      I work with non-academic Germans over email, and I just cannot get most of them to call me by my first name, no matter how many times I sign my email with just my first name, then start to call them by their first names… It’s also always “Mrs. Lastname,” which makes me feel that their English teachers have failed them. My kingdom for a “Ms.” one of these days!

  26. K, Esq.*

    I’ve been doing elder law for 6 years and always call my clients by their first name, even though they’re frequently 40+ years my senior. I’ve only had one say he’d prefer being called Professor Last Name, and called me Ms. Last Name in return. One client calls me Ms. First Name and I take it as a sign of respect.

  27. KK*

    Not only is it the professional norm in most fields and regions to call people by their first names, I think most people PREFER it. I’d feel weird if someone called me ‘Mrs. Last Name.’ I wouldn’t take it as a sign of respect, I’d just find it odd and out of place.

    I’m honestly so glad using first names is the professional norm. I many times in business, people are expected to say and do things that make them seem not like people, but like robots.

  28. Janelle*

    I think initially dr Smith is fine but you should take the cues from them as to how they reply.

  29. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

    This applies to the southern US but I am sure other locations are different:

    If you area a student *always* call a faculty member “Dr. Lastname” until told otherwise. Heck, even my wife who was a young associate professor (faculty member) called some of the older faculty members “Dr. Lastname”. Even if your instructor does not have a PhD, if you are a student, call them “Mr/Ms Lastname” unless told otherwise.

    If you are young professional, I would still err on the side of caution and refer to a PhD as “Dr. Lastname” until told otherwise. Some of my co-workers call some of the older faculty “Dr. Lastname”. Many call the Dean, “Dean Lastname”. I can’t imagine anyone (including most faculty) calling the president of the University “Bob” or even “Robert”. Everyone refers to him as “President LastName”.

    For MDs I would definitely stick with “Dr. Lastname”.

    In summary, in the south, for academics and definitely for MDs, be on the safe side and refer to someone as “Dr” until told otherwise.

  30. Laura*

    I volunteered in a youth program with a woman in her early 20s. She always called the parents as Mrs or Mr. One day, we were talking and this parent had a daughter just a year or two younger and she treated my friend more as her daughter’s peer than her peer. My first comment was that she needed to start calling her “Tammy” as they were both adults.
    I worked on a conference this summer where a 60something kept insisting that we refer to the 90something lady working with us as “Mrs Smith” Both are Southern ladies, in their minds. I’m from the midwest and really wanted to tell them that as I’m 40 not 10, it was ridiculous.

    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I am in my 50’s and I still refer to my 70-something year old neighbor as Ms. Lastname. I still call my friend’s parents and my parent’s friends as Mr/Miss Firstname. It is a southern thing. I can’t imagine calling my parent’s friends or my friends parent’s (many of whom I have known all of my life) by their first name.

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        I must add:
        One of my friends who I have only known as an adult (recent friend) I called his parents Mr./Ms. Lastname until they told me otherwise.

  31. Mack*

    On the first email, definitely err on the side of caution. But after that you just have to decide based on their response as Allison said. If they sign with just their first name, you are probably fine to continue with that as well.

    Sidenote – pay attention to how they spell their name or if they use a nickname. If they sign as Jenny, it would be weird to address her as Jennifer. and if they sign as Sarah, she will probably be annoyed with Sara.

  32. DCer*

    I am a journalist. The norm is to address people by their first name. The only exception I encounter is when I’m emailing professors – simply because I know they like being called professor and I want them to think kindly of me and reply. But otherwise, all first names.

    People aren’t more senior to you when you’re a journalists. They should view as a professional who they should treat that way – regardless of their position, experience or age. Don’t indulge their superiority complexes by calling them “Mr.” or some other title. I won’t even use titles like that when I know they want them – it unsettles the balance of power and you shouldn’t let them.

  33. NeverNicky*

    Well, the stereotype of the British being starchy and sticklers for protocol and Americans being casual and informal may have had its day, it seems. Over in the UK, as an undergrad at 18, I certainly called my lecturers by “Prof”, “Dr” and (in one case) “Doc”. Twenty years later as a mature student, different institution, it was “Tim” and “Sandra”.

    My work brings me into a lot of contact with clinicians and researchers. Titles are rarely used in speech or email, but are rigorously used in publications, press releases and presentations. In the research institutions I’m familiar with, everyone seems to be on first name terms, or even nicknames.

    In my own case, I’m happy with first name. As long as it’s the first name I introduce myself with – and as per my handle here, never ever Nicky!

    1. Tau*

      I’m definitely finding all the people saying graduate students have to call faculty by titles in the US astonishing. I don’t think I met an academic I wasn’t on an immediate first-name basis in the UK during my entire PhD. My supervisor wanted to be called by a diminutive nickname (think “Tommy”). (Coming from Germany, I was already struggling with first names at that point – I think it took me two years to manage the nickname.)

  34. LAI*

    Kind of a related question. How do you address emails when you’ve been added to a chain with several people CC’ed? Do I reply just “Hi Original Sender,” or do I list the names of everyone CC’ed? If it’s clearly a reply to a large group, I’ll often say “Dear all,”. But sometimes it seems more like my reply should be directed to just the sender, and everyone else is just looped in as observers.

    I also struggle with what to do when an email originally needed several people CC’ed but now the conversation has shifted track and I’m pretty sure half of the originally CC’ed people don’t care anymore…

    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      That is when I go with a generic “Good Morning”, “Hello” or something similar or even just leave off the greeting.

  35. the Viking Diva*

    Local interactions in person can vary among settings, but in writing to someone in academe there is a pretty particular culture that is a bit different from what Alison describes. And the issues mentioned of dismissing the hard-earned titles of women and people of color are real. If I get an email addressed to me by first name- usually someone looking for a job or making a request that I do something for them – I know they don’t know the culture. And it drives me nuts when people punt on the salutation, like “Good morning.” In writing to an academic you can never go wrong addressing someone as Dr. X – until they tell you otherwise in a reply, OR until they sign first name only in their response. “Doctor” is not a name; nobody ever signs “Doctor X,” so that is not a clue.

  36. what's my name again?*

    I’ve got a different wrinkle on a similar situation: I work at our church and some of my daughter’s friends also work there on a part-time basis. Some have graduated high school and some have not yet. They consistently call me “Mrs. (X)”. I call them by the first name, mainly as a professional norm and out of habit having known them for several years. (The office is fairly casual, except for formally addressing the pastor by Title and Last Name.)
    As they pass that milestone, which I consider entering into adulthood, the next time they call me “Mrs. (X),” I gently correct them saying: “We’re both adults working together professionally, please call me (Jane).”
    Is this an okay way to deal with it?

    1. Laura*

      I was in the friends’ place for awhile. I was the only high schooler in the church choir and by fellow members to use their first names, which was how we referred to them at home. So I was in a situation where I’ve known “Leah” and “Mrs. Smith” since birth, and they are best friends with children my age. What am I supposed to do? It was a relief when the day after graduation, by unspoken convention, everyone moved to FirstName.

  37. Not a Dr. But...*

    I echo what others have said about academia, but I also want to note there are a LOT of MDs who are particular about being referred to as Dr. I am a healthcare consultant and work with both practicing and formerly practicing doctors, and many of them call me by my first name but expect me to call them Dr. It’s not always just the individual who is particular about title – sometimes it’s just an organizational culture. I’ve worked with some organizations where everyone is on a first-name basis no matter degree, rank, seniority or gender. However, I’ve worked with plenty of others where it is unheard of to refer to the physicians (even those who don’t actively practice medicine) as anything other than Dr. – even if the individual himself/herself doesn’t like that title!

    1. Hannah C*

      Yes! I do IT in a hospital and it is absolutely the norm here to refer to the MDs as “Dr. so-and-so” even if they refer to you by your first name. There are a lot of providers who probably wouldn’t mind if you called them by their first name but we also have some that would be seriously offended, so it pays to just stick to the formal method.

  38. Becky*

    Use of my first name in that context does not bother me.

    I do have a kneejerk annoyed response to the apparently now-common opener “Hey Becky,” in a business setting. “Hey” just seems too informal

  39. Stephanie*

    I took a class with my grad school advisors. They were pretty particular that in class it was Professor So-and-So and Professor So-and-So and outside of that, Lucinda and Fergus were fine (uh, with one even wanting me to call him his nickname, which still feels weird). It felt kind of weird, but I got they wanted to avoid the appearance of any favoritism in class.

  40. Properlike*

    I need to push back on the “just go by first name if you’re uncertain.” I grew up in the Midwest, middle-aged, used to work in Hollywood where not only do all people go by first names, they hug and air kiss and all that.

    HOWEVER, even in that situation, eyebrows got raised if you opened any written communication with “Hi, [Firstname].” It was considered presumptive and overbearing.

    Now, I’m aware that Hollywood people are not The Standard For Rational Behavior, but I say this because I would sometimes get letters from recent grads with “Hi, [FirstName]” that also had a casual tone in asking me for advice, and the advice I gave them was that you never walk into a relationship with a stranger assuming that you’re on a first name basis with a casual tone. Especially when you’re green and they’re not.

    In a situation such as OP’s (and I also have this situation comes up in correspondence) where I’m initiating conversation, I always use Mr./Ms./Doctor (never Mrs.), no matter the seniority, unless I’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance. Then, if they use my first name, I’ll use theirs.

    1. Manuel*

      I really dislike when people I do not know or just met use my first name or even try to shorten my name – it feels presumptuous to me, but I was not born and raised in the United States. Thankfully, everyone has a rank and a last name where I work, so we use those. Whenever I hear someone referred to by first name, I have to figure out who they are talking about!

  41. Anion*

    The correct answer here, of course, is to begin your reply with, “Hiya, Doc!”

    (I’d still err on the formal side until expressly told “Call me Bob,” but that’s just me. I’m more comfortable with formality anyway.

  42. Anonymousaurus Rex*

    Professional exception to Alison’s advice: Medical Doctors.

    I’d err on always saying “Dr. LastName” with them until specifically requested to use their first names. I’ve mentioned this before, but I work with a lot of MDs and they seem to have a definite preference for the last name stuff. I have a PhD and always tell anyone who calls me “Dr. Rex” — “Oh, please call me Anonymousaurus”. However, other than one MD that I’m friends with, none of my colleagues has ever suggested I use their first name–even signing emails “Dr. XXX”. I was in a meeting of 10 MDs and me this morning, and they do speak to each other on a first name basis, but when they refer to one another when speaking to me, they go back to Dr. XXX. I’ve decided to find it quirky and a bit silly rather than pompous, but it takes some getting used to.

  43. chi type*

    You could always just go with
    It’s not like someone else is going to receive it at their email address.

  44. Optimistic Prime*

    It is for this reason that when I’m emailing people back – especially college students and younger early career professionals – and they’ve called me Dr. Prime in their original email, I just say “Please call me Optimistic!”

    And I really, truly mean it. I dislike it when people call me Dr. Prime. I prefer my first name, even with my students, when I had them.

  45. Jax*

    I’m a little surprised at how many people use first names with people they aren’t close with. I’m an elementary school teacher on the East Coast, and when I speak with my colleagues, I call them by their first name. But when I speak with parents of students, I use their last names. It actually comes across as overly familiar to me when they email me and address me as “Hi Firstname,” instead of “Hi Ms. Lastname.” I find it weird and uncomfortable! Maybe it’s just because I am “Ms. Lastname” to all of my students, so it’s what I go by professionally 95% of my work day, but I just would never ever email a parent and call them by their first name in the salutation. Different strokes, I guess.

  46. Bunny*

    Alleged Journalist here. I ALWAYS address politics, police, fire, and the like by their title. That is Chief, Commissioner, Mr. Mayor, Senator, Representative. It is respectful and it establishes an objective boundary.

    They call me by my first name. I couldn’t care less. My fellow reporters in my market behave the same way.

    “Underneath” that, well, it is up to you. I walk a line between friendliness and professionalism.

    A journalistic relationship is not a business relationship. It is WEIRD.

    1. Jax*

      I think that’s why I feel uncomfortable with parents addressing me by my first name! I want to create that objective boundary so I can fairly grade their children, and when they call me by my first name it feels like they are trying to be overly friendly and crossing that line.

      1. Properlike*

        My kids’ school teachers and principal go by their first names with parents in correspondence. I refuse to indulge them. They are “Mr./Ms.” until the kids are outta there.

  47. Mad Baggins*

    How does this work on an international level?
    In some countries it’s much more common to refer to people by Mr./Ms. Lastname, and the American way can seem overly familiar.
    In these situations I suppose we should default to the most formal level unless explicitly told otherwise?

    1. Myrin*

      As someone from such a more formal country, I’d absolute recommend exactly what you’re saying here. It’s absolutely Not Done to just approach someone you don’t know, in a professional capacity or otherwise, and call them by their first name (with some exceptions like a more relaxed context like bars or somesuch and with people who you’d guess to be your age). And this is not an old people thing, either – I’m 26 and I’d be very taken aback by someone just using my first name out of the blue. So yeah, more formality is definitely better – if someone wants to be less formal, they can always propose that later-on.

  48. PersephoneUnderground*

    This is funny- I only learned this relatively recently (in the last couple years), and it does make form letters and such much simpler since there’s no need to mess around with guessing titles (mail merging the first name field doesn’t require going through to create a title column based on gender guesses for instance, or dear Mr./Ms. which betrays it as a form letter).

    I asked my boss and she said “we’re all adult professionals, go ahead and use first names”. It was so odd to me as it’s different from social conventions where if you don’t know someone you start formal and leave it to them to say informal is ok. I suppose usually you’re corresponding with someone whose business has an existing relationship with yours, so it’s not like you’re a stranger in a business sense.

    That said, I usually go slightly more formal than “Hi” in an initial email- such as “Good Morning/Afternoon Name” or at least “Dear Name” or “Hello”, until the other person signals they’re ok with “Hi” or dropping salutations.

    Makes me feel better to see AAM agree with what my manager says, excluding known stuffy industries.
    Protip: Ophthalmologists REALLY care about the Dr. or MD or other titles not getting dropped. My job occasionally works with them as clients and they’re quite picky.

  49. SarahChalke*

    This actually also isn’t true in certain USG agencies (i.e. DOD, State Department) where hierarchy is important. Unless I had a personal relationship with an ambassador or Colonel for example, I would never use their first name, and even then would only do so in a private or social context.

Comments are closed.