Addressing adults: Preference or properness?

Q: There seems to be some debate these days as how children should address adults. Hardly anyone is teaching their children to show respect for adults by addressing them as Mr. or Mrs. Smith, etc. It seems that it is just simply by first name or possibly by Mr. John or Miss Jane. My husband and I feel strongly about our children addressing adults by Mr. or Mrs. but we are definitely in the minority. What is proper etiquette these days? What about if the adult insists on being called by their first name, is it then rude of us to insist on Mr. Smith or should the adult go with what the parents want?

A: It is most correct for children to address adults by title – Mrs. Smith, Mr. Jones, and you should continue to teach your children to do so. If adults insist that your children call them by their first names, that is their choice and you can hardly contradict them, but explain to your children that this is the adult’s choice, not the general practice.

27 Comments

  1. L

    When and how do we “age out” of these rules?

    I was raised as you suggest. Adults were always Mr. Smith/ Mr. Jones or– only if requested– Miss Susie/ Mr. Don. This pattern was perfectly acceptable in my high school jobs; however, I did encounter a significant challenge with this when I entered the workforce as an “adult.”

    From 18-22, I had various college internships, and shortly after college graduation I started a job with a major company. Particularly in my internships but also in my first post-college job, I often felt uncomfortable addressing my (much) older coworkers by their first names even though I was generally expected to do so.

    I finally worked out a few rules of thumb, but I’d very much appreciate your advice.
    1) I use an honorific with the person’s name if he or she is approximately my parents’ age or older.
    1-A) In a casual office setting, I tend to use Mr./ Miss + First Name.
    1-B) In a formal office setting, I tend to use Mr. / Ms. + Last Name.
    2) I use the first names of coworkers younger than my parents.

    • Elizabeth

      I have never worked in a setting where it would have been appropriate to use Miss + Firstname. Unless you live in the south where this is more common, it probably seems really strange to your coworkers and possibly even off-putting to some of them. When you become an adult and you get your first job, things change: you are no longer a child who must address his/her elders with respect, but you become a colleague and a peer to your coworkers. Granted – you are a junior colleague, and there are lots of ways that you can signify that: by asking them for advice, by deferring to their experience, by being generally respectful of people with a lot more knowledge than you, etc. But by calling them ‘Miss Jane’ or Mr. Smith, you are simply highlighting how green you are. This could actually hinder your advancement, because you are constantly reminding them how young you are, constantly reminding them that you do not consider yourself their peer.

      I naturally do not know the specifics of your office culture. So, my advice would be to ask a trusted friend at work, or your immediate boss if you have a good relationship with him/her, about how you address people. Get their feedback. Their answers may surprise you. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then spend some time simply observing how people address each other, and follow their lead. The problem with calling people Miss and Mr. is that you will develop this as a habit, and it will be even more difficult to break yourself of it later. The question then becomes: when do you stop addressing people that way and just use their first name (like everyone else)? There will never be an ‘official moment’ when you’re supposed to do it. Or, rather, it has already passed – it was when you got your first real job and became a colleague to your coworkers.

    • Winifred Rosenburg

      It’s best to address all adults in a work setting as Mr./Ms. Last Name unless they tell you “please call me First Name.” Calling someone by their first name traditionally means that person considers you a friend. That is not something you should assume, especially in a work setting; it is something you should wait until the person tells you to do.

      • Elizabeth

        It really depends on the office culture. In the fields where both my husband and I work, using Mr./Ms. Lastname is a relic. Literally no one does it unless you’re speaking to the president of the company. You could make yourself the odd-duck out if you choose to flout office culture.

        • Winifred Rosenburg

          That’s true, but it’s still safest to follow the lead of the people you are addressing and not call them by their first names unless they indicate to you that you should, either explicitly or implicitly (e.g. by signing emails with their first names).

          I also wanted to highlight something you implied that in the work setting rank matters more than age. In other words if someone at the same level in the company calls you by your first name, it’s safe to assume you can call them by their first name. If you’re speaking to a higher-up, that’s not necessarily true and you should wait for a more solid indication to call him/her by his/her first name.

    • I agree with you, L. My parents also raised me to respect elders with “Ma’am,” “Sir,” “Mr. Jones,” “Dr. Smith.” Though I had less trouble with this in my internships (I tended to have research jobs that required little interacting with people), in all my jobs it has invariably come up. “Mister Jones? Ha! That’s my dad’s name. Call me Sam.” It didn’t seem to matter that I was 20 yrs old and Mr. Jones was older than my father. Over the years, I refer to someone as “Mrs.” or “Doctor” unless they tell me otherwise. In my current university setting, I have many “Doctors” request that I call them by their first names, but a few haven’t. So far I think I’m safe. :)

      As Elizabeth mentions, “Miss FirstName” is very region specific. Personally, I don’t like it and find it vexing in a professional situation. However, I currently live in the South, and like black-eyed peas on New Year’s, manage to choke it down. There are many things about the South I adore, but the two I just mentioned aren’t among them.

    • Rev. Svend la Rose

      This whole “aging out” business is part of the problem with titling ages rather than roles. I would title anyone who is entitled to a title, or who has some valid pretense to one, until shown otherwise by his behavior. This was my practice prior to being clandestinely ordained.

      In general, I think ageism to be a poor manner. The idea that ageism is part of “teaching good manners” makes me shudder. This may be only because I was lately president of Youth Liberation, or it may rest on more substantial grounds. Which is so is for you-all to decide.

      • Alicia

        Anyone regardless of age of either person should start with the formal address. When someone says “please call me Alicia” You should switch to calling them by their preferred name. Age of either party is irrelevant. Start with most formal respectful but then call then whatever they ask you to call them when they ask.

  2. It is too bad that nowadays society seems to be lacking any respect for adults and even more so for the elderly. Etiquette remains etiquette and there should be a clear distinction between certain roles. That only will benefit each child for their later career, and probably international career. There are still countries that do adhere to proper etiquette! The same with children addressing their parents by their first name. A parent is a parent and not a friend or playmate. There is a task that comes with being a good parent, for guiding a child and distinguishing the differences in society. At least I still feel proud for having had an upbringing at home and at schools with proper teachings of respect showing to adults and to those that rank higher. Not out of fear, but out of respect! Your answer above, for explaining it to your children is all you can do about the ones that lack any sense of respect and politeness. This is not even cool!
    Thanks for posting things like this; we ought to stand up for etiquette as the silent majority will never do this…
    gplus.to/MariettesBacktoBasics

  3. Vanna Keiler

    I agree with Elizabeth concerning office etiquette. In this setting, it is best to observe what others do (especially those at your level in the office hierarchy) and do likewise. Definitely ask the boss if you feel comfortable doing so. Nowadays every office culture is different, and different things are expected.

  4. Vanna Keiler

    I would also like to agree with EPI response regarding children addressing adults. In my humble opinion, unless the adult insists “call me Mary/Ben/etc.” children should still be taught to initially address all adults with Mr. or Mrs. However, if a child is NOT taught this and is addressed by first name, I think as adults it is great if we overlook this faux pas, smile warmly and extend our hand when we are introduced.

  5. Jennifer

    I’m so glad this question was asked; I have wondered the answer myself. I was raised in the South where it’s common for children to refer to adults as Miss/Mr. First Name. We don’t currently live in the South, but that’s also what I teach my daughter (who is not yet two). I do know that it’s proper to call them Ms./Mr. Last Name, but in some cases (with some of my husband’s coworkers, for example), I don’t even know the person’s last name! He works in a very creative, relaxed environment with a generally younger crowd of people, who probably think that Miss/Mr. First Name is overly formal!

    I wonder about the reverse of this, too. For instance, I would not be comfortable with a child calling me Jennifer. Miss Jennifer would be fine. But suppose his/her parents don’t subscribe to the Miss/Mr. idea and they simply introduce me to their child as Jennifer. Would it be rude to say, “I prefer Miss Jennifer”? Or should I just tolerate a child calling me by my first name? How would one handle such a situation??

    • Winifred Rosenburg

      If your not sure of someone’s last name why not ask?

      It is perfectly polite to express your preference for what to be called. Correct children you meet as needed.

  6. Brockwest

    1) Children. I feel children should address adults by their last name. If someone requests they be addressed by their first name, I feel the parent should explain that they are trying to teach their children manners, and want their child to use the last name. In the South, if offered, then Miss FirstName is acceptable. I’ve never heard it used other than the South.
    2) Office: I don’t believe Miss FirstName should be used, as that is a term reserved for children to address their Southern elders. Everyone should be called by their last name until the offer is given to use the first name.

  7. R. A. Neve

    I would like to ask a question.
    My favorite nephew and his wife recently announced they are expecting. I would love to be considered for the position of godparent to their child since we share the same religious beliefs. I don’t want them to think that I’m expecting the honor, they can choose whomever they wish, I just want them to know I’m available and willing. Is there a way to let them know this without coming across as presumptuous?

    • Elizabeth

      No, there isn’t. Godparents are usually from the peer group of the parents. You already have a role – you will be great uncle to your nephew’s son. They may choose you in any case, but there is no way to politely ask for an honor.

    • Ruth Peltier

      Since one of the implied duties of Godparents is to take over if the parents are unable to complete the job of rearing the child in their religion, it seems to me that they need to be of the parents generation.

      I, actually, personally raised my Godchild but that is another story entirely.

      • Chocobo

        That depends on the family. Many families choose great-aunts, -uncles, and grandparents as Godparents because they are either the most appropriate for the position, or because they want to honor them. A Godparent does not have to be from the same generation; presumably someone from the child’s grandparent’s generation would live the 18 years to see their religious upbringing completed, should something happen to the parents.

  8. Jody

    I think the safest thing is to introduce an adult to a child as Mr./Ms. Lastname. It’s up to the adult to say “Hi Susie, please call me Firstname.” If the first adult introduces the other adult to the child as Firstname, and that makes the second adult uncomfortable, the second adult is entitled to nicely say something like “Actually Susie, I prefer to be called Mr./Ms. Lastname. I’m very glad to meet you.”

    • Rev. Svend la Rose

      How should Miss Susan retort to the adult, if she thinks that asymmetrical address to be improper? Or do you assume that young people must of necessity be socially subordinate?

      • Alicia

        Susan would just say ” Please call me Miss Susan.”
        However the parent or other adult introducing the kid should know how their kid likes to be addressed and would use that. It would be very unusual that a kid is more comfortable being called Miss Susan then Susan.

  9. Rev. Svend la Rose

    I cannot countenance allowing age to take precedence of degree. A gentleman or lady, irrespective of age, is titled. A gentleman’s son or daughter acquires the title when he or she has the refinement of such a person as may by courtesy be treated as a lady or gentleman, although he or she is not yet (viz. a yeoman).

    Accordingly, a 12-year-old girl who (for sake of argument) reads Latin and has cause to speak to the plumber may address him by his name (last or first) alone, and should be addressed as Miss plus her name: last if eldest, first otherwise.

    • Why do you assume the plumber does not read Latin? My father read Virgil in the original, and was a pipe-fitter at a large factory. One may be learned, yet prefer the noble pursuit of working with one’s hands.

      • Rev. Svend la Rose

        Pipefitting is far more noble than plumbing.

        Your father would retort in his Latin, and I would be disabused of the notion.

        • Alicia

          Noble is a character trait not a matter of profession. There are noble and ignoble people of every profession be they plumbers or reverends. Nobel is kindness , concern for others, honor, and unselfishness not the job that one does.

  10. Alicia

    What makes someone a gentleman or lady in this situation? Why would a plumber cal a 12 year old Miss Sarah if she is referring to him as Bob? Perhaps this is true in countries with a class system but this is mainly an american etiquette site an we have no class system and a plumber deserves as much respect as anyone else.

    • Rev. Svend la Rose

      The relation between servant and served upon is hierarchical. The same 12 year old, when serving the plumber at dinner at her big brother’s restaurant, would address him as Mr. Dobbs.

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