Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I often receive business emails starting with "Dear Daniel..." or "Hello Daniel..." although I haven't been into contact with the sender before. As an Austrian citizen (thus german speaking) this is quite unusual to me, I always write "Dear Mr. Smith..." or "Hello Mr. Smith...".

When is it appropriate to address someone with Mr/Mrs instead of his given name?

share|improve this question
2  
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about social expectations, not about English. –  tchrist Jul 16 at 16:14

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Very good question! Since the English-speaking world has become much more informal due to the influence of pop culture, most people use first names almost exclusively. My mother insisted on being called Mrs. by everyone younger than she was, even though many of my friends would have called her by her first name. She made it clear she did not want that.

I think Brett meant by honorific Dr. or other such title, not Mr/Mrs/Ms. But I may be wrong.

What would I, who am a person of formal upbringing, do? First, I check how the person has signed themselves in any prior correspondence (Best regards, Sally). If they use only first name, so do I. In cases where I am writing someone for the first time, if I know they are older I use Mr/Mrs/Ms. If they are not older, I will use Mr/Mrs/Ms and their family name. In cases where family name is not obvious – in cultures where the family name may be written ahead of the given name – I use the whole name. (In your personal case, I would have used Daniel! This is a very interesting and thorny question.)

The bottom line is, it would never be badly viewed in any situation if you use Mr/Mrs/Ms - you might be thought stuffy or too formal, but that's preferable in my opinion to being seen as lacking in respect. Are you more thoroughly confused now?

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks Carrie. I think I get the idea that the more formal one is better if I know that the person I address is older than me and possibly prefer this form. The example with your mother is good and tells me that it is not uncommon to find people that insist of this form. –  Daniel Lang Jan 2 '12 at 14:11

This is really an etiquette question, not English. The etiquette for letters is fairly well known (which is not to say you cannot ignore it if you choose), but email is still not old enough for it to be clear whether you should start with'Dear Bill', 'Bill' or no salutation at all, even when you are addressing a friend: much less how to address a business contact or potential contact.

In addition, email makes it easy to discover first names, and some people regard it as impolite not to make the effort to use them, even if you have never met the addressee. Others still prefer the old convention of calling somebody 'Mr Smith' (or just 'Smith', though that too may be perceived as insulting) until invited to use the first name. Add in the fact that many contacts want to be perceived as a friend of yours because they want a favour or just hope you will become a customer. Add in also the worldwide nature of email, which is bound to cross lines of national or cultural politeness, and the whole area is rife with confusion; I myself, if I feel slighted or confused, try to make allowances for the sender's lack of perfect English (because, obviously, I am the only writer who is perfect).

share|improve this answer
    
Tim, thanks for making it clear that it is not clear withing emails! :) Your answer tells me that the informal version is considered to be more personal, the default between friends and thus may be exploited by people that want to do business with me. I've marked Carries post as answer though because I find that it applies better to my personal motivation behind the question. Thanks! –  Daniel Lang Jan 2 '12 at 14:16

Addressing someone you don't know as "Mr." or "Ms." is, to me, the only polite option. This is whether in writing or in person.

This assumes one (or more) criteria:

  1. The other person is a stranger to you;
  2. You are talking to someone in a business or service setting, particularly when, but not limited to when the other person is your customer, though I also tend to call people doing work for me "Mr." as well;
  3. The other person is older than you are (especially in this case), or of 'a certain age'. As for what age that is, I'm often stumped, though I tend to default to anyone above ~age 30.

For someone to accuse people who want to be called "Mr." as 'uptight' or to be told to 'get-over-it-man' as one often hears or reads, is ignorant in the extreme. Until something better is invented, a title conveys respect. Calling someone by their first name conveys, at best, familiarity--as between friends. At worst, it's a show of uninvited, slimy disrespect. It often comes across as a sneering: "Nyeah...you're nuthin' special, and I'll just make sure you know it--BOB."

I read somewhere a comment on this topic in which the young commenter felt that titles were unnecessary and archaic because "...we're all the same level...." Whether that's true or not, addressing someone by an admittedly more formal "Ms." need have nothing to do with hierarchy. It has everything to do with showing respect for the other person, and with giving her/him some psychological/social 'space', if you will. I doubt that those who want everyone to be laid-back and informal would be so gung-ho if a stranger or sales clerk physically came within inches of his/her face when they met or interacted? I didn't think so.

Calling someone by their first name before you're invited to is similar. It’s grabbing something that isn't yours to take. Just because most of us, by now, have been forced to "get used to it" doesn't mean its any less disrespectful. And just because virtually no one acknowledges anyone with "Mr." or "Ms." anymore, doesn't make it right.

~~[Post Scripts: In my argument above, I've deliberately defaulted to "Ms." for women and left out "Mrs." and "Miss" because, after much thought, I decided long ago that for me "Ms." is the most respectful of women since it's 'non-marital', as it were. Whether I'm right or not is totally open to debate. I know some women who detest one or more of all the three forms of address.

I also totally 'get' that there are many social situations where being on a first name basis right off the hop is completely fine--and expected. We all evaluate each new social situation in which we find ourselves. Calling new baseball teammates or your in-laws' nephew "Mr. StuffandSuch" would obviously sound just plain dumb.

I will also add in my defence, if I need to, that although I may come across as rigid, I actually came from a place and culture that, while quite conservative in almost every other way, encouraged even children to call adults by their first names. (Go figure.) In a very specific context like this, it was normal, expected and therefore acceptable.]

share|improve this answer
2  
Although I basically agree with you I think it's taking it a bit far to say "Calling someone by their first name conveys, at best, familiarity--as between friends. At worst, it's a show of uninvited, slimy disrespect" At worst it might be impolite and inappropriate. Emails have changed the way we communicate with each other. I often receive emails from "strangers", but who work in the same field as I do, and it is common to address each other on first names basis. I call it being friendly, rather than being disrespectful. :) –  Mari-Lou A Sep 19 '13 at 4:57

The easiest answer is: when the person is comfortable being addressed that way. When contacting somebody I have no prior connection with, I will always use an honorific or Dear Full Name when the appropriate honorific isn't obvious.

share|improve this answer
    
Brett, thanks for your answer. I understand that this would be the easiest way, but since you write "...when the appropriate honorific isn't ovious" you admit that this approach is a work-around too. I would like to know how to decide whether the one or the other address is appropriate. –  Daniel Lang Jan 2 '12 at 13:23

Daniel, Unfortunately it isn't an easy question to answer since it really depends on the recipients' culture. For example, if someone has a PhD it's best to refer to him/her as "Dr. (last name)". If the recipient is Korean, Japanese or Chinese, it's best to use "Mr./Mrs./Dr./Professor", whichever is appropriate. If the person is American, Canadian, Australian, or a New Zealander, it's OK to use his/her first name and is often expected - unless that person is a Dr. In that case, they're often very proud of the hard work they put into getting that degree and may feel insulted if you don't use it.

If you don't know the person's gender or title and can't figure it out from their closure to the e-mail / letter, try going to Google.com and typing in his/her full name. You can often find a link to a CV or picture.

Does anyone else have any ideas?

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Jul 16 at 16:11

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.