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It's a bit of a shame that Is "pal" too informal when the other person is much older than me? was closed, as it dabbles in a difficult topic for all non-native speakers of English. Although I realise that this question, too, might be closed quickly for its open nature, I'd still like to try and find a way to put it in a useful manner.

As a non-native speaker of English, I often am in a situation where it is unclear to me how to best address a person older or in higher social standing than myself. In spoken conversation it is easy to circumnavigate the issue, but in written communication, the requirement for opening ("Dear...") and closing ("Best regards, ...") lines makes this much more difficult. As such, I would like to limit the scope of this question to written communication.

In short, and divided between BE and AE: what are the expectations of an older or higher-ranked (i.e. someone with a PHD title) person when being addressed by a younger or lower-ranked (i.e. someone without an academic title) person? And also, again divided by BE and AE: what are usual markers that might be employed by the older or higher-ranked person to indicate that they would prefer a lower level of formality, say, a drop from a last-name basis down to a first-name basis?

If the community feels that this question, too, should be closed, it would be helpful to get suggestions as to what changes might make it viable for English Language & Usage.

  • You're right, this question probably will be closed as too broad. You can come and chat with us, though. You're likely to get better answers to more specific questions there. – Robusto Jul 29 '15 at 12:57
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    This is hard to answer because it depends on so many variables, including the attitudes of the person doing the addressing and the person being addressed. Some Ph.Ds I've met in America want to be referred to as "Dr. Surname" by EVERYONE, even colleagues they've known for years. On the other hand, some college professors will tell their students on the first day or class to call them by their first name. It's so much a matter of personal taste that I don't think you'll find any black-and-white answers. – Nicole Jul 29 '15 at 12:57
  • Hmm, I guess I should not have included someone with a PHD title as an example (I was, indeed, thinking of a specific incident when I did). The hope was that this question would evoke answers on a language level. In German, where there are formal and informal pronouns, someone might use the informal pronoun more often than would usually be necessary and this could (of course, like you say, depending on many other factors) then be an indicator for wanting the other person to drop down to the informal pronoun as well. In English, no such distinction exists... – sixtyfive Jul 29 '15 at 13:03
  • @RainerVerteidiger Particularly in oral communications, the words sir and ma’am are used in formal situations when you are addressing someone respectfully. This roughly corresponds to the tu–vous split. – tchrist Jul 29 '15 at 13:10
  • During my post-graduation, I would address the head of the department as Dr. X. After three years at that institution I left and we would get in touch through email. He eventually stopped signing Dr. X and substituted Joe for it. I considered it a hint and I then started writing "Dear Joe", and called him by his first name whenever we met. That's my experience with written communication, though. As for oral communication, I suggest you initiallly address the person in a formal way and, if you are a good observer, time will tell you whether you can change to more informal forms of address. – Centaurus Jul 29 '15 at 14:21
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A good clue as to how a person wishes to be addressed by you is how they sign off on email communications, and how they address you too. If they sign off with their first names and use informal closing phrases such as Best, Bob you're probably ok to use the person's first name. Another linguistic clue is how other people in a similar position to you address that person. It is unlikely that a majority of people in the same position as you would be using a casual style of address if the person preferred something more formal.

With regards to Dr for someone with a PhD title, in most non-highly formal situations, I don't know anyone who expects to be addressed as Dr, or who introduces themselves as Dr either. I think in most university situations, it would be a little embarrassing if they did. (I've only studied at British Universities, though.)

If you're ever unsure about using a first name, or don't want to appear presumptuous, you can always add a bracketed if I may as so:

Dear Bob (if I may),

Flannel, flannel ....

  • Well, I wouldn't read too much into email signoffs. I myself may vary them even when communicating with the same person, and it seems professors do as well. – choster Jul 29 '15 at 15:20
  • @choster Nice link! – Araucaria Jul 29 '15 at 15:25

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