• What's in a Name?

    What's in a Name?

    This week, we’re turning our thoughts to one of the trickiest etiquette questions of the 21st century. When do you use someone’s forename, and when do you use a surname?

    Time was, when there would be no question about it; everyone was a Mr, Ms, Mrs or Miss. More recently, this level of formality has been narrowed to a more select group of people: those of ‘a certain age’, or those whom we have not met before.

    Another consideration is the style of document you are writing; some practices suggest that you should use Mr/Ms and a surname if you are referring to a third party, regardless of your relationship to them, or if there is reason to think the letter you are writing will have an extended readership – for example in the case of formal records or legal documents.

    This still meant that the idiom ‘to be on first-name terms’ made sense. First names are for interacting with friends. A range of contexts still require you to use titles and surnames, from writing a letter or email to a new business contact to meeting your future spouse’s parents. While we are often less formal than these sometimes outdated rules imply – senior work colleagues, for example, seldom require their juniors to address them as Mr or Ms – avoiding the familiarity of the forename to start with is common in many situations. 

    So why does it seem that the practice of using last names to address people is dying out?  Everywhere we go, we are met by total strangers with whom we are expected to be on first name terms: baristas in Starbucks, cold callers, the person who takes your reservation when you want to eat out. Official letters from banks or employers usually begin with the addressee’s given name – not to mention the often-more-casual email. And increased use of instant messaging platforms in offices can make the use of ‘dear…’ and a sign off completely redundant.

    This increased friendliness in customer-led organisations has had mixed reviews. On the one hand, customers have been seen to respond well to a more personalised serviceStudies have even shown increased levels of brain activation when we hear our names. And even if it annoys you when you’ve had a chance to think about it, the surprise of being addressed in this way, at least in the moment, often overrides any disgruntlement.

    On the other hand, two years ago a survey conducted by Ask Jeeves shows that one in three people are sick of being addressed as old friends by strangers, for example by beginning conversations with "hi" or "how's it going?". 1/2 expressed a preference for being addressed as Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss, and 60% said they couldn’t stand being addressed by their first name by cold callers. A spokesman for Ask Jeeves commented that “there is nothing wrong with friendliness but it just doesn't wash when it comes from someone you have never met or even spoken to.” It seems that as far as customer service is concerned, at least in the UK, respect has a more positive impact than familiarity.

    The customer-service forename epidemic has a knock-on effect aside from slightly disgruntled customers. When even the customer service desk is using your forename to respond to your complaint, it seems doubly strange to address anyone in a more formal way. When you want to make an impact – for example in a covering letter for a job application, or a business proposal –Dear Sir/Madam simply won’t do; but if you’re making the effort to personally address your potential partner or employer, how do you know when to use a forename? 

    5th Wall’s advice? Don’t be thrown by the chumminess of retailers. If anything, the respectful use of a surname has become more distinctive and likely to get you noticed – for the right reasons. A piece of advice that only gets better with age is that it is better to be too formal than inappropriately casual.

    At the same time, think about other things you can do to build a genuine rapport. The annoyance about inappropriate use of forenames results from the presumptuousness of strangers, who try to artificially impose a relationship without putting in the time and effort. The lesson here is not that we should all be formal and distant all the time; it’s that building personal relationships depends on more than learning someone’s name (although that’s a start). Ultimately, it’s not what you call someone that matters – it’s how you act and behave towards them.

    Does it annoy you when people jump straight to forenames? Or are formalities like surnames an unnecessary tradition? Comment or tweet us with your thoughts!