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 Business Etiquette: Naming
Home • ~Alexandra Rowe • Business Etiquette: Naming
Sarbani's question about global business etiquette brings up an issue that businesspeople struggle with constantly: How to be courteous in an unfamiliar culture? After all, in the business world, making a bad impression right away can mean the difference between making or losing money on a deal. But if there is no uniform global culture, not even in the world of business where everyone concerned is focused on making money, how can there be uniform global etiquette? There can't. That's why people who offer courses in business etiquette for various cultures can make money--because business people need to know so they do not inadvertently offend a potential business partner.

Sarbani focused on how to address people, by first names or last names, so I thought I would offer what I can tell you of this particular aspect of American business etiquette. First, understand that there is no consistency! Second, always "err on the side of caution." That means to begin with the most formal approach and, then, let the situation guide you.

Here are some points to illustrate what I mean.

--In general, US business is rather informal with names; that is, everyone is on a first-name basis. My experience has ranged from financial companies (who tend to be conservative) to computer hardware/software companies (who tend to be much more casual). I worked closely with the top executives in those companies. We always called each other by our first names, and they called other people--both subordinates and superiors--by their first names. The only exceptions to the first-name basis tended to be people who were BOTH older AND in elevated positions. For example, one man, who had worked with the founder of the company and who was allowed (he didn't really work any more) to keep a desk on the executive floor, was ALWAYS Mr. Smith. So there's a situation where the age and position do make a difference.

--But my husband, who until recently was president of a subsidiary company, points out that even though in conversation and e-mails he might be on a first-name basis with someone (particularly someone who is a member of a government agency), when he addresses a letter to that person, it is always as "Mr. Jones." He follows that guideline because the letters could be seen as legal documents and he does not want any suggestion of inappropriate (that is, too close) relationships between the company and the agency. So there's a situation where the context makes a difference.

--In addressing an e-mail or letter to someone whom I do not know, I would ALWAYS use the Mr./Ms. (as appropriate) and the last name. So there's a situation where timing makes a difference.

--Ms. is the most commonly used term for women in the US now, particularly in the business world. Note, however, that Alexandra has a PhD. So you would address her as Dr. Rowe. As you probably know, the academic world has its own rules of etiquette!

--With either a woman or a man, the safe approach is to use Mr./Ms. (as appropriate) and the last name until you know that person's preferences. So Sarbani would have been quite correct in addressing me as Ms. Voit if she had been writing to me for the first time and had no indication of my preferences.

--So how do you know a person's preference? In face-to-face meetings, a person might say, "Please call me Joe." Even if that person is older and in a position of authority, you should then use his/her first name. In a letter or e-mail, a person might sign the letter/e-mail with a first name only. If so, you can interpret that signature as a preference for the first name. That's what we do as eTeachers, because in this particular community of colleagues, we are your partners, not your superiors. But if a person signs an e-mail/letter with a full name, you should go back to the rule of using the Mr./Ms. and last name--again, until that person tells you his/her preference.

I may not be telling you anything you don't already know about US business etiquette. But maybe there is something here you can use with your students. How does it compare to terms of address among business people in your culture? Is this a question that you get from students?