Present company excluded

Q. In a business setting, is it correct to address a co-worker as “he” or “she” while in a group or meeting, or is it proper etiquette to address them by their first name?
L. S., Avon, CT

A. Imagine the following scene. You and your boss enter a room to meet and engage with a new client. After introductions, your boss and the client talk, and as they do so, they begin referring to you as “she.” “Marge is the point person on this project. She’ll make sure everything is on time. If you need anything she’ll get it for you. She’s…” You begin to feel invisible. Because they’re referring to you as “she,” you no longer feel you’re part of the conversation. Why? Because “he” and “she” are third person forms of address. They’re used to refer to someone else—a person not in a room or the immediate vicinity or a person who is clearly not part of a conversation.

The problem with using these forms of address in a group or a meeting is that the person you are referring to is right there. By your language, you are marginalizing and disrespecting that person. Not only is it more respectful to use the person’s name, it’s also important to include that person in the conversation. “Marge is my administrative assistant.” Then your boss says to you, “Marge, I wanted you to meet Mr. Smith today. This project is very important, so please make it your priority.” Think of it this way. If you’re in a group or a meeting would you want the other people there referring to you as if you weren’t there? Not likely.
Finally, the issue of Jim or Mr. Jones? Never assume familiarity. If it’s the first time you’re meeting a person and he’s higher up the corporate ladder or is a client or prospect, using his title and last name is better than jumping right in with his first name. Once he says, “Please call me Jim,” then first names are fine. Remember, it’s much easier to go from Mr. Jones to Jim than it is to switch from Jim to Mr. Jones.

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