Formal versus informal.

I always enjoy writing to you because you always respond. I just read your column in the Sunday Globe on fund-raising tips, and it got me hoping that someday you’ll find the opportunity to advise telemarketers on something they should not do: address total strangers by their first names.

I often get calls from telemarketers who begin, “Is this Alfred?” When I respond in the affirmative, they proceed to use my first name early and often. It seems to me that if I were in such urgent need of money that I had to phone total strangers for their help, I would address them as Mr. or Mrs. I might even say Sir. I certainly would not address them as if they were a buddy. Over the years I’ve found this a most annoying aspect of their solicitations. I told one as much the other day, and why, and it felt good!

F. H., Natick, MA

One of the etiquette tips we give for both verbal and written communications is to defer to the formal anytime there is a question as to how a person would prefer to be addressed. The formal—Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Rev. plus last name—leaves very little, if any, room for offense, such as you feel when telemarketers start conversing with you using your first name.

When you meet someone for the first time, you don’t know how they wish to be addressed, especially someone older than you or more senior to you in business. Imagine if you started out calling your new boss by her first name only to hear others address her by her title and last name. It will be awkward suddenly to swtich from using her first name to using her title plus last name. Conversely, if you start out using title plus last name, it will be much easier and less embarrassing for you to switch to the informal first name once you know it is acceptable. Often, if you have addressed a person formally, they will respond by saying something like, “Please, call me Shelley.”


The same is true for written communications. With email especially, it is easy to let the informality of the communication process steer you in the direction of being informal. If you’re sending an email to someone more senior than you, to someone you’ve not met previously or not already established how you will address them, then deferring to the formal is a safe haven for you. You won’t go wrong, and the respect you show the person by addressing them by title plus last name will help you start out on the right foot to build a positive relationship .

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