Names & titles

Over at Miss Snark’s some folks get all snooty when agents address them by first name. I find their crankiness weird and am wondering if it’s a generational thing or because (as another commenter says) I’m Australian and we’re less uptight more relaxed than USians.

Personally, I’m more squicked when people insist on using a title with my name. My name is Justine Larbalestier, it’s not Ms Justine Larbalestier, certainly not Miss or Mrs Justine Larbalestier and you’re risking life and limb if you ever use Mrs Scott Westerfeld, though FYI Scott adores being called Mr Justine Larbalestier.

If you must use a title the correct one’s actually Dr, which I’m not wild about either, but at least I earned that one after almost four years of blood, sweat and tears (oh, yes, tears, lots and lots and lots of tears).

But how to negotiate this web of correct name/title useage? Even though I think it’s fusty and weird to want to be addressed by a title I also don’t want to offend anyone (not unintentionally anyways). So what are you supposed to do when some folks will spit the dummy if you don’t use a title, and others if you do?!

Here’s my cunning solution: echo how they sign off. If they sign off Dr Massively Stuckup, then you respond thus:

    Dear Dr Massively Stuckup

And sign off how you would prefer to be addressed:



Simple, eh?

But what to do if you’re the one writing the first letter? If you have a mutual acquaintance ask them. Otherwise play it safe. In the US of A I would use title plus full name (unless I can’t figure out whether they’re a sheila or a bloke or whether they have a phd or not in which case I’d use full name). In Australia I use full name sans title. Then I wait for the reply and adjust my salutation accordingly.

Aren’t you lucky to have me here to solve all etiquette problems?


  1. innle on #

    I am so paranoid about titles that I will almost invariably use first names in correspondence, especially as lots of the letters I get are from [first name] [surname], no title. Miss/Ms/Mrs/Dr is not a minefield that I willingly enter. My most common problem is how to sign off on email, and in those cases I use your trick of echoing the respondant’s level of formality. (I am Not An Important Person so generally I start formal and respond to the other person’s cues; maybe you have a wider range of balances of power?) A lot of it depends on who you’re talking to, I think.

    I think it’s definitely an Australian thing. I haven’t run across many situations lately where we aren’t encouraged to use first names (with obvious exceptions for medical practitioners, judges, politicians, insanely powerful people etc).

  2. veejane on #

    I find the codes are particularly stiff in academia, speaking of Doctors. At my graduate school, the PhDs were to be called Dr. Lastname and the non-PhDs (of which a legacy few) were Mr. Lastname.

    I had a professor recently recruited from a technical trade, who found all this formality weird, so he insisted on being called Dr. Firstname.

    Unluckily for him, his first name was Bob, and we all found him a blithering idiot, so behind his back we called him Dr. Boob.

    In general, from the business perspective, I will not tend to discard formality in written communication until I have been invited to do so, or until I have met my correspondent in person and assessed his/her expectations. But the instant my correspondent gets familiar, I am happy to switch to the familiar code.

  3. christopher rowe on #

    So, if you were to know someone who, for example, always signed his e-mails “Christopher” you would always call him…?

  4. Justine on #

    Innle: Yup it’s definitely much more formal over here. On occasion even our prime ministers get called by their first name. That would never happen here.

    Veejane: But that’s not true of academia in Australia where first names are more common than title+surname especially once you’re a postgrad. There are some exceptions.

    Christopher: That’s a whole other thing. You’re battling the thousands of other Christophers and Christines in the world who almost all want to be called “Chris”. Plus I’m Australian: that’s way to many syllables for my people. But I’ll have you know I went through and changed a recent post of Scott’s so that it referred to you correctly throughout. You’ve bitched enough now that it’s finally sunk in. Good luck with Scott though . . .

  5. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    I tend to call people things like “you old thing, you!” because I can’t remember even the rudiments of their names.

    But that may be a problem particular to me.

  6. christopher rowe on #


    Y’know, I think I actually saw that post of Scott’s pre- and post- edits, which only added to the discombobulation that particular bit of Westerfeldness caused ’round these parts.

    When I get my MFA I’m definitely going to insist that everybody call me Master Christopher.

  7. Justine on #

    Jennifer: Surely not when you’re responding to an email and the name’s right in front of you . . .

    But yeah just remembering names is a nightmare (and I’m not that great at faces either). That’s why I love nametags. If only they could be worn all the time and not just at conventions.

    Christopher Rowe: I can come at calling you “Christopher” but I ain’t never ever calling you “Master Christopher”!

  8. Rebecca on #

    as a usian, i am constantly frustrated by the ever-present need for formality. it bugs the living hell out of me. this summer, my job is at a law firm, so i’ve got properness coming out my ears. however, most of the year, i’m hanging out in good ol’ austin, tx, where the rest of the country’s uptight epidemic has not quite fully permeated. my profs are jeff, anna, mike, mary, and doug. it is sooo wonderful. but, that may also have more to do with the fact that in college we’re considered “real adults.” in high school it was always mrs. this and mr. that. we once had a soccer coach who was only about three or four years older than us, and she wanted us to call her abby. but when the nasty admin found out, we were expressly forbid to say anything other than ms. lee. so after that, we always had to watch ourselves, making sure we only called her abby when none of the higher-ups were around. it bugged the crap out of me.

  9. Chris McLaren on #

    “‘spit the dummy’: Baulk at, get angry about, or simply, obstinately refuse to do, something. A dummy is what some Americans call a pacifier, and when a baby spits the dummy it just can’t be pacified.”

    Huh. You learn something new every day.

    Definitely Just “Chris”.

    (p.s. I call him “Mr. Gwenda”)

  10. Justine on #

    Rebecca: It’s weird, isn’t it? I went to a hippy high school so it’s been many years since I was required to call lots of people by title + surname. On those occasions when I do have to it’s always very strange. But you know if that’s what makes ’em comfortable . . .

    Chris: Canadians don’t have “dummyspit”? That’s tragic! Tis one of the best expressions of all time.

    I think Mr Gwenda suits him.

  11. Jenny D on #

    yes, hippy (well, quaker) high school for me too, and lots of first-naming, & i still remember my horror when i got to fancy university & realized that i was meant to call my teachers professor so-and-so with a straight face! to this day i cannot do it to someone’s face without feeling like an insane suck-up, it’s awful. i like the full name salutation myself, for correspondence with people one doesn’t know yet, and i think the full name should be used more often in situations where titles are often used instead. it cracks me up when i get called professor davidson, seems absolutely ludicrous; though i have found it rather sweet when various students call me professor jenny; and of course there are always a few (usually they went to catholic school, & clearly feel it disrespectful to use anything else) who incorrectly but endearingly call me “mrs. davidson.” ah well, minor intricacies of manners & morals…

  12. shana on #

    my favorite? email queries addressed to “Agent Cohen.” it makes me feel all super-spy special… but doesn’t particularly incline me towards the novels being put forth.

    oh, and my friend margaret just graduated from seminary… so now i call her a divine master.

  13. Justine on #

    Jenny D: Quakers are fabulous, aren’t they? I do wonder where this need for formality comes from. I will never understand . . . You’re charmed by “Mrs Davidson”?!

    Shana: Now that’s charming. Agent Cohen? I love it! Everyone feel free to call me Agent Justine. Even though I’m not any kind of agent . . . Can I call you Agent Shana?

  14. Jenny D on #

    i am only charmed by “mrs davidson” because it makes me feel as though i’m a fifth-grade teacher in the 1970s! glimpse of alternate universe (one i’m glad not to be inhabiting), you know what i mean? only the more naive (and also traditionally brought up) make this particular mistake, in many cases out of a genuine feeling that no other form of address will be polite, and they are often quite offended by the fact of other students first-naming me–they take it as disrespectful to the teacher!

  15. Justine on #

    Jenny D: Oh, get it, you’re seeing it as a glimpse into another world. This is what I get for having parents I’ve always called by their first names . . . I’ve rarely had to call anyone “Mrs”. But I love the way all these different worlds overlap.

  16. Carbonelle on #

    As an Old Fart since forever, I positively yearned for the day when I would Achieve Full Adult Status and no longer be addressed as a child or pet dog, but as (Oh happy day!) Miz Carbonelle.

    And then it turned out my generation was a gang of blithering conformists and we first-name each other right left and sideways whether we like it or not.

    Aside from the fact that somehow people with Real Rank (TM) always manage to have the use of a title (rarely the lovely egalitarian “Mr.” &etc.) whilst using your first name, effectively reducing you to child- or pet-status. Feh.

    One also loses the lovely moment of beginning intimacy in which one says, “Oh please… Call me Kirsten.”

    It is still wisest to use the simplest and most formal (Title + last name) address until invited to otherwise. The handful of Old Farts and all the many self-important people will read any other address as infernal cheek. Plus, if you’re younger, it’s like not tutoyer-ing people in France, you get a rep as a “charming old-fashioned young lady”–which rarely hurts.

    Just thought you might enjoy a perspective from the (American) Cranky Old Bat contingent.

  17. Ray Davis on #

    I’ve become so used to email etiquette (no salutation at all or at most a delicate insertion of first name in the first paragraph’s prose to indicate which party is being addressed — after all, the email headers say right there who you are and who you’re talking to), that it’s been hard to adjust to American academic norms. I still feel very awkward when initiating a correspondance — so much _research_ is needed to try to guess between “Professor” or “Dr.” or whatever, and of course the people you have to be most careful about are the one who have the least online presence.

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