Dear Ms. Clise

MP900387606[1]When people I haven’t met first email me they often address me as Ms. Clise. It always takes this casual Seattle gal by surprise. I understand why people are addressing me in a formal way; they assume it is the proper thing to do with someone who teaches etiquette.

It is proper to address strangers by their last name. But, it’s becoming rarer in the United States. Our culture is a more informal one where we are comfortable being called by our given names right off the bat. This is not true in most other countries where it would be rude to call someone by his first name upon meeting him, and often ever.

That said, there are several situations where you should address people by their surnames in the U.S. These include correspondence with hiring managers or recruiters you haven’t met; strangers with more authority or who are older than you; elected officials; your doctor and dentist (although some professionals are okay with being addressed by their first name. Let them tell you this before assuming they are); your professors; and guests or members when you are in a hospitality customer service role.

You will never be wrong for addressing someone by their last name. It is polite and respectful. People will invite you to call them by their given name if that’s what they prefer.

My rule in responding to emails is if someone signs her name with both her first and last name, I will address her by her last name one or two times. After that I go ahead and use her first name. Typically, if the person corresponding with me addresses me by my first name, I will follow suit.

More often than not, people don’t use any name in their emails to me. I assume that’s because they don’t how they should address me. But, it’s rude in correspondence to not have some sort of greeting and the person’s name – whether you use their first or last name. I am much more comfortable with “Hello Arden” then an email that launches right in without a greeting. It feels cold and impersonal, like it’s just a business transaction. A greeting acknowledges the person.

So, in summary, always use a greeting (Hello, Dear, Good morning…) in your correspondence, and when in doubt default to using an honorific (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) and the person’s last name. When you don’t know if the person is a man or woman don’t use that as an excuse to not address him or her. You can usually find the person’s gender by doing a search on the name. It’s a rare person who doesn’t have some sort of online presence, whether it’s LinkedIn, a website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

How do you feel about being addressed by your last name? Do you have situations where you address people more formally?

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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