by Marc Anderson

Call Me Maybe – How to Address Someone While Speaking English

getting directions in rome

It might be difficult to know how to address someone (while speaking English) when you first meet them. It is important to know the correct way to address someone whether in the community, at a job site, at school or in any of a number of other social situations. Likewise it is important to know how to greet people of authority (police officers, deputies, government officials, judges, and so on).  It is also important to know how these individuals like to be addressed so if you are in the presence of others at a later date, you know how to introduce them. Hey, don’t worry about mistakes. Look at it this way. Mistakes help you to learn English. Mistakes help you to become more fluent.  Mistakes are not another obstacle in learning English. And that’s not a “maybe”. Boost your confidence! No more “maybe”.

Customary Titles

For the most part, you would say:

Mr. (Mister) and last name for an adult male of any age

Mrs. (Misses) for a woman who is married and uses her husband’s last name or who has kept her last name

Miss and last name for a woman who is single

Ms.  (Mizz) for a woman when you are unsure of her marital status; also commonly used in business

Madam or Ma’am for any woman but usually older

Dr. (Doctor) and last name for a medical doctor or a dentist

Professor and last name for a teacher in a university/college setting or Dr. and last name of someone who has a Ph.D. in an educational institution, work place or other setting

Aunt, Uncle, Grandma, Grandpa for various relatives; the title is often used with the first name of the person except for Grandma and Grandpa which do not usually require a first name

Explanation of Customary Titles

Age

It is polite and customary to address people older than you with these titles (i.e. Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms.) and then the last name.  Even if a student in class is older than you, you should address them with a title out of respect along with the last name. They can always correct you and tell you they prefer a more informal greeting (i.e. first name only, nickname, etc.)

Medical Doctor or Dentist, Professor

It is also polite and customary to address a medical doctor or dentist with the title “Dr.” and a Professor with “Professor” preceding his/her last name. A professor may prefer to be called “Dr.” instead of “Professor”____. Others who have a Ph.D. may prefer to be called “Dr.”____ instead of “Mr./Mrs./Ms” ____. Take your hints from others and follow accordingly.

Women/Men

You can address any woman with “Madam” or “Ma’am” even if you don’t know their first name. Likewise, you can do the same with the greeting “Sir” for a male. Neither of these titles need a surname following the word.

Teacher, Boss, Other Professionals

It is also important to use these titles in formal situations and out of respect for your teacher, your boss, and for certain other professionals. Do they want to be called Mrs. or Ms? Do they want to be called Miss or Ms? Do they like the word Professor or Dr. in front of their last name? Are they a Captain or Colonel? Are they a Judge?  For example, the manager of a sports team or the owner of a company needs a title. Maybe it is Mr. ___ or Manager ___? Maybe it is President ___?  Obviously a close friend slightly older than you would not need a title in front of his/her last name. You would simply call them by his/her first name. However, if you are meeting parents of your friends, you would not just use their first names.  It would be polite to address them as “Mr. and Mrs.” ___.

Formal or Casual Greeting?

It is always wiser to use a more formal title if you are unsure of what title to use. If the person says to call them something else like their first name or a nickname, then it is perfectly acceptable for you to do so.  You still might feel awkward using a first name, but if he/she asked you to do so then feel free to follow this request. If you are using a first name and it really is not customary to do so (i.e. out of age, respect, etc.) and someone asks you why or someone wonders how you get along with so and so… then you can say that you are on a “first name basis”. This expression “first name basis” means that you know them well enough that you have a close relationship (i.e. you use their first name when addressing them).

If Unsure of What to Call – What to Say

For the most part, it is polite to ask the person directly “What should I call you?” or “How would you like to be addressed?” if you are wondering what the correct way would be. How you choose to address people also varies according to individual preference. It is important to respect what individuals want, too. Oftentimes when you meet someone for the first time, he/she will tell you what they want to be called. Also, it is not polite to call someone just their title like “Teacher” or “Doctor” to their face.

Others might be wondering how they should address you. They may be unsure of using a title or how to pronounce your name. It is appropriate to tell them how you want to be addressed, too. It is helpful to anticipate any uncertainty or difficulty they may have with your name or situation.  It would be fine to say:

Please, call me (first name).

You can call me (nickname or short form).

Here let me help you. My name is pronounced (     ).

Another helpful suggestion is to anticipate that they may not remember your name (assuming you have met before). You could introduce yourself first by saying something like, “Hi ___. I’m ___. Remember we met at ___ or I work at ____.” It is also polite to say “I remember you from ___. My name is ___.”

Formal Titles

To get someone’s attention at a store, post office, bank, etc. you would say “Excuse me, Sir/Madam or Ma’am” or “Pardon me, Sir/Madam or Ma’am”.

To greet someone you would say “Hello Sir/Madam/Ma’am” or “Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Good Evening Sir/Madam/Ma’am” depending on the time of day.

And in answering someone, it is acceptable to say “Yes, Sir/Madam/Ma’am” or “No, Sir/Madam/Ma’am”.

However, if the person has the title of “Dr.” or “Professor”, you can use that instead to recognize the hard work and time they have devoted to their studies.

How to Address People in Writing

When you write to people, you should use a formal address unless you know the person as a friend. That would mean to use “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.” and the person’s last name if you know it. If you do not know the last name, then you should use the title “Sir” or “Madam”. If the person writes back to you and uses his/her first name, feel free to use only your first name.  Otherwise, in the salutation (greeting) and closing, stick to both first and last names.

When you are addressing close or casual relationships, it is perfectly fine to use an informal form of address.  Usually friends, neighbors, students and children are addressed by only their first names. In addition, those who are closest to you might use a special title of affection. These might include Buddy, Pal, Babe, Baby, Darling, Love, Sweetie, Dear or Dearest, Honey, etc. I’m sure you might have a few more to add.

How to Address People On-Line

You might have noticed that on social networks, people usually use their first names. It is appropriate to use a formal form of address the first time you communicate with someone and then adjust the name(s) accordingly. If he/she writes back and uses only a first name, then feel free to use only your first name, too, when you communicate in the future with that person.

How to Address Colleagues

In most businesses, people go by their first name even if there is an age difference. Observe how others address each other and their interactions at work and then pattern your speech after this. If you are a new employee, other employees and associates will introduce themselves to you. This might seem overwhelming at first. Listen carefully how they introduce themselves. Remember, that you can also observe how others use greetings at the workplace so you know what is acceptable. It might help to study an employee handbook or some type of communication that may have the names, titles and photos of colleagues. This will help you to commit to memory how to address each person. Or if you have a close colleague who has been at the business long enough to have a handle on the way to address everyone who works there, you could ask them for assistance when needed.

Some Varied Examples in Film – How to Address People

It is interesting to see how different people are addressed in movies. Here are a few examples in film so you can better understand how each situation and the list of characters really can impact how to address individual(s). A variety of “preferred” titles are bolded for you to see.

1.     The 1950 Treasure Island film adaptation – After Long John Silver and his mutineers capture

Hispaniola and leave the officers barricaded in a stockade house on the island, Silver approaches the house to negotiate.

Silver:  Captain Silver, seeking permission to come aboard.

Smollett:  Captain Silver?  Who’s he?

Silver:  Me, sir.

2.     Pirates of the Caribbean – Captain Jack Sparrow insists on this title as he feels being a pirate captain is his greatest calling in life.

Beckett:  You do remember a pirate named… I believe it is “Jack Sparrow”?

Elizabeth and Will in unison:  Captain Jack Sparrow.

3.     Nixon – Richard Nixon is called “Dick” by the head of the CIA.

Nixon: My friends call me ‘Mister President’.

4.     Austin Powers – He prefers “Doctor Evil”.

 Austin Powers: I didn’t spend all those years in evil medical school to be called ‘mister’, thank you very much! [It’s Doctor Evil!]

5.     The American President – A.J., President Andrew Shepherd’s Chief of Staff and best friend, always calls him “Mister President” even when they are alone. Finally, President Andrew Shepherd insists that A.J. call him “Andy” when they are the alone.

A.J. responds: Whatever you say, Mr. President.

More Examples in Films – How to Address People

There are many others worth mentioning like “Inspector” for the character Jacques Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. When Clouseau becomes a Chief Inspector everyone must call him Inspector.

Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek is called Captain.

Groucho Marx’s character in Monkey Business insists on being called “Mister Bozo” when someone calls him “Bozo”.

In A Few Good Men, the colonel wants to be addressed as Colonel or Sir as he claims he has earned this name. The judge counters with a desire to be addressed as “Judge” or “Your Honor”.  Why?  Because he claims this title was earned, too.

Other Examples – How to Address People

Maybe you have other examples to add. Do you have a certain way you like to be addressed? Do you know others who want to be addressed a special way? Maybe you even know of someone who prefers to be addressed in different ways by different people? It would be great if you share any comments with me at talktocanada.com in the section below. Or call me (maybe)…

As always, I look forward to your comments. I hope you learned something about the importance of addressing others with specific titles, Sir… Madam…Miss ___ or Mrs. ___. And thanks for introducing yourself to me, Professor ___ or Dr. ___ or ___.

And remember the path to language fluency begins today with one step at a time. You can check out some books and read further about how to address people. You can take an ESL class at a local community college or university. You can learn English online. You can practice with a friend who knows English. You can apply what you learned about addressing people in everyday activities.  Just start. One step at a time… Make it a “Yes!”not maybe.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.