The Truth About Titles & Forms of Address

“Call Me Empress”…Really? During the past several weeks, the subjects of titles and forms of address have come across my radar on multiple occasions. First, I saw a story on CBS News Sunday Morning where the contributor argued that it was time to give “formal address a formal burial.” Then I attended an event in Houston’s city council chambers, where Australia’s newly appointed Consul General announced my friend’s new status as Honorary Consul Emeritus of Australia, and a council member asked how to properly address her. (“Ms. + Last Name.”) Next, Trevor Noah asked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when he appeared on the Daily Show, “How do you address a mayor?” and most recently I read Miss Manners’ column, “Flowery Courtesy Titles Are Not Really Needed.”

So it’s clear that questions regarding titles and forms of address continue to cause confusion. I’d like to commend Council Member Brenda Stardig and Trevor Noah for having the courage and courtesy to ask about the proper forms of address for consular and elected officials. Often, people are afraid to ask. Perhaps that reluctance is because we in the U.S. tend to be very casual about the use of titles and forms of address, with some exceptions, like the military or government. In fact, some advocate for no titles at all, which would certainly simplify things! However, the reality is that in most societies, at least some people — due to position, rank, profession, or other factors — merit the use of a special title or form of address. And most people want to be respectful and use the correct ones.

For anyone doing business globally, the truth is that titles and forms of address are alive and well, and failing to use them appropriately risks damaging your professional relationships. You simply must know what’s appropriate for the situation.

While you may be perfectly happy being addressed by your first name, others may not. We live in an interconnected world, and there are places and cultures that are more formal than ours in the U.S., especially when it comes to business, including much of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Europe. The more formal countries are in the majority, and there, business colleagues usually address each other with titles: “Mr.” or “Mrs.” and last name, at least initially upon first being introduced, or until invited to do otherwise.

Companies with employees from different traditions in this area may face communication challenges that impact production. One of my clients, a foreign owned company with offices in the U.S., had to address tensions among staff members over the issue of names and titles. Some of the Asian employees wanted to be addressed by their titles and last names, while the mostly younger US-based employees wanted to address all coworkers by their first names. The Asian employees felt they were being disrespected. Many frank discussions and compromises were needed.

Perhaps it’s not just informality that makes some in the U.S. uncomfortable with titles. There is also confusion about what’s correct and polite, and exasperation when the rules don’t seem clear. For instance, some people continue using titles from elected or appointed offices they no longer hold. While there are a few titles that individuals can continue to use once they leave office, these are rare. For example, someone who is no longer mayor is often addressed as “Mayor so and so,” but this is not correct. When this occurs, it creates a dilemma for the rest of us: do we use the title, too, to show respect? Or do we try to be “correct?” The ultimate result is confusion and a perception that there are no rules.

To avoid “Title Tailspin,” follow these tips and ask a few simple questions.

  • 1. Research the rules. If you are meeting with someone with a title, look up the rules on what to call her beforehand.
  • 2. Use reliable resources. Reach out to my office or another protocol professional if you are dealing with a tricky title and can’t figure out the correct usage; we are happy to help people get it right. I have found answers to the most common questions on the subject in the following books:
  • * Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address, by Robert Hickey
  • * Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage, The Authoritative Source 35th Anniversary Edition, by Mary Jane McCaffree, Pauline Innis, and Richard M. Sand
  • * United States Protocol: The Guide to Official Diplomatic Etiquette, by Ambassador Mary Mel French
  • 3. Consider the cultural practices and traditions of each of the key individuals. Are their countries and professions very traditional, or not? Are they older people, or younger? Are titles important in their industry?
  • 4. Are there differences? If so, determine how to address them-whose practices or traditions will you follow? Is a compromise needed? Inform all parties of the decision and what is considered appropriate at your office, event or facility.
  • 5. When in doubt, ask! It is sometimes necessary to inquire with a dignitary’s staff member or the individual himself about preferences. “When I speak to him, should I call him Mr. Ambassador? Or Your Excellency?” People will appreciate your effort to get the details right.
  • 6. Be practical-apply common sense. Assess the situation. Just because someone tells you to “Call me Empress So and So,” (and I have been told that!) doesn’t mean you should. See #1.
  • 7. Avoid the Convenience of Title Inflation. It may seem simpler for you to give everyone a courtesy or as Miss Manners says a “flowery” title, or to follow someone else’s lead if they are doing that. But a more elaborate form of address doesn’t mean correct. Furthermore, you can create problems for yourself by doing this, as when other figures appear on the scene and expect the same (if equally incorrect) treatment, or when your Flowery Title Person goes elsewhere and isn’t given that same form of address.
  • 8. Finally, if you have an official title instruct your staff to advise others on the proper form of address for written correspondence, introductions and conversation.

To answer Trevor Noah’s question: The proper form of address for a mayor (in office) is:

  •   Business Correspondence: The Honorable Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City
  •   Conversation: “Mayor de Blasio,” or “Mayor”
  •   Introductions: The Honorable Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City

Instead of wishing the world would just give up on titles and rules about forms of address, use this as an area where you and your company can shine. A little homework and careful thought can really payoff when competing globally.

And in case you were wondering, you can call me Sonia.

Protocol Perspective

When it comes to titles and forms of address, pay attention and use care. Get it right for each person, given her title, cultural traditions, preferences, and the circumstances. When in doubt, it’s usually best to be more formal. Using a person’s title and last name when addressing him is the safest course of action when you are unsure what’s best.

Do you have a specific question or experience using titles and forms of address? I’d love to hear about them. If your business needs assistance in this area, Garza Protocol Associates can help.

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