Hey Mister! The Etiquette of Addressing People Professionally


July 22, 2011

My mother joined the workforce in the sixties.  She was a small town girl who came to the “big city” of St. Louis (don’t laugh) and found work at Dempsey Tegeler & Co as a bond teller.  I always picture her going to work in her perfect little suit, pencil skirt and short, fitted “smart” jackets.  And of course, she always had heels and a purse to match.  After all, she was a proper young woman working in the big world.

One thing that strikes me is that even today, she still refers to her boss as “Mr. Stanek“.  I think that stands out because I do not remember the last time that I called a boss “Mr.” or “Mrs.” anything.  And that is sad.  I’ve always been respectful and for some odd reason when I address people I tend use their first and last name.  For example, when I called my friend Paul yesterday, I said, “Hello Paul Hebert.  This is Trish.”

Working in healthcare, I never quite know when to use the title “Dr.” or when to just use the person’s first name.  I usually listen to how they introduce themselves or how other people address them a majority of the time.  Going with that seems to be a safe bet.

I’m finding that most professionals prefer for you to just call them buy their first name and I’ve experienced this from the highest level executives.

How about you?  What is the best way to address people in today’s world?  Should we be more traditional or are there other accepted professional ways to address each other?  I’d love to hear how you handle this.


  • Well hello Trish McFarlane….

    Call me anything except late for dinner (breakfast, lunch too… have you seen me?)

    Funny – when I first started in the work force I did address my “superiors” as Mr./Mrs. – and was promptly laughed at. But that’s what good old fashioned manners get’s you.

    When I was young (pre-30) I used Mr. Mrs. a lot – mostly ‘cuz I thought I hadn’t earned the right to talk to older folks as equals. Now – I’ve the appropriate number of rings around my trunk that I should be called Mr. – and sometimes I do get that – and to tell you the truth – somewhat enjoy it.

    But… the biggest clue as you mentioned – is to listen to the person introduce themselves – the guide your approach – Dr. – sure use it – better to than not – sign of respect of the effort. If I earned my Dr. – then I’d want it out there now and then.

    After initial contact they’ll tell you the best way forward.

    Remember – no one ever got dissed because they showed more respect than possibly deserved… can’t say the same for the other way around.

    Always err on the side of civility and manners. Best bet.

  • Hi Trish…good post.

    I am very informal. I call nearly evreryone by their first name when I meet them, even though I work in a culture where many managers still refer to those above them as Mr. so-and-so. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I greet our CEO by name, and I tell anyone that calls me “Mr. VanDervort” that they must be looking for my father.

    When I was in the hospital, a capable and otherwise nice nurse kept calling me “fella” and “buddy”, and it drove me crazy..

    She would wake me at 2 AM. “Hey Fella, time for your INR check. 4 AM: hey buddy, doctor needs telemetry.” I didn’t like her at all. Her approach implied she couldn’t remember my name.

    everyone else called me Michael. We got along great.

  • I work in a culture where I’d be riduculed for calling someone Mr. or Ms., and I still do it whenever I can. I also like to use ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, both as a sign of respect and because I think it makes people feel good when you show them respect.

    I think this is just another sign of how things are changing from generation to generation. Although I’m a genXer and never experienced it first-hand, I think there is something to be said for good, old-fashioned manners and respect in the workplace.

    Reminds me of how much corporate dress codes have changed in the last 15 – 20 years.

  • Dear Ms McFarlane,

    People hide behind their titles and use them to dominate others.

    Did you ever see bosses call their employees by their first names while the staff has to address the boss as Mr or Mrs.

    The doctor”s office is one of the most obvious hold outs for this practice. I make a point whenever possible of calling my doctor by his first name. He knows what his job is; I don’t have to remind him every time I speak to him.

    He doesn’t call me Headhunter, does he?

    If I had the opportunity to meet the Queen and I wanted to I would be obliged to observe the established protocol but the idea that she is personally superior to her subjects is nonsense.

    I really liked it when George Bush called our prime minister, Prime Minister Steve. That’s how it should be.

    And remember William Penn. He went to prison because he refused to take his hat off for anyone.

    • @Mr. Animal- I appreciate your commentary. At least in my experience here in the states, it seems as if people are not raised to use a title to show respect very often. I tend to use the “Mr.” title at times I am trying to show respect. I even do this with friends at times. It’s just trying to show good manners. Much like you would with the Queen. I love your point about the doctor not calling you Headhunter. Can’t imagine being called HR Chick Trish. Let me ask you this….do you have kids? If so, how are you teaching them to show respect when addressing their elders? I am trying to tell mine to use the Mr and Mrs titles but I find that many of my friends insist that the kids call them by their first name. So, we resort to using “Miss Angie” or “Mr. John”. What do you think?

  • Since I now have a title, some people do call me “Reverend”. But most people still just call me “Doug”. I only expect to be called “Reverend” when I do a wedding, funeral, baptism, sin absolution, or when I am playing in my band (as my persona is “the Rev”).

    I address most people by Mr., Ms., or Dr. It’s just in my nature.

    You may call me “Reverend”.

  • Hi Trish!

    I was brought up to call my superiors Mr/Mrs/Ms. When I entered retail as a teen, I learned to throw in ma’am and sir to the mix. However, somewhere along the line (I wish I remember better!) someone told me that as an adult who is working with adults I needed to call everyone by the first name (unless they insist otherwise) otherwise I would be giving away power.

    It honestly did make a difference when I called people by their first name instead of with an honorific, as they did respect me and include me more.

    I had to laugh at Michael’s comment, as when someone calls me “Mrs Beaushene” I say they must mean my mother or step mother. See, I kept my maiden name upon being married – so nothing quite works. lol I’m also not “Mrs. Thomas-Moore” since that legally, professionally, or personally isn’t me either – although the nonprofit I volunteer for seems to think so based on an award plaque I got. That was awkward.


  • I also hate it when people are called by titles they used to have. For instance, retired military officers or politicians but maybe that only happens in the movies.

    “Miss Angie” and “Mr. John” are quaint. Wd be okay I guess in the 1860s.

    I’ve had friends who tried to get their kids to call me uncle. I always told them to call me by my name. I don’t find it disrespectful.
    I don’t think age deserves any special respect. Just the same as you wd give to anybody.

  • Trish,

    Teaching your kids to say, “Miss Mary” or “Mr. John” is a widespread trend. We taught our boys that and are now teaching the princess to do that. Here in the south, it’s expected. I have a doctor (MD) family member who insists on being called Dr. He claims he put in a lot of years of hard work to earn that title and he insists on it…but, he is of an older generation. That might make a difference. I do not feel comfortable with people calling me Mrs. My first name is OK with me.

    Animal, do any of your nieces and nephews call you “Animal?”

  • Ms. MacFarlane,

    31 years ago, I spotted Julius Erving (aka Dr. J.) heading into a hotel. I bolted after him and shouted, “Yo, Dr. J! Give me your autograph!” He stopped cold in his tracks and turned to face me. I was 16 and already 6’6″ so he and I were now eye-to-eye (although for some reason, he appeared much bigger).

    He cocked his head and gently and asked, “Do you think that is a good way to ask someone to do something for you?”

    I almost passed out. I collected myself and tried again, “Mr. Erving, sir, may I please have your autograph?”

    He smiled and scribbled on my notebook.

    The lesson for me was to treat people as they wish to be treated. Golden Rule with a twist: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” To me, it’s all a matter of respect — ask people how they would like to be addressed. Then, you have the right answer.

    Mr. Julius Erving is a class act. I can refer to him as Dr. J, but, if I bump into him on the street, he is “Mr. Erving, sir.”


    And, please, just call me “DK.” (Unless you are one of my kids’ friends. Then, “Mr. K” will do.)

  • @DK

    Good story but I don’t think it proves that Dr J was a class act. You were right in line with his public image.

    For some reason, the guy who had attained superstar status with the name Dr J, thought that he needed some more traditional signs of respect.

    That’s his mistake not yours. It wasn’t an awful mistake but it’s not something he should be proud of.

  • Trish,
    I grew up in a rural environment and was always taught to greet my elders with Mr or Mrs attached. I learned by example. When talking to her friends or about her friends in front of me, my grandmother referred to some of her friends as Mrs Jones and some by their first names. I followed suit. Only if they were in our inner, inner circle or family was I comfortable using their first names.

    I always referred to my teachers formally as Mr or Mrs Jones. Even after graduation into adulthood, when I was a substitute teacher at the same Jr High School I attended, I was never comfortable calling my former teachers or colleagues by their first names.

    I do believe this is generational. My daugher, who is a Jr in college, has no qualms of addressing adults by their first names even when I refer to the same adults as Mr or Mrs Jones.

    I work for a company that first names are encouraged. However, in my 16yrs with the company, there are some leaders that I would never have addressed by their first names. Which in hindsight is indicitive of the amount of respect I had for them.

    More relaxed isn’t always better. I think there is a danger that the “business casual” work environment we are part of today, both in dress and respect, can reduce the level of professionalism in an organization


  • I’m all for casual, but I’ve had more experienced colleagues call me “kiddo” in the workplace. I may be on the younger side, but I’m a 34-year-old professional woman. Kiddo doesn’t cut it, even if we have a good relationship!

    • @Emma- I can relate. I’ve been called kid and kiddo several times and it never seems like a good thing. I’d rather have someone err to the other extreme and sounds like that’s how you’d feel to. Thanks for the comment.

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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