When is it OK for a stranger to call you by your first name?
This is a more complicated question than it first appears to be. I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts with guests during the pandemic, and watching TV shows with guests, dealing with strangers by phone or email—and I’ve been noticing when first names are used (whether to me or to someone else)—and how I react.
Let’s first get some easy cases out of the way. Here are a few situations where most people would agree (I think) that first-naming is fine, with some qualifying questions:
- You’re first-naming a young person you’ve never met before, and they’re under the age of ____ (of what? 18? 21? 24?).
- You’re a teacher meeting a class for the first name.
- You’re introducing one adult friend or relative to another adult friend in a social situation.
- You’re talking to someone who introduces herself or himself by first name and implicitly or explicitly asks you to do likewise.
You expect first names in these scenarios, even though not reciprocally. I’m sure we can think of others. But what about the following situations, all of which I’ve been in or observed? I will number them for ease of subsequent reference, though they’re in random order:
- A is a doctor or nurse, B is a new patient.
- A is a doctor or nurse, B is a regular patient.
- A is a lawyer, B is a new client.
- A is a lawyer, B is a returning client.
- A is a salesperson, B is a customer.
- A is a teacher, B is a high school student.
- A is a podcast host or talk show host, B is a guest that A has never met before.
- A is a police officer who has stopped B for a traffic violation.
Of course I could go on with 50 more scenarios. But let’s stop here. Would you expect A to first-name B without being invited to do so? I’m sure there would be different answers in various subcultures, such as urban or rural, but I’ll just comment on my own experience. First of all, the only scenario in which I could have role A is #6, and I would unquestionably always first-name B. But what if I have role B? Would I first-name A? In recent experience I would first-name A in scenarios #2, 4, 5, and 7. The others are more complicated: In #1, I would first-name a nurse but not a doctor, even though I strongly disapprove of that distinction, but that’s the institutional norm—except for my PCP, who asks everyone to first-name her. Likewise for the only lawyer I’ve dealt with recently. Both are women, and don’t tell me that that’s irrelevant; again it shouldn’t be, but that’s what they want. In #8 I don’t think anyone would first-name the officer, even if you knew it. In #7 the current culture invites first names all around—although I observe something slightly different on Greater Boston, where there is some sort of status thing going on: doctors and judges and politicians with titles get title plus last name. I generally hate it when a salesman I don’t know first-names me, but things may be changing during the pandemic.
The teacher-student situation is more complicated. In most schools, it’s simple: teachers get called title plus last name, students get first-named, but I know plenty of counterexamples. When I taught at Lincoln-Sudbury in the ’70s, many students first-named many teachers, though it was far from a majority. In Weston I hear a few students first-naming a few teachers, but it’s a different era and a different town. But at the Crimson Summer Academy, everyone is on a first-name basis, so all students call all teachers by first name; that’s the norm, and it takes some students a long time to be comfortable with it, but the principle is that we’re all one community.
I’ve been assuming here that teachers first-name students, but that isn’t always true. When I was a high-school student I had a couple of teachers who last-named us, explaining that that was what they had learned to do back in the old country. I’m speaking of last name without title. And in college I had the occasional instructor who called us “Mr. Davidson” and so forth; they varied widely as to whether they wanted to be called by first names or by Professor or Dr So-and-so.
Finally, there’s a powerful linguistic complication here which fortunately we no longer have to worry about in English. In many languages there are two forms of the second-person-singular pronoun. In at least two, German and French, there are specialized verbs meaning “to call someone by the familiar pronoun” and so forth: duzen and tutoyer, respectively. Equivalents probably exist in some other languages, but those are the only two where I know about them. And there are elaborate rules for when you can duzen someone, varying not only by relative age and/or status but even by geography. At least in English the old second-person-singular familiar forms thou and thee have disappeared, except in deliberately archaic contexts—and those are for reading only, not speech. We still need to know them so we can have archaic and read them too.