Is this normal?

As a blogger, I get quite a few emails from people I don’t know. As I see it, there are various forms of salutation that are polite when writing to a stranger: the formal ‘Dear Mr. Singham’ to the more casual ‘Dear Mano’ to the even more casual ‘Hi Mano’. Some use the ‘Dear Mano Singham’ which is helpful if one feels that using the just the first name is too familiar but is not sure what gender prefix to append to the last name. All these modes are fine by me.

More recently, I have encountered ‘Hey’ replacing ‘Dear’ and ‘Hi’. While this might have been considered rude at one time, that seems to have become acceptable and one hears that being said on NPR and other shows when the anchor hands off to a colleague reporter. I have no problems with this either but some of my faculty colleagues were irritated when students used this form of address.

But I also receive emails on occasion with the salutation ‘Dear Singham’ or ‘Hi Singham’ of even just ‘Singham’. This seems a little rude and grates on me. I recall a student writing to me that way a couple of decades ago. I thought that this was probably due to ignorance and my telling her gently that this was not a good way of addressing people. Such forms of address used to be an indicator that it was spam, that some bot had found my name and email address on the internet and was adding it to its email list. But more recently I have got emails from real people with a legitimate issue that begins like that. I am wondering if that too has become accepted and I have just not kept up with the times.

Anyone have an opinion on using just the last name in the salutation? I myself am unlikely to address anyone as ‘Dear/Hi [last name]’ because I am old school and it just does not sound right.


  1. Matt G says

    It’s normal between people who know each other. I’ve never met you, so would never use it. I’ve sent you 2 or 3 emails since I’ve been reading your blog, and they would have been addressed either “Hi Mano”, or even just “Mano-“. When I was getting my doctorate, I addressed all faculty by their first names as a matter of egalitarian principle. The only exceptions were for two professors who were a good 40 years my senior (you are less than 20 years older than I).

  2. chigau (違う) says

    Using a surname without any kind of title sounds beligerent to me.
    It was used to initiate conflict on the playground in my childhood.

  3. Some Old Programmer says

    It may be culturally dependent. I’ve not encountered that mode of address personally, but recognize it from movies (so definitely flagged as possibly spurious) set in an English boarding school, or in the military.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Some Old Programmer @4: Not just boarding schools. I attended a predominantly working class school in England (1960s), and addressing fellow students by their surname, or a nickname based on the surname, was the norm (So, “Grigjanis” to masters and most students, “Griggy” to closer acquaintances. Never “Robert” or “Rob” as far as I remember).

    But yes, addressing someone you don’t know by their surname, in a letter or email, is simply rude.

  5. jazzlet says

    I agree that in the sixties in the UK using the surname only would have been the standard way for males to address each other. However it was not something women did to each other, depending on how informal or formal the context they would either have used the first name or Miss/Mrs Surname.

  6. jazzlet says

    Sorry Mano, I didn’t answer your question, no I don’t think it is either normal nor respectful to use just a persons surname, I think it’s rude.

  7. chigau (違う) says

    The “Grigjanis” part.
    I’m guessing the “Rob” was not a problem.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    chigau @8: Generally, yes, or close enough (grig-YAHN-is, though grig-JAHN-is was acceptable).

    Funny, I worked with a U of T prof for years, who had no problem spelling my name, but always pronounced it “ginganis”. But he was Glaswegian, so I cut him some slack.

  9. says

    I recently got an e-mail at work that started “Hi *surname*,”. It was from a colleague from China, whose English is not very stellar and who apparently had trouble recognizing what is surname and what is first name. To be honest, I had the same problem with his name and had to check his e-mail adress (which has a syntax first name- surname) to know how to adress him properly.

  10. nobonobo says

    “…there are various forms of salutation that are polite when writing to a stranger.”

    But you’re not a stranger to us, and it’s hard to always remember that you see it from another angle. I sent an e-mail yesterday without addressing you at all…sorry!

  11. robert79 says

    I used to have a music teacher in high school who addressed (often yelled at) his students using just the last name. “Smith!!! Wrong note!!!” As a result, this form of address always seems very aggressive to me.

    As a student at university, when discussing classes/professors with my peers we’d often just refer to them by last name, but (I hope!) everybody would add a “prof.” or “mr.” when addressing them in person or by email.

    I do recognise the trend though, I’ve received my share of emails from my students starting with “Hey [last name]”. I tend to ignore it, even though it grates on me as I don’t want to be the guy that continually insists on being called “mister” (in fact, I wouldn’t mind if my students used my first name as long as the tone of the rest of the email is respectful.) However, several of my colleagues do point out to students that this is rude, and eventually the students will stop doing it.

  12. johnhodges says

    There is a movie from the 1970’s titled “Dark Star”, a sort-of-science-fiction movie that satirized many other movies. Five young men are the crew of an interstellar spaceship, on a military mission to clear a part of the galaxy for colonization by destroying any unstable planets that they can find. They destroy these planets with bombs, “thermostellar devices”, which are themselves artificially intelligent, “smart bombs” writ large. One item satirized was the practice, in the military, of addressing everyone with their last name (surname) only. They have been out in the far reaches of the galaxy for years. In private conversation one asks another “What’s Talby’s first name?”. The other searches his memory for a minute, then looks alarmed and asks “What’s MY first name?”

  13. Dorfl, who is unable to log in says

    As a foreigner, I get slight culture shock reading this discussion. To me, my ‘surname’ is simply my name. My last name basically only exists to make paperwork easier, by distinguishing me from everyone else with the same name. If anyone tried addressing me with my last name, I’d find it only slightly less weird than if they tried addressing me with my personal identity number.

  14. Ice Swimmer says

    It’s quite common for Finnish men to address or refer to each other with last names (surnames), especially at work. One thing could be that we have a somewhat compulsory military service. However, names (or ranks and titles) tend to be used only when actually needed to avoid confusion, pronouns and non-verbal cues are often used instead. Also, first names or last names can be used and there’s no hard and fast rule which will be used. Women tend to use first names more.

    At school, kids are addressed by their first names and they usually address their teachers by first name or calling them opettaja (teacher), but may talk about them behind the back using last names or (sometimes quite nasty) nicknames.

    I’m going to start my master’s studies in EE and unless given a explicit or implied permission, I’d address professors by the title (professori) or title and name, however using the name or title is rarely necessary or common. Using the titles corresponding to Mr (herra), Mrs (rouva) or Ms (rouva) are rare and only really used with a title of military rank, civil rank, high government office or corporate position (herra luutnantti [Lieutenant], rouva presidentti [Madam President], herra toimitusjohtaja [CEO]).

  15. jazzlet says

    johnhodges says @#14
    I’d forgotten that scene in Darkstar. In my household consideration of food is always done while tapping the fingers of each hand on the table like the pumpkin/balloon monster.

  16. says

    The only time it’s appropriate to address someone by their surname is when you’re a cranky captain in a cop show or movie.

    “Singham! My office, NOW! You’re a loose cannon, Singham. The commissioner’s been on my back about this case. I need you to turn in your badge and gun, Singham.”

  17. Reginald Selkirk says

    In your case it is possible that since your name is foreign, the write is unsurer which is your surname and which is your familiar name.

    For me, I tend to feel the opposite. I think for people who don’t know me to use my first name is unearned familiarity. Perhaps because of my age and because I am from a rural place, my habits may be old-fashioned. It is a bit odd that they would use the surname without a title such as Mr., but to me that would be preferred to someone I don’t know using my first name.

  18. Dorfl, who is unable to log in says

    Sorry, that should be “my first name is simply my name” in #15.

  19. says

    @20 Reginald Selkirk:

    Interestingly, in Italian culture the most prestigious honorific one can use to refer to somebody is their first name: it’s Galileo, not Galilei; it’s Dante, not Alighieri. This is perhaps most apparent in the arts (Raffaello, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo — not Sanzio, da Vinci, di Nicolò di Betto Bardi, Buonarroti Simoni). The explanation seems to me just the same as the one given in your linked article for only using the last name: “For figures like Darwin and Einstein, first names and even titles like “professor” seem irrelevant. We know who they are, and a single name is enough to conjure up all they accomplished.”

    Some long-dead people are so familiar to us that we want to be on a first-name basis with them.

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