On calling someone by their preferred name

There is increasing awareness these days of the importance of calling people by their preferred names and using their preferred pronouns, if they have stated them. This is a particularly sensitive issue in the case of members of the transgender community where ‘dead naming’ someone, i.e., using the name they have abandoned along with their former gender identity, is seen as wrong, especially if done deliberately.

But being sensitive to how people wish to be referred to and accommodating their preferences is a good thing to do under all conditions and at all times. This seems to me to be the minimal act of respect that we pay to others and why it has become controversial in some quarters is unfortunate. In some societies, people tend to be formal in addressing someone. The rules for how to address others are fairly explicitly laid out unless they are members of their family or close friends when the rules are relaxed. Ats a result, he chances of one committing a faux pas or an insult are small.

In the US where people tend to adopt casual terms of address very quickly, even if one has just met someone, one has to be more careful. This is especially the case with names that are commonly abbreviated because not everyone likes the short form. I try to listen carefully to how someone introduces themselves. For example, if their name is ‘Lawrence’, I will use that form until I am told by them otherwise but I have noticed that some other people will immediately assume that they can be called Larry.

When it comes to emails and letters, if I am writing to someone I do not know, I will use the salutation ‘Dear (first name, last name)’. I will sign the letter ‘Mano’, a hint that I am comfortable with that level of informality and with them calling me that. I will then read their reply and see how they end it. If they too sign off with just their first name or an abbreviation of it, then that indicates to me how they wish to be addressed in the future and sets the tone for all future communications.

But I have noticed that not all people engage in this kind of probing. For example, over the past few years I have got to know someone pretty well and we met many times and have exchanged multiple emails. Despite the fact that my name appears in every email and document, he still refers to me as ‘Manu’. It does not bother me except in the general sense of noticing an obvious and easily corrected error. And after a couple of years, it seems a little awkward and petty for me to suddenly bring up the fact that he has been calling me by the wrong name for so long. So I let it go, resigned to the fact that he is one of those people who will never notice this.


  1. cartomancer says

    People differ a lot on this point. I find it a bit pretentious, really, when people object to a shortening or mispronunciation. I tend not to shorten people’s names myself as a matter of habit, but I have no qualms if people shorten my name however they want -- I didn’t choose the name in the first place, so why should I get to dictate what others do with it?

  2. moarscienceplz says

    I work in a bookstore. We have a membership plan where we ask to scan the barcode on the back of the customer’s driver’s license to enter their name and address more quickly. Most people are OK with doing that, so we employees usually see the full legal name of these members.
    Early in my employment, I began to recognise a frequent customer whose legal first name is Matthew. This being California, I assumed I should call him Matt. The first (and only) time I did so, I was quickly in formed, “My name is Matthew. A mat is something people wipe their feet on.” So, lesson learned.
    A few years later, we got a new customer who became a regular named Robert. He is several years older than I, and he has an email address that is ‘coach*lastname*@somecarrier.com’, so I assumed he was used to a certain deference from young snots like me. So I called him Robert every time for over a year, until one day when one of our fellow employees who is contemporaneous with the coach was within earshot and said something like, “Ooh hoo, are you going by ‘Robert’ these days, Bob?” And Bob replied, “Actually, the last person to call me ‘Robert’ was my mother, and even then only when I was in trouble.”
    So, you really can’t win!

  3. larpar says

    My name is Larry. Every once in a while someone will call me Lawrence and I have to correct them.

  4. marner says

    I agree that it a matter of respect. Recently saw an article in Baseball Prospectus (Sue me. I love baseball. At least it’s not cricket!). It talks about how we often don’t bother learning how to correctly pronunce someones name from a different culture:

    What seems benign is in fact quite hostile. We’re not only imposing a change of identity onto players to prioritize our own comfort, but we’re also implicitly signaling to them that our way is desirable, and theirs is not. Call it what you want: Anglo centric, Americentric—it’s a problem, and the players feel it. This was the norm back then, and while it may have gotten better, it clearly hasn’t ceased to exist.

    It is an interesting read https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/70666/major-league-baseball-has-an-assimilation-problem/

  5. Mark Dowd says

    For the job I currently hold, for the people that already worked there I followed how everyone else called them. This is Billy, this is Susan, and this is Andrew. So I call them that, instead of Bill, Susie, or Drew.

    When we hired a new William, I just straight asked him how he prefers to be called.

  6. says

    @1 cartomancer

    Spoken like someone blissfully free of experiences where people shorten your name as a condescending insult, and also of any neurodivergence whereby your name is your name and any other way to say it feels distressingly Wrong.

  7. says

    Refusing to use someone’s preferred term of reference isn’t neceassarily inappropriate or abusive. I refuse to use religious titles (e.g. “father”, “cardinal”) and call them by their real name. Or with the haughty and self-aggrandizing, their professional titles. I never say “doctor” about Birx or Shermer, and I never refer to Canadian politicians as “honourable” or “right honourable”.

    With certain people that I’m not close to but know, I often use their initials when writing (e.g. among fellow bloggers MS, PZM, MR). It’s not disrespectful but not overly familiar, and usually it easily identifies who is being spoken to or about.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    being sensitive to how people wish to be referred to and accommodating their preferences is a good thing to do under all conditions and at all times

    Nope. Sometimes people are just taking the piss.


    Then again, I echo abbeycadabra@6 -- I don’t much mind having my name pronounced incorrectly, but seeing it written incorrectly causes me physical pain. I recognise that this is my problem, but it would be nice if people would make an allowance for it and make what for most is the minimal effort to get it right.

    People using an incorrect form of address verbally are, I have found, most effectively dealt with by ignoring them entirely until they get it right. And being terribly nice when they do eventually get your attention “Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you were talking to someone else -- I go by “David”, not “Dave””. Or similar.

    I have a couple of friends who are neuroscientists, both Oxford PhDs. I brought up with them something I’ve observed often enough for it to annoy me, and the example I offered them was a Youtube video of an older gentlemen being instructed in the use of an Amazon Echo by his helplessly laughing adult son. Son demonstrated -- “Alexa, turn the light on.” Dad ‘copied’ -- “Alexei, turn the light on. Alexis, turn the light on.” Naturally the Echo ignored him, “Alexei” (with a long eee sound at the end) and “Alexis” (with a clear rhyme for “hiss” at the end) not being words it takes as activators. I cannot emphasise enough how clear Son’s diction was, and how quickly after his demonstrations his father entirely failed to copy the pronunciation of a simple, common three-syllable word. He didn’t seem to be brain-damaged, and indeed it seemed to me to be callous of me to suggest he might be, rather than just being, say, unutterably stupid. My neuroscientist friends corrected me: he was indeed brain-damaged, mildly. And the specific damage/disability is, they tell me, surprisingly common.

    So -- Raymond Luxury-Yacht people out there: if someone mispronounces your name, before you cancel them or haughtily correct them or scream that they’ve infringed your human rights by not using your preferred form of address, consider for a moment that it’s actually reasonably likely that they’re physically unable to process the correct pronunciation. I was shocked to discover this.

    Refusing to use a title someone has earned (e.g. “doctor”, if they have a PhD) isn’t abusive, but it does come across as petty and a little jealous-sounding. “Think yer better’n me with yer book-lernin do ya, pencil-neck?” is how I imagine that sort of person thinking.

  9. John Morales says

    Mark @5,

    When we hired a new William, I just straight asked him how he prefers to be called.

    That’s what I’ve always done, routinely. It’s so very simple.

    Not that I consider referring to someone by their preferred name ‘respect’, as such.
    I consider it good manners.

  10. flex says


    I’ve never known anyone to be upset if you ask them how to pronounce their name. I have had people thank me for asking. And if you forget, apologize and ask again. A person’s name is the most important word to them, it’s how they identify themselves. Screwing it up even once is worse than asking.

  11. mikey says

    @9, @10, etc:

    Absolutely. The right way to pronounce anyone’s name is the way *they* pronounce it. It’s not rude to ask. (My opinion could be influenced by the name of my hometown, which pronounces ‘deh-twah’ as ‘dee-troyt’.)

  12. cartomancer says

    abbeycadabra, #6,

    Well, sure, if there is hostile intent behind any action it can rub up the wrong way. But the hostile intent is the issue to object to there, not the act of shortening. When I was younger I often had people at school try to come up with insulting parody versions of my name (and my students to this day still do!), but it never bothered me because I never placed much stock by such things as names.

    And of course people can have all kinds of quirks and personal perspectives. I’m not saying mine should be universal. I can well see why others might place greater importance on these things than I do.

    But it seems very strange to me that the noise my parents chose to refer to me with is somehow an intrinsic part of my being, and should be judged in terms of “right” and “wrong”. As far as I see it my name is a tool decided on by other people to help themselves, and it would be pretentious of me to insist they do that to some arbitrary specification of my own. I’m not fond of regulating other people’s business purely for my own benefit. Indeed, I will cheerfully answer to whatever people think my name or title is, because I don’t see a lot of point in quibbling. People have accents, so they will pronounce it differently, and that’s fine by me (native speakers of a lot of syllabic languages find the initial V syllable and lack of a final vowel difficult, for instance, and it seems overbearing of me to try to get them to approximate English pronunciation).

  13. says

    @12 cartomancer

    It is not pretentious to insist on being treated like who you are. Hell, it’s dangerously close to bigoted to call a deep desire to be addressed the correct way “pretentious”, which implies frivolous, pompous, and unimportant.

    I mean, Mano’s post here starts with discussing how this issue applies to trans people, and then… you respond off the top with “pretentious”? Not even how it’s generally a shitty thing immigrants are expected to put up with, everyone constantly mispronouncing their name.

    The counterexample, “physically can’t do it”, is not common. Barring that, addressing someone in a way they are comfortable with is an act of respect, and not doing it is an act of contempt.

    I wonder if you should give some thought to just what groups you’re expressing contempt for here, by calling insistence on geeting one’s name right “pretentious”.

  14. John Morales says

    Abbey, no groups. It’s clearly and explicitly a personal viewpoint.

    “And of course people can have all kinds of quirks and personal perspectives. I’m not saying mine should be universal. I can well see why others might place greater importance on these things than I do.”

  15. sonofrojblake says

    @13: “The counterexample, “physically can’t do it”, is not common”

    I (and by extension, my friends) stand corrected. Out of interest, Doctor. St. Brendan, where is your neuroscience PhD from?

  16. Holms says

    I remember watching QI some time ago and witnessing Stephen Fry’s expression change when someone called him Steve. It was immediately apparent to all that Fry did not like that. Stephen Colbert too, from vague memory. If anyone was going to stand on insisting on their full name, I’d have thought it would be the Richards of the world, not the Stevens.

    However, the idea that names are not to be shortened or modified gets short shrift here in Australia, even to the point of silliness. Matthew might be shortened to Matt but then again it might be Matty, Deborah might become Debs or Debby, David becomes Dave or Davo, and so on. Meanwhile John is frequently lengthened to Johnny or Johnno.

  17. John Morales says


    However, the idea that names are not to be shortened or modified gets short shrift here in Australia, even to the point of silliness.

    Only if and when the recipient goes along with it.

    More to the point, the idea at hand is emphatically not the idea that names are not to be shortened or modified, but rather (and I quote) that “of calling people by their preferred names and using their preferred pronouns, if they have stated them”.

  18. rockwhisperer says

    I have a nephew whose first name is unusual (an amalgam of his parents’ names) and not something he particularly likes. His middle name is William. He was in his late twenties or early thirties when he shared with our family that he goes by ‘Will’ among friends and colleagues, and that he’d appreciate us using that name. I switched immediately. I was the only person in the family who didn’t declare that [Firstname] doesn’t have the right to change how he’s called, and they aren’t using anything but [Firstname] for him.

    These people are actually my husband’s relatives. My parents are dead and my only living relatives are distant cousins. But I know that if, at Will’s age, I had announced that I was going by my middle name, the explosion would have been heard in the next county. You WHAT? How DARE you! We thought long and hard before we chose your name! Similarly, my husband dislikes his first name and uses a common short version of it. It took him a very long time to train his mother and siblings that he simply will not answer to [Longname].

    I simply don’t get the attitude of so many people that THEY get to define how YOU call yourself and prefer to be called.

  19. sonofrojblake says

    We thought long and hard before giving our kids slightly unusual first names. We deliberately gave them more generic middle names (relatives ‘names) to give them a fallback in later life if they feel they want it.

  20. says

    If I come across a name written down that I’m not familiar with I will try to work out the pronunciation before I use it. One time for work I had to call and ask to speak to someone with a Greek last name and it turned out she was the one who answered the phone, and she was genuinely shocked and happy that someone pronounced her name correctly.

    It probably helps that I’ve gone through life with an easy to pronounce first name (how people keep finding letters that aren’t there is beyond me) and a slightly less easy to pronounce last name (though it’s usually the same mispronunciation) so I understand the frustration.

    Even worse are the people who never spell my name correctly when replying to my e-mails despite it being right there in the e-mail they are replying to. I don’t know if this is what made the difference but I got VERY passive aggressive with one guy who was a particularly grievous offender and started misspelling his name. The most recent e-mails have had the correct spelling for my name so I’ve gone back to spelling his properly again.

    For trans people, I know there are trolls online who do this deliberately to provoke a reaction, but for the people in their lives who keep doing it it has to be deliberate as well. Nobody seems to have that much difficulty getting used to a married woman who took her husband’s last name, though I suspect if the husband takes the wife’s last name it’s suddenly confusing and they’ll keep using his original name. With same sex couples it’s probably up to how they feel about that subject entirely.

    In professional wrestling/sports entertainment, most wrestlers have to change their name when they sign up with WWE (it’s all to do with copyright and WWE not wanting to make someone a star then using that name recognition elsewhere), and then when they leave they have to go by either their previous name, real name, or some might choose a new name altogether. There are some stumbles, but fans and reporters get used to the new name very quickly.

  21. Allison says

    I think that to refuse to use someone’s preferred name or version thereof, once one has been informed of it, is disrespectful, and often a power play. When parents refuse to accept a child’s preferred name, it’s no different from refusing the child’s choice of career or spouse: it’s a way of saying that the child is the parent’s property.

    Indeed, my question is: why would you do that, anyway? If you’re able to remember that person A is “George” and B is “Albert”, then you don’t have much excuse for being unable to remember that person A isn’t “Joe” and B isn’t “Al” — or vice versa. (And I speak as someone who has a really hard time remembering names at all.) Yes, it may take a little effort, but failing to do so sends a message as to how much you respect the other person’s humanity, and saying it shouldn’t matter just makes it worse, like when someone makes a racist or misogynistic joke and, when challenged, says, what’s the big deal, can’t you take a joke?

    When I was growing up, my oldest brother was named after his father, so to distinguish between them, he was called by his middle name — which he hated. Once he got out of the house, he asked people to use his first name, not his middle name, and it was obvious that it meant a lot to him. So I made the effort — and it was an effort — to always use the first name. However, many people in our family never bothered to, and I think it bothered him. It was one of the things that made me realize how little people in my family (esp. the parents) cared about showing real caring or respect for us.

  22. mnb0 says

    “There is increasing awareness these days of the importance of calling people by their preferred names”
    Another issue I don’t understand. I’ve met quite a few people who don’t use their official names but other, sometimes very different ones. To me this is a typical case of “don’t be a jerk”. Apparently your principle doesn’t work too well in the USA in this case.
    I never saw any need for “probing” either. If I am in doubt I ask. If I use an incorrect name, just tell me and I will use the name the other prefers.

    “And after a couple of years, it seems a little awkward and petty for me”
    And I think this hesitation silly. As the Dutch saying goes: better late than never.

  23. Deepak Shetty says

    Somewhat related --
    Almost all us Indian-Origin in the west are used to people in the west mangling their names (Im Thee-Pack in the US rather than Thee-Puck ) but since we do the same to theirs no one has much cause to complain ( none of it is intentional)
    I had a friend from Kerala with the name Jose (Pronounced with an actual J sound). While he was in London he called up a customer center with a rep (coincidentally also from India but from probably a northern state) going “Whats your name?” . “Jose” . “Ok Hosay what can I do for you?”. “Its Jose , not Hosay”. “Ok Jose -- But I would like you to know your name is actually pronounced Hosay.”
    Also fun times when we had a colleague named Xavier (pronounced like a hard S) and another colleague Xavier (pronounced with an H) both in the same room with different people having different assumptions on how their names were pronounced.

  24. John Morales says

    Well, accommodationism was easiest for me.

    My birth name is Juan (actually, Juan-Ramón, but let’s not go there), but when I first arrived in Australia people just could not pronounce it. So I was called Uan and Yuan and Huan and Huown and so forth. Cue mental winces on my part.

    So, for simplicity’s sake, I anglicised my name to John, and to this day all but my most official documents are in that name.

    Point being, it was not because they were trying to mangle the name, it’s because they were actually incapable of getting the pronunciation.
    So, not the thing to which this post refers.

  25. says


    I find it a bit pretentious, really, when people object to a shortening or mispronunciation.

    Mispronunciation is inevitable when people with different native languages cannot even pronounce some sounds in the other person’s name. Or when people stare at some random letters from a different language attempting to guess how those could be pronounced. Or when the same string of letters is pronounced differently in various cultures. Thus I typically don’t complain about it.

    Intentional shortening is complicated. I definitely would not shorten a woman’s name. It can feel patronizing, as if you were treating an adult woman as a girl and refusing to take her seriously. Besides, not all women like some “cuter” version of their names. (Who said women ought to have cute names or be cute themselves?)

    Then there’s also cultural issues. Different cultures treat shortened names differently. In some cultures a shorter nickname is appropriate only when used by the closest friends/family. (I was raised in such a culture, in Latvian we usually do not change/shorten names. Russians who live in Latvia, however, often like to introduce themselves with shortened versions of their names. Social customs differ among linguistic groups here.)

    In addition, in some cultures shortened versions of names are used for condescending/mockery. Or maybe some person was bullied at school by jerks who always called them by some shortened nickname. Maybe some person hates being called “Bob” or “Larry,” because that was how bullies at school always called him and it brings up traumatizing memories.

    Ultimately, assuming that you are the one who knows better how every person on this planet ought to be addressed is pretentious.

    As for me, if somebody tried to call me “Andy,” I would really dislike it. Largely because I have spent literal decades of my life not being taken seriously by patronizing misogynists.

    Personally, I always pay attention to how other people introduce themselves and use whatever name or nickname they tell me.

  26. says

    abbeycadabra @#13

    The counterexample, “physically can’t do it”, is not common.

    This depends on the languages involved. If some sound exists in one language but not the other, then it is potentially very hard for people to learn to pronounce this new sound.

    For example, my legal name starts with a diphthong that is written with letters “ie” in Latvian. This sound is pretty rare in languages. English, German, Russian, and French do not have this sound. Italian actually has a similar sound, but it is still pronounced a bit differently. Italians are the closest to managing to actually pronounce my legal name. As for native English speakers, trying to teach them how to pronounce this sound is a lost cause unless I am willing to work with each person for hours.

    Another example is Latvian “r” sound. Most English speakers probably won’t learn to pronounce it correctly without lots of practice.

    Also, once I taught private Latvian language lessons to a native Swedish speaker. He could get most sounds correctly with one exception—Latvian sound that is written with the letter “ļ”. We worked on his Latvian pronunciation for hours and ultimately we both agreed to just give up on this sound.

    Of course, if people listen carefully and spend 10 seconds practicing how to correctly pronounce some foreign word, their pronunciation will be immensely better compared to people who don’t bother to pay attention. And often different languages do have the same or similar sounds. It depends on the name as well as the overlap between relevant sounds in both languages.

  27. says

    @15 sonofrojblake

    Rude and shitty of you. I didn’t say “doesn’t exist”.

    ‘Physically incapable’ must be true because names come from languages, and a given language couldn’t exist if it was common for people to be physically incapable of using its phonemes.

  28. says

    @27 Andreas Avester

    As you explain yourself, those aren’t “physically can’t do it”. They’re habits of speech. Barring specific medical cases, humans all have basically the same pharyngeal setup to work with (wait, can we discuss pharyngulation outside Pharyngula?), and just learn to use it a particular way as infants, with the phonemes of our mother tongue(s). That’s what an accent is, speaking one language with the phoneme “font” from another language.

    That said, sometimes they’re very different. I only advocate that as an act of respect, you should put at least SOME effort into trying to pronounce someone else’s name the way they do – and my hackles go up at calling this desire “pretentious” or otherwise unimportant, specifically because there are plenty of us who had to fight hard to get these names in the first place.

  29. says

    abbeycadabra @#30

    I only advocate that as an act of respect, you should put at least SOME effort into trying to pronounce someone else’s name the way they do

    Yes, I can completely agree with this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *