How to Address Your (Professional) Elders

Posted by The Editors on November 1, 2011
How to Address Your (Professional) Elders

Years ago, my father was annoyed that his friend’s 23-year-old daughter called him by his first name. She’d grown up calling him Mr. Seasholtz, but then switched over to just calling him John. My father thought the sudden switch to informality showed less overall respect to someone 30 years her elder—and I agreed. I still call my friends’ parents Mr. and Mrs. Fill-in-the-blank.

But in the business setting, we are constantly addressing people by their first names. I don’t hesitate to email clients or professional contacts and address them by their first name, even though they very well may be twice my age and very much senior to me. I always begin my business emails “Hi Joe,” just like I would if I were casually emailing any friend my age.

It raises the question: are we too casual in the workplace? Should we twenty-somethings be respecting our elders and addressing them more formally? Over on the Harvard Business Review, author Jodi Glickman says no. In corporate America, it’s now the norm to address anyone and everyone by their first names. Glickman cites a great example of how she learned this practice: When she was 29 years old and a junior associate on Wall Street, her associate class “was told by senior management explicitly to refer to everyone by first names, and not to use Mr. or Mrs., even with CEOs.” Even though someone may be older (and wiser), referring to them by Mr. or Mrs. can diminish your own standing and credibility.

So, lesson learned: In the business world, I’ll stick with addressing everyone by his or her first name. But as for my friends’ parents, I think I’ll continue to call them by Mr. and Mrs.—it’s hard to break a decade-long habit, after all.

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