Forms of address


in Geek stuff, Politics, Psychology, Rants, Writing

One of the trickier aspects of corresponding with lots of relative strangers is never knowing quite what to call people.

This is all in relation to written communication. In one-on-one speech, I go out of my way not to call people anything at all.

Academic titles

To start with, there is the eternal question of how to refer to an academic who you don’t know. They probably have a title, which might be ‘Associate Professor’ or ‘Assistant Professor’ or just ‘Professor’. Do you call everyone ‘Professor X’? Or do you use the title on their website? What about people who are excessively quick to call themselves ‘professor’? I have seen it on the business card of a doctoral student.

My solution – call everybody with a doctorate ‘Dr. X’. It doesn’t matter if they just got their doctorate yesterday or whether they have won an armload of Nobel Prizes. ‘Dr. X’ is a perfectly polite form of address between strangers.

Exception: close friends and fellow former students. You may have worked half a decade to get that post-nominal P.H.D., but if we were in first year together I reserve the right to call you by your first name indefinitely.

Other titles

I basically ignore them. ‘Reverend X’ and ‘Lieutenant X’ and ‘Engineer X‘ and ‘Mayor X’ and ‘Prime Minister X’ are all liable to be referred to simply as “Mr. / Ms. X”.


It’s a bit embarrassing that there even has to be a space for this, but such are the sexual double standards of our society. There is nothing as neutral as ‘Mr. Smith’ that you can call a woman. Every option carries a political message. Using ‘Miss Smith’ or ‘Mrs. Smith’ means buying into the somewhat absurd notion that a woman’s whole identity changes when she gets married (and when a man’s does not). I use ‘Ms. X’ anytime I can’t call someone ‘Dr. X’. That goes for any stranger, usually until they specifically tell me to call them something else.

Someone who you know nothing about

Say you discover that has been horribly defaced. You want to contact ‘’ but you don’t know any part of their name, or whether they are male or female.

In this circumstance, I usually go with ‘Good [time of the day]’ if I am being less formal and ‘Sir or Madam’ if I am being more formal.

Referring to me

I am perfectly happy to have everybody call me ‘Milan’.

Whenever I see a letter for ‘Milan Ilnyckyj, BA’ I know it is UBC writing to ask for alumni donations.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. March 9, 2012 at 9:44 pm
. March 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Engineer Mustafa Musalam, general manager of transmission for ARENTO’s Alexandria office, is a stocky, affable, silver-haired gent. Egypt is one of those places where Engineer is used as a title, like Doctor or Professor, and Engineer Musalam bears the title well.

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