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Cultural Differences : Part 3 Forms of Address

Cultural Differences : Part 3 Forms of Address

Forms of Address

American names are written and spoken with the given name first and the family name last. So John Smith’s family name is Smith, not John.

In a formal setting, address men as “Mister” (abbreviated as “Mr.”), married women as “Misses” (abbreviated as “Mrs.”), and unmarried women as “Miss” (abbreviated as “Ms.”). These days many women prefer to be addressed using the abbreviations “Ms.” or “M.”, pronounced “miz”. If the person has an M.D. or Ph.D., they will often be addressed as “Doctor” (abbreviated as “Dr.”). Faculty are addressed as “Professor” (abbreviated as “Prof.”).

In an informal situation, Americans will introduce each other by first name, without titles, and occasionally by just the last name. If you are introduced to somebody by first name, you can address him or her by first name the next time you meet. The only exception would be for someone who holds an important position, such as the university president or provost. Unless they tell you otherwise, faculty should be addressed using their title and last name (e.g., “Professor Smith”).

When in doubt, use the formal manner of address, since it is better to err on the side of formality. It is also appropriate to ask how they prefer to be addressed.

Children should always address adults in the formal fashion, using their title and last name.

Also, try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may also lead to discomfort. Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. So don’t put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand. Shaking hands when you initially meet or part is acceptable, but this is only momentary.


Americans are much more assertive that most international visitors. They use words as tools to express their opinions and to accomplish goals. Speaking for yourself and attempting to persuade someone to adopt your view are not only not taboo, but expected. The USA has a rather individualistic society, with less social pressure to conform. As a result, you will need to become more assertive and to speak out on your own behalf. Take the initiative and volunteer information that will be of interest. In an interview, talk about your goals and accomplishments. An American idiom expresses this requirement succinctly: If you don’t toot your own horn, who will?

Accordingly, Americans begin a discussion with a focus on accomplishments and concrete facts, and later proceed to the abstract. So you should begin any conversation or proposal with the most important information. Be direct, and reserve the small talk for later. To quote another American idiom, you have to put your best foot forward.

It is ok to criticize someone’s opinion, as long as you are providing constructive criticism.

Eye contact is also important. It is not a sign of disrespect, but instead an indication of openness, honesty, and enthusiasm.

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