....The Use of First Names, Surnames and Titles

All too frequently and from the very outset, participants at mediation adopt the practice of calling everyone by their first name.  The goal is laudable – to establish a friendly and open rapport – but addressing everyone by their first name, automatically and on a carte blanche basis, has the potential for very negative results. It doesn’t matter that we preface the enterprise by asking, “Can we just all call each other by our first names?” Persons out of politeness or a sense of accommodation may answer, “Yes,” but they may harbor resentment at what they view as an affront to their relative status or dignity.  Not every person is comfortable operating on a first-name basis, and may view our efforts as impolite, uncivilized, or demeaning.

The careful communicator is always finely attuned to problems of parity. At any given mediation we may have persons of widely varying social status.  Medical malpractice mediations are one example.  Physicians are accustomed to being addressed as “Dr. Jones,” and are very apt to resent any linguistic demotion. The Plaintiff may be a poor, elderly minority, female who all her life has had people address her by her first name as a badge of inferiority.  To address the physician as “Dr. Jones” and the plaintiff as “Maggie,” is probably offensive to “Maggie” – even if on a subconscious level.  To call both by their first names will probably endear us to neither.  Similar problems may arise with the elderly, with professionals, and persons whose first language is other than English.

In spite of its richness, English has one problem: there is only one form of “you.”  In some languages, there are formal and informal forms of address.  In German, for example, there are two forms of “you.”  “Sie” is used when addressing most persons other than our family or very intimate friends. “Du” is used in addressing family, children, intimates, or close friends.  A German speaker could be very uncomfortable on a first-name basis because he or she has a built-in linguistic sense of the formal and the informal.

We would do well to think carefully before moving carte blanche to a first-name mode of address. We should certainly be cautious in joint meetings about addressing some persons by their first name and others by title.  The non-titled participant will almost certainly view us as biased or demeaning. The best rule of thumb may be to “let it happen naturally.” Consider starting on a title and surname basis.   People rarely are offended by the use of their title. There may come a time later in the proceedings when we have earned the right to use first names. Once a given person seems amenable to it, we can move into a first-name basis. “Would you mind if we used our first name? I’m Bill, may I call you Carolyn?”  This probably won’t happen during the first joint session, and in caucuses the problem of social parity probably won’t be so problematic.

Howard R. Marsee
Mediation Counsel
Upchurch Watson White & Max

Bookmark & Share