Sooner or later, we all find ourselves in that awkward position of wondering how to address a certain person.

All kinds of factors come into play, including the possible names the individual may go by (first name, nickname, title and last name, title and first name, etc.) and the relationship’s status (meeting the person for the first time, encountering an acquaintance under changed circumstances, one having seniority over the otheretc.).

No matter how many or which kinds of considerations keep the choice from being straightforward, we would love for the person simply to say, “Please, call me X.”

My Sweaty-Palms Predicament
The task of initiating a phone call with a distinguished clergyman on behalf of a client placed me in my most memorable sweaty-palms predicament.

My client, the most down-to-earth person you’d ever meet, had been a close friend of the high-ranking man of the cloth for years and insisted that I also address his good pal by first name. Since the prominent man was on a trip to meet with other national leaders in Washington, D.C., Mr. Down-to-Earth further instructed me to call High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth on his cell at seven the next morning so I could “catch him eating breakfast, before he gets busy.”

Granted, High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth was expecting to hear from me in the morning, but I doubted that early. In any case, no way was I going to call a notable person I’d never met before the sun was fully up, and I would not be using his first name. I’d phone him a little before nine and address him properly!  

Busy with other work, I waited until the evening to go online for what I assumed would be a quick search regarding what to call him. My assumption was wrong.

The most logical source, the church’s website, presented the proper way to address an envelope to him, but it failed to mention what name to use for High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth in a direct conversation. I tried more than one search engine, but nothing written about the denomination had the precise answer. I also altered the wording of my search seven ways to Sunday, but that didn’t help either.  

I considered two options: use the title that applied to addressing an envelope, which seemed wrong, or phone a friend.

By then, it was late at night, and Mr. Down-to-Earth would probably be asleep. Even if awake, he would have reiterated that I needed to call High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth by his given name.

The next issue, therefore, was whom to ask. A few of my friends belonged to a similar denomination but not the same one. Deciding that similar was better than completely different, I messaged a long-time friend and active churchgoer. My friend replied that he didn’t know for certain but offered a good guess. His good guess did not match what the church’s website instructed to use on an envelope.

Now, if you’re thinking I should have called High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth by his title, let me tell you something: it’s not that simple!

You might also suggest that a man of the clergy would either be the kind of person to overlook any blunder or correct me in a forgiving tone. He probably wouldn’t have commented, but I wanted to be respectful to High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth. To be honest, I might have cared even more about my reputation and didn’t want to appear lazy or unprofessional.

Wondering what to do, I suddenly had the brilliant thought that the clergyman would tip me off when he answered the phone. No doubt, High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth would say something like, “Hello, this is Father [his last name].” Relieved, I slept well, woke up early, and patiently waited until almost 9:00 A.M. to call his cell.”

Do you know how he answered?

He said his first and last name!

Holy cow!

Back to square one, I had no choice but to be truthful.

“Hello, this is Sallie Boyles, Mr. Down-to-Earth’s writer. Is this a good time for you?” 

High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth said it was, but he was on the way to a meeting and had only a few minutes. Heck, maybe I should have called him at daybreak like my client had said! 

“Thank you so much for your time,” I replied. After pausing, I added, “I just have to be honest with you. I want to address you properly, but I don’t know how. As you would expect, Mr. Down-to-Earth told me to use your first name.”

Do you know what High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth said to that?

“In this case, yes, please use my first name.”

I shouldn’t have been so shocked to learn that Mr. Down-to-Earth would have such a down-to-earth friend, no matter how highly positioned he was within their church.

Although my encounter with High-Ranking-Man-of-the-Cloth has been my most enlightening experience to date in handling the question of what to call someone, many other incidents over the years have provided insights about how to mitigate the awkwardness.

1. Ask with sincerity.
If you express sincerity in your desire to call the person by the wanted and appropriate title/name, then the individual should naturally respond with understanding. If you’re polite and the person either seems offended or responds rudely, then that’s his/her issue, not yours.

2. Ask someone who should know.
If possible, ask someone in the know. If you’re told something like, “We all call her Granny,” which would not feel right to you, then ask another source or Granny herself.

3. Listen to what others are saying and/or do your own research.
You might hear others addressing the individual a certain way, uncover written guidelines somewhere, or find other references to the person, such as in an article or online interview. With all of that, you still might need to ask the person in question.

4. Err on the side of formality and respect.
If you don’t know whether to use Mrs. Smith or Sue, start with Mrs. Smith and let her tell you if it’s okay to call her Sue.

5. Start out by being clear to others regarding how you want them to address you.
Think back to that first day of school when the teacher would inevitably call on a child by his/her formal given name instead of the informal nickname that everyone used. As the entire class chuckled, the kid had to speak up quickly or the embarrassing, what-was-my-parent-thinking identity would stick.

On that note, I’m not all that picky regarding whether someone calls me Sallie, Ms. Sallie, Mrs. Boyles, Ms. Boyles, or Write Lady, but please don’t address me as Lady Write!

My best to you,

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

Thoughts or questions? Please contact Sallie Boyles, owner of Write Lady Inc., to exchange ideas about effective communications and gain from professional writing and editing services. Receive monthly tips and insights by subscribing at www.writelady.com.