Using first names – do you ask?

Bob Diamond’s appearance before the House of Commons’ Treasury Select Committee, 4 July 2012, has sparked a lot of comment on the appropriateness or otherwise of using first names. Was the former Barclays CEO right to use MPs’ first names or was it misjudged or even a deliberate show of contempt?

The fashion for addressing everyone by their first name became well established in the latter part of the 20th Century in the drive to break down barriers created by formality. It’s something that older generations have had to adjust to and can grate on the nerves of people brought up in a more formal era. It represents a change in society’s structure and for the elderly it can, even now, leave some floundering, not knowing whether to stick with formality or adopt the newer behaviours.

Many would say that in a society that strives for equality for all it has been a vital step forward in breaking the class system but is it always friendly and sociable or can it represent something else?

The key to appropriate use of first names is permission. If you have the permission of another person to use their first name it communicates all sorts of messages, principal of which is that they are prepared to listen to what you have to say.

But what if we get it wrong and make the assumption that we can use everyone’s first name whether we know them or not. That’s where the relationship can immediately go wrong and friendliness becomes impolite or even insulting. If you use someone’s first name without gaining either explicit or implicit permission it could suggest that you are trying to dominate them and control the situation. For professionals, whose role it is to communicate information effectively and provide advice their clients can trust, it is vital to strike the right balance.

People who have ill health or disability problems or are vulnerable due to frailty need to be comfortable with their adviser; so using first names can help to set them at ease but they also need to know they are respected and any hint of being talked down to will immediately make the client – adviser relationship less successful.

The answer is simple – always ask permission first!

How do you address your clients or customers and do you know what they think about it?