Don't call me by my first name! Naming conventions in different countries

By Felicia Bratu

People from different countries and cultures have specific ways of addressing and greeting others when making new acquaintances. Not knowing how to address someone properly can create a very embarrassing situation for both parties.

This is also an issue when dealing with foreign people online. Interactivity with site visitors is an important feature most websites now have. It’s very common to complete an application or form online, to subscribe to some services, newsletters, etc.

When creating an online form for people from other countries to fill out, it’s important to remember that some names might need more space than standard English names: Spanish people usually have two surnames; Chinese names are listed in a different order; the forms should be set up to allow Unicode characters as some languages have accents, some use non-roman scripts, etc.

In some cultures it’s inappropriate to address someone using his/her first name, unless you are invited to do so. This also applies to online communication, even if it’s becoming more common in many languages to use the first name when addressing someone new.

I remember once in high school my teacher got mad at me because I signed one of my papers using my first name followed by my last name. It wasn’t very common at that time to have your name listed in this order and it didn’t matter if you were 10 or 50 years old. I believe this was mostly one of the communist rules to diminish individual importance. This has now changed in Romania and everyone signs their name using first name followed by last name.

Back in my native country, I never called a person older than me only by his/her first name as this would have been rude. Even now, when visiting my family in Romania, I still call those older than me as Mister or Madame, followed by their first name if I know them very well, or family name.

However, I’ve seen that this is no longer common. Things are changing and addressing someone only by their first name is very common. Websites dedicated to young people will welcome visitors using their first name, but official websites or those dedicated to all ages will use first and last name together, or formal titles followed by family name.

Spanish speaking countries:

Most Spanish people (other than Argentines) have two surnames; the first inherited from the father and the second from the mother.

One of my favorite writers is Gabriel García Márquez (full name: Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez).

His parents wereGabriel Eligio García and Luisa Santiaga Márquez Iguarán , so his two surnames are Garcia and Marquez.

The first surname – father’s surname – is commonly used when addressing somebody. One surname will be used when speaking with a person and both surnames will be used when writing to a person. Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be addressed as Señor Marquez (though, I‘ve read that friends call him Gabo…)

First names are appropriate among friends and young people. So, if you have any messages intended for your visitors on your Spanish website, you should leave more space for the family name and also address your visitors using their surnames, not their first names.

Chinese:

A Chinese name starts with the family name followed by the first name. I usually call my Chinese coworker Deyu, but his wife and other Chinese people I know call him Tang Deyu. Tang is his family name and Deyu is his first name.

It’s uncommon for Chinese wives to take their husbands family names; instead, they will keep their maiden names. However, children will take their father’s surname.

Chinese working with Western companies usually try to accommodate their Western clients and co-workers by adopting an English name, easy to be pronounced.

Chinese people living in North America are used to being called by their first name. However, if your website is intended for the Chinese market, your application forms and thank you messages should take into consideration the Chinese naming order. “Hello [family name] [given name]. Thank you for visiting our website.” will be the correct reply message for a Chinese visitor.

Russian:

What makes Russian names different is that the middle name is derived from the father’s first name.

Another favorite writer of mine is Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. His parents were Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky. The writer’s first name is Fyodor and his surname is Dostoevsky. His middle name is based on the root Mikhail, his father’s name.

The name is actually a transliteration of the actual Russian name: Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский . Other versions of the names were Dostoyevsky, Dostoievsky, Dostojevskij, Dostoevski or Dostoevskii… If he would have lived in these times, the authorities would have had a hard time with so many different transliterations.

Another well known Russian writer is Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (known as Leo Tolstoy in the West). His wife’s name was Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya.

Russian women take their husbands’ names, but they’ll add an “a” to the end of the surname. So, Tolstoy’s wife’s surname was Tolstaya.

First names, diminutives and nicknames are used between friends. So, make sure you don’t address your online visitors by their first name, unless you’re invited to do so. And remember that the “a” at the end of the wife’s name isn’t a mistake…

Arabic:

An Arabic name consists of a main name, nickname, patronyms (derived from father’s first name) person’s occupation, etc.

E.g. (wikipedia.org):

ابو كريم محمد الجميل بن نضال بن عبد العزيز الفلسطيني

Abu Karim Muhammad al-Jamil ibn Nidal ibn Abdulaziz al-Filistin

“’abū karīmi muHammadu-l-jamīlu-bnu niDāli-bni ‘abdi-l-‘azīzi-l-filisTīnīyu”

This means:

“Father-of-Karim, Muhammad, the beautiful, son of Nidal, son of Abdulaziz, the Palestinian”

(karim means generous, muhammad means praised, jamīl means beautiful; azīz means Magnificent

In general, Arabic names are written in the same order as English: given name, middle name and family name.

When creating online forms for Arabic people, remember that Arabic reads from right to left, so your form design should be changed to be right to left. Also, if the form is a php file, html file, etc, remember to declare the language and direction. And also make sure that the character encoding in your form is Unicode. Otherwise, you’ll only see small squares instead of a name.
A few things to remember when creating online forms and subscription notices:

  1. leave more space for names for some languages
  2. have the correct language declaration, direction and character encoding in the form
  3. do not assume everybody is on the first name basis in all cultures; adapt your thank you note to different languages and cultures
  4. most Asian names start with the family name followed by given name
  5. in most cultures, Mr. and Mrs. will be in front of the last name; however, for Japanese the word “-sama” will actually be used after the family name and not in front of it.

On August 12, 2010, posted in: Cross-Cultural Articles by