30

I always address my professors as "Professor [Last Name]" in an academic setting. However, in an non-academic setting such as running into them out and about, would it be considered rude to say "Hi [Last Name]!" to greet them?

Would it be better to address them by their first name even if you have never used it before, or always prefix their last name with Professor?

  • 72
    What part of the world are you in? To my ear (in the US), I would find it less offensive and more bizarre or confusing. – cag51 May 22 at 22:51
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    @cag51 Agree on this. Under what conditions in the US do we call someone by just their surname? The military? A high school coach yelling at a player? Hangin' with the brothers on the street? Certainly not in most university settings. – Vladhagen May 22 at 22:58
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    I spent several years in California and have never heard this. I suspect it's a quirk of the personalities involved rather than a widely-adopted form of address. – cag51 May 23 at 1:03
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    In the US (or the parts where I've lived, anyway), it's extremely rude to call ANYONE by just their last name. It's really only done in the military, as a means of depersonalization. – jamesqf May 23 at 16:41
  • 6
    In the US, the only places where this form of address is common and considered acceptable is in the military and related settings. – RBarryYoung May 24 at 1:27

17 Answers 17

117

I wouldn’t find it rude, but I would find it weird. I can’t think of any situation where you wouldn’t be better off using a first name instead of a last name without a title. If you’re going to be formal do it right, and if you’re going to be informal use first name. We’re not on a football team or in the military.

(It’s of course totally fine and normal students talking to each other without the professor present, to just use last name and no title.)

  • 32
    This is the only answer that makes sense to me...I don't think it's at all common to refer to anyone, professor or otherwise, by their last name only in the US. – cag51 May 23 at 1:01
  • 12
    Ditto in the UK. – David Richerby May 23 at 10:59
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    I grew up in the midwest of the US in a German-settled community. To call someone by their first name was considered overly familiar. Only immediate family and very best friends were called by first name. In my ear, it still sounds that way and I'm a bit offended when I get a letter or phone call from a business referring to me as "Bart." We called each other by last name in school. Mr. or Mrs. was added for cases of respect. Adults did the same. And children were often referred to a s "Young [last name.]" I was in grade school in the 60's. – B. Goddard May 23 at 12:01
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    @cag51, sorry for offtopic, but as a non-native speaker I found it strange that almost everyone uses last names to refer to their colleagues in House MD series. Are hospitals like football teams or military? – rg_software May 23 at 12:42
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    @rg_software some are actually (all of this is based on the many friends and family I have with disabilities which have lead to fairly regular hospital visits). First, with patients, your nametag typically says "Dr. Lastname" so all the patients will use this. With staff & other doctors they seem to tend to follow that when talking with patients but drop the Doctor title when speaking amongst each other. As with all of these, its a function of respect and becomes a habit (I still call military buddies by their last names even though I know their first names and we are not active duty anymore) – LinkBerest May 23 at 13:11
26

Would it be rude if I called you by your surname only?

It depends.

How well do I know you? What is our relationship? Is there a significant age gap between us? Are we in a fraternity or the military?

As a student, I never once called a professor by only their surname when speaking to their face, formally or otherwise. They were always older than me (even if just by a few years) and we never had such an informal relationship that surname alone seemed appropriate.

I did call some professors by just their given name. This was usually when they specifically requested it or when I knew them quite well. As I rose higher through the ranks in academia

(freshman -> sophomore -> ..... -> graduate student -> PhD candidate....)

calling professors by their given name became more common.

I'm sure there could be some professors that would be fine with being called by their surname alone. Most would not be, however. This is not unique to academia. Most people in their 40s do not like being called by just their surname by 18 year old kids. Even when I was a 25 year old graduate student, I'll admit that it would sort of bother me if students called me by only my surname (even outside of class). We weren't in the army or something. Just call me by my first name.


Obviously saying something like "I had combinatorics from Levenworth and topology from Kostanza" when speaking to fellow students is a different story. There's no need to worry about offending someone when referring to them by surname alone when they are not there.

  • 3
    +1 “most people in their 40s do not like being called by just their surname.” My professor said that, in general, professors aged 50+ are a lot more likely to care about their proper title being used than those from a younger generation. – Kevin Miller May 22 at 22:34
  • @KevinMiller Over time, these things may soften, too. I was born in the 1980s (so I'm not "old") and there is a very small collection of people whom I would allow to call me by my last name. But I was okay with students calling me by my first name when I taught. Even now, as a "doctor," (PhD) I think it's funny when people call me "Dr. XXXXXXXXX" – Vladhagen May 22 at 22:42
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    What do you mean by "last name"? Would you really just call him "Smith", or at least "Mr Smith"? The first one sounds rude, the latter does not. – rexkogitans May 23 at 7:05
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    @rexkogitans If someone holds a chair, it would seem more rude (not to mention actually incorrect) to me to call them Mr. Smith instead of Professor Smith, as you are actively giving them a lesser title than they have earned rather dispensing with formalities. – Ty Hayes May 23 at 8:34
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    There is one exception to the "use their first name" rule: when it is ambiguous. My nephew was one of five Georges in his class at (high) school. His school friends all use his surname as his name. – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 23 at 10:20
18

In the U.S., in this year, at my age, I would be surprised if anyone addressed me by my surname. But that is a very different thing from reference to my work, where I'd mostly expect people to say "Garrett, [year]", or something similar. Still, in an in-house situation, to hear a speaker say "Paul's work..." would not be jarring, and might be more congenial than "Garrett's work...".

... although the times that a speaker has said "Garrett's work" and waved to me in the audience were perfectly fine.

I guess some nod of respect is the only substantive point, and this is dependant on the local culture... for which there is no clean algorithm.

  • 3
    Completely agree. In citations, "Paul" would be too informal, and "Prof. Garrett" feels like it might be an appeal to authority, so we just use the surname. – David Richerby May 23 at 11:03
12

In traditional Western culture, addressing a person by his family name only is mostly done in a superior-to-inferior context (military, very formal work environment, strict and old-fashioned school environment) with the nuance that the superior uses it that way to assert his superiority (somewhat rude, but the inferior has to swallow his pride). As such I would say it would be considered rude, or at least ignorant, if a student addresses a professor like that.

Using a person's given name is considered more intimate or at least informal in Western culture, typically only used in cases like:

  • family (only some relations, depending)
  • friends
  • colleagues, only in cases where the corporate culture is less formal or explicitly states it (but that is the case in the vast majority of companies nowadays)
  • when preferred by a person (typically, the person would introduce him/herself with something like "Hi, I'm firstname" or "Just call me firstname".)

If none of these cases apply, it is safer to use a more formal form of address, until the other party invites you to use a less formal address. The more senior party would extend such an invitation (see last point above). If you think your are (fairly) equal to a new person you are meeting (e.g., a fellow student, or joining a company and meeting colleagues) it should be OK to invite them to address you by your given name.

The other point nobody has mentioned, is that if not (yet) on an informal level, it should always be OK to address the other person by their title (only). An American professor should not take exception to being addressed as "Hello, Professor!" when met off-campus.

In general life it should be OK to address a stranger by an assumed general title like "mister", "miss", "mrs" ("sir", "madam") etc., and the person should have the manners to correct you with good grace if he/she prefers a different title (e.g., "Oh, I'm professor Smith..."). Or a business card/credit card/letterhead etc. should give hints at the person's title, if such materials are available. (Due to feminism, "Miss" and "Mrs" are problematic, but the proper replacements for such is another topic.)

  • 4
    I find it very annoying when people use the vague term "Western culture". The peoples it is understood to group together have very diverse cultures. (Otherwise +1, my perception about using family names without titles is exactly the same as yours.) – Szabolcs May 23 at 11:06
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    Your first paragraph is perfect, but I disagree with a lot of the rest of what you say. "Western culture" is very broad and, at least in the part of it where I live, the use of first names is much more common than you imply. For example, I would feel comfortable addressing pretty much anybody in my university by their first name. I've spent very little time in industry but the idea that the default there is to address people as title-surname seems completely alien to me and like something from 50 years ago. – David Richerby May 23 at 11:09
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    And, while I agree that it's pretty much always appropriate to address a professor as "Professor", that doesn't apply to other titles. In the UK, for example, only the most senior faculty are professors and you wouldn't say "Hello, Doctor!" to anybody, ever (except perhaps to your medical doctor, but even then it would seem strange). "Hello Mister!" would be even worse. – David Richerby May 23 at 11:10
  • Indeed, I don't even know the last names of many of my casual acquaintances, even though I've known some of them for years. – jamesqf May 23 at 16:48
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As Vladhagen’s answer suggests, this question is highly dependent on the relationship you have with the professor.

As a general rule, I try to match the level of formality that I see from a professor. For example, if a professor signs emails to me with just their first name, then I respond using their first name in an email. If I see them in person at this point, I think it would be fine to use the first name (but I typically do not). When in doubt, always err on the side of formality.

If you have never used their first name (or if they have never indicated that using their first name in an academic setting is appropriate), then I would not recommend using it if you see them out and about. This could create a potentially uncomfortable dynamic, especially if other students do not refer to them by first name.


As a grad student, one of my professors has indicated that they are perfectly fine with students addressing them by first name only. I would personally prefer to be more formal, but since my relationship with this professor is very casual and friendly (and it would almost be weird to say “Dr. X” or “Professor X” at this point), I’ve adopted a middle ground of omitting the title and only calling them “last name” in both academic and non-academic situations. It is important to note, though, that they are a younger professor.

  • 4
    I've had students do this last-name-only thing with me, and I could never understand why. Your "middle ground" explanation is the first sensible explanation I've heard. Personally, I found it slightly annoying, but not enough so to ask them to stop. – Nate Eldredge May 23 at 0:45
  • @NateEldredge It’s nice to hear this prospective. Since you aren’t a huge fan of the last name only, would you prefer “Professor” in front, or would you rather go by first name? – Kevin Miller May 23 at 7:45
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    I think a safer middle ground for causal conversation would be just to use their title: "Hi Professor, what did you think about..." – Robin Bennett May 23 at 9:14
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    @NateEldredge another reason I've found are all my military students will do that when I ask them to use less formal address or just naturally do so after graduating. Being a veteran myself, I understand where the habit comes from and that they can be hard to break. My wife will still call me out once in a while when I say "I have to head to the base to get some work done." chuckling at how I still say that out of habit instead of campus. – LinkBerest May 23 at 13:17
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    @KevinMiller: Personally, I'm equally fine with any of "Professor Eldredge", "Doctor Eldredge", and "Nate". It just feels strange for some reason to hear something like "Hey Eldredge, have you graded our exams yet?" – Nate Eldredge May 23 at 16:38
9

Yes, it is very rude.

This form of address, unless specifically requested, is typical of a superior to a subordinate. Think corporate management, "So, I hear Smith did some good work on this project, but Brown really needs to work harder." It's the sort of address used when one refers to many people often and perceives them to be of lower rank.

Depending on your comfort with various levels of formality, you can use a first name, or a prefix and last name. But never a last name only, unless the recipient suggests it.

(This is in Australia, where formality levels are somewhat more relaxed than many other places, and the use of the first name is quite common even on a student-professor basis.)

  • "a prefix and last name" I think it would be interesting to know which prefix to use for a professor. Either "Professor" or "Mr/Mrs". – rexkogitans May 23 at 7:15
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    @rexkogitans - they've worked hard to earn the "Dr." or "Prof", don't demote them to "Mr/Mrs" – Robin Bennett May 23 at 9:08
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    @RobinBennett Unless they are a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in the UK - in which case they have worked damned hard to earn that "Mr/Mrs", so don't demote them to plain "Dr." :-) – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 23 at 10:23
  • @Martin - Good point. I think that's the exception that proves the rule. – Robin Bennett May 23 at 10:28
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    @Sinc Doctors have, hundreds of years, needed to have an MD degree to call themselves "Dr". Surgeons were of much lower status, having evolved from the barber surgeon, whose possession of razor blades and so on meant that they were also called upon to do blood lettings. That expanded into tooth-pulling and amputations, particularly on the battle field. As surgery became more modern, requiring advanced training, being "Mr" became a point of pride that distinguished their now-higher status than doctors. – David Richerby May 24 at 16:57
5

What about just addressing him as "Sir" or "Mam" in case of a woman.

"Hello sir" is a common approach to addressing superiors when using English, in Europe, outside of work I believe.

Personally I would find using surname only very odd. I work in academia myself, but I have to say that in Europe and in the field of natural sciences the level is quite informal. Being on a first name basis with your professor or supervisor is quite normal once you're not just a bachelor or master's student anymore.

  • 1
    "Sir" or "Ma'am" (note spelling) sounds very odd in British English. People in customer service roles sometimes address people whose names they don't know in that way, but it's extremely rare outside that context. – David Richerby May 24 at 15:36
  • So how would you formally address a stranger in function such as a police officer or train conductor etc in British English? – Mark May 24 at 15:44
  • I probably wouldn't address them as anything at all. They might address me as "Sir" but, most likely, they also wouldn't address me. – David Richerby May 24 at 16:45
  • It also sounds really weird in the area of the United States that I'm from (somewhere between the east coast and the midwest). I can't recall anyone ever using "sir" or "ma'am" in any context where I'm from. To my ear it sounds super southern, probably because that's the only place I've heard it used before. – jgon May 26 at 2:14
3

Superficially, yes, it is rude, but really more true that it is just weird.

However, let us assume that:

  • The professor is American
  • You are from a non-English speaking background

In that case, the professor will most likely interpret your language as odd, but not intentionally rude.

3

The only correct answer is:

Ask the professor how they prefer you address them.

There are many ways people call each other face to face, and some might be more familiar to the professor. Even if you hear everybody calling professor one way, it might not be their preferred choice.

So, ask and then follow with whatever they say is the best. It is their name, you have no say in how to call someone

2

I am honestly baffled that so many people seem to agree that it is rude or unusual to refer to a teacher or professor by just their surname. Perhaps it's just where I'm from (grew up in Colorado and went to university in Washington state), but this practice was extremely common between students and would only be slightly unusual when directed to the professor. A question like "Do you have Jones or Smith for Calculus II this semester?" would be totally normal, and I had a couple professors who went primarily by just their surnames.

Keep in mind this was a relatively informal university setting and we came to know our professors relatively well (I ate dinner at a few of my professors' houses), so this may just be an isolated cultural difference.

The most important thing to me would be to respect their wishes in how you refer to them directly, and many professors clarified their preferences at the beginnings of semesters. Some would prefer you use just their first names, some their title and surname, and some didn't care at all.

  • 9
    Yes, "Do you have Jones or Smith for Calculus II this semester?" would be totally normal in my experience. I think the question is about whether "Hi Jones" or "Hi Smith" said as a greeting directly to that person is weird. – J. Chris Compton May 23 at 20:11
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    Referring to someone--and particularly someone's work/tenure/etc--by their surname is fine: "I have Jones for Calculus; I read Wilson's Book. I miss the Obama presidency.". Addressing them by surname, however, seems weird, unless a) they go by it or b) you're some kind of 1950s schoolmaster. Do you disagree, Wells? – Matt May 24 at 21:30
  • @J.ChrisCompton I can see that, but I have had numerous friends, teachers, and professors who did go by just their surname, and someone had to be the first one to do that before it caught on, so I don't think it's really that strange – Kevin Wells May 28 at 20:32
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    @KevinWells If it is an established protocol, it isn't weird to follow it. That does not make it okay for you to start it. A group of my high school friends already contained a Chris, so I am Compton to them to this day (and he is sometimes "Chris" and sometimes <his last name>). It isn't weird that they call me by my last (family) name, but it would be weird if someone else did. – J. Chris Compton May 29 at 14:38
  • Having said that... full disclosure: After the movie made Straight outta Compton a catch phrase, it is more common for people to use my surname by itself, and honestly it is now almost normal to me - but before that it wasn't. I'll note that this would also be more common (in the US at least) within military families when referring to non-family members, but I doubt either of those apply. – J. Chris Compton May 29 at 14:43
2

As a general rule ('Dr.X on campus, X off-campus), I would find this strange.

However, I have a very common first name, and some friends do call me by my (short) last name. If we have been on a first-name basis for a little while, I don't mind at all. However, it would be a little strange to hear it from a distant acquaintance or stranger.

If you have a very jocular relationship, it might be okay, depending on your/the prof's background and relative ages. If it is more 'professionally friendly', I would avoid it.

2

In South Asia, we never address by name. We use Sir/Madam.

I guess it depends on the society you live in.

2

Even when I was a freshman in college, there was a prof in a very small class (like my Honors Calculus class) that sorta announced on the first day that, only within that class, he preferred first name with everyone. But he warned us that outside of that class in the department, it might be frowned on.

When I bumped into him off campus, it was "Michael", not "Dr. Gregory".

By the time I was a senior and grad student, I was on a first name basis with all of the profs in my very small electrical engineering department at the U of North Dakota. Certainly with my adviser.

But there are other professional/client situations that, until the person with an honorific tells you "Call me Bill, please" (like my regular physician), I think it's appropriate to address them the way you have originally when you are first introduced. "Mr.", "Ms.", "Dr.", "Prof.", "Dean", "Pres.", "Judge", "Gov." until they change it. But, if they do not, you have the right to ask them to address you formally in a reciprocal manner. But you don't have to ask that either.

(I happen to sorta know the Attorney General of the state of Vermont, but he's always been "TJ" to me. I also know the Lt Governor and he's "David". And the Mayor of the town I'm in is "Miro", but I like to say "Hizzoner".)

0

I would perceive this as rude. In fact I think it is significantly more rude than just using the given name. Addressing someone by their given name suggests you are treating them as an equal, which some professors will be fine with but others might consider presumptuous. Addressing someone by just their surname, on the other hand, has connotations of treating them as an inferior; historically, it's how an employer would have addressed a servant.

If you want something informal but not offensive, how about "dude"?

  • The suggestion of "dude" is silly, which is a shame, as I'd happily upvote the rest of your answer. – David Richerby May 24 at 15:37
0

In India, we usually address a professor as Sir/Madam/Professor + last name, whether in a formal or informal setting. In fact, I don't even know the first names of many of my professors - in most cases, I only know their initials and last name.

However, some notable exceptions introduced themselves by their first name and took offense to it being prefixed with Sir/Madam, and in those cases we addressed them by their first name in all situations. These professors were the exception to the above norm. However, when in doubt, we would always refer to a professor as Sir/Madam/Professor + last name.

When a professor is being addressed in the third person, we would refer to them in the same manner (sometimes dropping the prefix when in an informal setting - i.e. among students with no professors part of the conversation).

0

I'm at a community college in California, and once in a while I do get a student addressing me as "Crowell." I've never asked why, because I didn't want to make it seem like I was getting uptight about my status.

My guess is that it's based on confusion and uncertainty on the student's part. At a community college, some professors have PhD's and some don't. Therefore the student may think that the options are "Hi, Mr. Crowell" (as in high school) or "Hi, Dr. Crowell." They don't know whether I have a PhD, so they don't know which is appropriate. It doesn't occur to them that "Hi, Professor Crowell" would be a safe alternative.

As a test of my hypothesis, we could see if others who have experienced this are at community colleges.

Community college students are often the first in their family to go to college, so they may lack any experience to serve as a point of reference on something like this.

Another possibility is that these are just students who object to titles and roles of authority on principle.

0

It totally depends on the professor. Obviously, it's weird to start calling someone by their last name but in case of some people it's common practice. I think the best known example is the character Cosmo Kramer on the television show Seinfeld.

In his Wikipedia page says the following about his surname:

Kramer was known only as "Kramer" during the show's first five seasons (from 1989 to 1994), though in "The Seinfeld Chronicles", Jerry referred to him as "Kessler", which was his original name for the show, until it was changed to "Kramer".

Indeed the difference here, is that Kramer and the characters he interacts with are mostly peers. In case of a student-professor relationship, it would be more common to add a title. The exception being when the professor says so, e.g.

You may refer to me as Kramer

You can just call me Kramer

It's not very common, but it has a certain appeal (as evidenced in the TV series).

protected by StrongBad May 24 at 14:53

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