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I am currently taking an online course (at a university in the US) in which once a week I am in the same virtual meeting room as two professors, one male and one female, with the same last name. I am unsure in how I should go about directly addressing one of them when I typically address all my professors as "Professor <lastname>" . As a second-year undergraduate student, I have been told it is inappropriate to address both professors by their first name if they have not stated this is okay (e.g. my past professors have typically said "you can call me <firstname>" on the first day of class). Additionally, when I took a course with one of these professors last year, I (and all other students) addressed them as "Professor <lastname>". If addressing them by first name is inappropriate in this context, how would I selectively address one when both professors are in the room?

With the exception of myself and another undergraduate, all other students in this course are graduate students, and address the professors on a first-name basis. So this has not a common cause of confusion in the course.

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    Did you ask them? It's up to their opinion. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 28 at 0:04
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    Our Head of Department was also a Knight of the Realm. So he was a Professor and a Sir. When addressing a Knight, one should use first name (Sir John), but when addressing a Professor, it's Professor Gunn. Had us undergraduates utterly baffled... – Oscar Bravo Oct 28 at 9:45
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    @OscarBravo What was settled on? – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 28 at 18:01
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    @AzorAhai--hehim: I'm guessing Professir Gunn... – user541686 Oct 29 at 8:35
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    This is a simple problem, compared with regular communications with three different medical nursing specialists (all with the same professional title) called Diane Smith, Diane Smith, and Dianne Smith. (Yes, really. I'm not making this up). – alephzero Oct 29 at 19:22
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There are few things you can do.

  1. Call each by their full name like 'Professor Ann Smith' or 'Professor Bill Smith'.
  2. Ask whether you can call them by 'Professor first-name' like 'Professor Ann' or 'Professor Bill'.
  3. Continue to use 'Professor last-name'. They'll either decide who will answer or ask you to clarify which person you wanted.
  4. And the easiest, as pointed out by Buffy, ask the professors if there's an alternate, unique name you can use so you can differentiate between them.
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    Even simpler, just ask them what they prefer. Maybe first names is fine, even for an undergrad. – Buffy Oct 27 at 21:38
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    Very true, @Buffy! Thanks for pointing that out. Let me add that in. – mkennedy Oct 27 at 21:47
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    That is really helpful advice, thank you! I will reach out to them; I thought this might be one of those things I should know already and was worried it would be a bit embarrassing to ask. – Proxentauri Oct 27 at 22:34
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    @mkennedy Further to Buffy's point, you don't need to ask them privately beforehand. It'd be better to ask in the open room at the start of the session, because that'll clear it up for everyone. – Graham Oct 28 at 10:00
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    @Proxentauri Unless it's really embarrassing or really inappropriate, it's usually better to ask if you're uncertain about something. – Nzall Oct 28 at 14:45
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In addition to the other great suggestions, you can address them as "Professor X, Sir" and "Professor X, Ma'am". That's so over the top formal that they might cringe and tell you to use their first names.

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    This seems unnatural, since one would (or at least I would …) never address someone this way—"Professor X" or "sir/ma'am" separately, but never together. I think that, if one were to go this way, then "Mr Professor X" or "Mrs Professor X" would be better (but still worse than asking them). – LSpice Oct 29 at 3:25
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    was "seeming natural" among the design criteria? – Dimitri Vulis Oct 29 at 15:34
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edit: as the OP points out in the comments, the following answer only makes sense in an in-person, non-Covid-19 setting. I'm leaving it up for the case the pandemic is resolved at some point.

Address them as Professor Lastname while looking the person you're addressing in the eye. The non-addressed person should take the hint from you not looking at them, that you mean the other person. If this indeed leads to confusion, count on the professors to suggest a way out.

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    This would be my approach in a face-to-face interaction; unfortunately, this is not quite as easy to do through Zoom or other online meeting platforms. – Proxentauri Oct 27 at 21:05
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    Yeah, sorry, I had blissfully forgotten that we live in a pandemic right now. Since this question remains on this site after the pandemic, perhaps consider adding that context to the question. At the moment, the question includes the phrase "in which once a week I am in the same room as two professors". I did not read that as meaning a virtual room. – Wetenschaap Oct 27 at 21:07
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    Oh right, my bad! I should have specified. Thanks for pointing it out. – Proxentauri Oct 27 at 21:14
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    This should only be done if both are already paying attention. If the one that you are not addressing is doing something else, they'll have to interrupt what they're doing to look to see who you're looking at. – Acccumulation Oct 27 at 22:25
  • Works out the same way online, only quicker. – Karl Oct 28 at 19:24
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At my school, there are several married professor couples who we refer to as "Dr. Mr. Last Name" and "Dr. Mrs. Last Name". This would probably be less appropriate if they are unrelated, and is informal enough that you would need their approval first, but it is both unambiguous and obvious in meaning.

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    Sounds a bit weird in English, and grotesquely formal in German. Herr Doktor Meier, that's how letters from your health insurance company start. ;-) – Karl Oct 28 at 19:30
  • @Karl: In German, wouldn't Frau Doktor Meier be Herr Doctor Meier's spouse? It's been decades since I took a German class, but that was one of the things that struck me as odd. – Flydog57 Oct 29 at 23:14
  • @Flydog57 That may have been the case 50 years ago, but would be considered odd if not even offensive today. – idmean Oct 30 at 11:51
  • @Flydog57 Being an academic herself, Mrs. Meier could take offence if you referred to the couple as Herr und Frau Dr. Meier, instead of Dres. Meier.;) Today it usually means that she has earned her own doctorate, but I'm pretty sure show knows which is the case. – Karl Oct 30 at 19:16

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