In my country (India), there are several implicit norms that almost everyone is expected to follow.

One of the important norms is that juniors do not address a senior by their name. It happens students' circles as well as in faculty circles - thus, even junior professors would not address senior professors by name.

Recently (in the US), a female assistant professor addressed a male associate professor by his name. This was the first ever time that I saw an incident like this. I even thought it was offensive to the male associate professor.

I am wondering whether it is a norm in the US to address seniors as "sir" or any other respectable salutation instead of addressing by name.

Note: The question is broader than only addressing a professor.

  • 26
    When you say "by name" do you mean that "Professor Jones" is not allowed? Or do you merely mean that "Henry" is not allowed? Certainly in the US, "Professor Jones" would always be allowed.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 11:34
  • 7
    What do you mean by "senior"? In the US, it could be either someone at a higher rank in the organization, or simply someone a good bit older. And in US universities, it isn't all that unusual for some students to be a good bit older than some of the professors :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 3:12
  • Out of curiosity are you speaking English with your Indian countrymen, or your local language? Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 8:50
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 23:16
  • 1
    It's been a long time, but good manners are good manners. I had called him 'Professor Jones' until the day he said 'Call me Bill.' This was in the US. Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 18:55

8 Answers 8


No, in the US, it's usually not rude to address people you know more than in passing (e.g. are colleagues, classmates, or in their class) by their first name. NB: The question isn't "How should I address a professor?" it's about general rules and behavior, especially (my interpretation) the same university.

In the US, professors, staff, and PhD students would address everyone on their own "level" by their first name. In every department I have encountered, anyone in any of those groups would address each other by their first name, but as others have pointed out, occasionally Master's students maintain a bit more formality.

Occasionally, some professors prefer their undergraduates (especially in large classes) to use their title, whether "Professor," "Doctor," or "Mister/Miss/Mrs."

All undergraduates would use first names, and would almost always use first names with staff and graduate students they are familiar with.

However, it's typically considered polite to start using the title (for faculty, and maybe staff) and to only use their first name when invited, which most people in academia in the US do right away. Often, the convention is people sign their emails how they want you to address them. In my experience, it would be a raised eyebrow to use a first name where it was "incorrect," but would really only elevate to "rude" once someone has consistent disregarded someone's expressed wishes.

In regards to your example, it would strike me as incredibly rude if a professor took offense at another professor by using their first name.

  • 6
    Yeah, for professors you usally use last name unless invited to, which however they usually do in the first lecture. There are the few Profs insisting on their title/lastname and to them it would indeed be an offence. Those are becoming more and more rare tho
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 30, 2020 at 12:27
  • 7
    E.g., quite often senior faculty, when talking to grad students, refer to other senior faculty as "Prof X", rather than "Alice/Bob". I do so myself, in my own mind conveying respect, though that probably doesn't mean much, given the cultural drift. Decades ago, referring to people by surname only was nearly standard, in some circles. As it was in my middle school, among boys, who were trying to be tough. :) Ah, society, ... Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 0:23
  • 2
    Might also be some exceptions in medicine, where MDs often refer to each other as Dr Lastname.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 0:38
  • 11
    I agree with mostly everything in this answer, except "The convention is people sign their emails how they want you to address them.". In my experience, people use automated signatures in their emails, which include their full name, their diploma, their field of research, as well as their professional contact information. The automated signature remains always the same, regardless of the emails' recipients, be it colleagues, students, friends, family, or bureaucracy. These automated signatures absolutely do not reflect the way the person wants to be addressed.
    – Stef
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 13:35
  • 4
    @Stef I have such an automated signature. Just above the block with the institution's logo, my title, name, rank, and serial number, it says, "Best regards, Bob"
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 21:15

As US native who has been in university more than once and has also lived abroad, I'm very familiar with this question.
It's understandable to think that there is no formality around names at all in the US because it is common to find people using personal names and not family names or titles. You can probably find examples of people using personal names with superiors or teachers in any institution.

However, in truth it's taking it a bit too far to say a person should just use personal names and there are no rules.

The current majority culture in the US does have fewer clear, strict rules around social hierarchies than many other cultures.
But it certainly does have respect for seniors. And how it operates is through conventions around paying attention to what is expected.

When you first enter a new institution or organization, you absolutely should first address people much older or more senior than you as "Mister" or "Ms" or a job title where there is one ("Professor", "Doctor", "Sergeant"). (corollary - US English culture does have job titles, just very, very few of them for some reason)
They will tell you if they want you to use a first name instead. You might still "forget" to use their first name a couple times to be sure.

When meeting someone that may be only a little older or more senior than you, introduce yourself first and then ask them how you should call them.

When learning about someone indirectly, such as in a meeting, you need to observe how others address them, or even ask your peers how to address them.

We might add that written communication may be different, especially for an official purpose, and you should seek out examples of what may be the best way to address people.

Through all of this, you may end up using personal names much of the time. But the rule isn't to ignore respecting seniors, it's to show respect by following the local conventions, just like anywhere.
The conventions in US majority culture in some ways are actually more complicated than in cultures with strict hierarchies. They may also be less consequential.
But they are still present.

  • 2
    Yes, wisest to gauge the context by watching others' forms of address. Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 0:20
  • 2
    Official written communication actually has a very straightforward rule: You use Title Lastname format, or Title Firstname Lastname if (for some reason) you want it to look like junk mail written by a robot. The only tricky part might be figuring out the right title, but in most academic contexts, that will be one of Mr., Ms., Dr., or Prof., as appropriate (I agree with KRyan that Mrs. and Miss should be disfavored unless you happen to know that the recipient specifically wants to use one of those titles).
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 8:37
  • 1
    When addressing someone you don't know well, who is older than you, and whose position in the hierarchy is unknown to you, "sir" and "ma'am" (male or female forms of address) are generally acceptable until you're given leave to use a more familiar form of address, or a different and more specific form of address (e.g. "Professor Jones") becomes obvious. Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 13:14

I understand what you mean. In India, junior faculty usually address all senior faculty (especially those in administration such as Deans and Directors etc) as Professor X etc. But faculty, staff and students of similar age would refer to each other by first name.

However, in the USA, it is the norm that faculty, staff and students of similar position would refer to each other by first name. Among faculty, the distinction among professors, associate professors and assistant professor is rare and each refer to one another by first name.


Offensive? Generally not. Awkward might be a better description.

You talk about addressing seniors, but that can be interpreted as referring to age or to rank. The culture in some parts of the US default to using title + last name for anyone a generation or more older than you, while in other parts of the country this custom is on the decline. In some places you might even hear title + first name as the local custom. Because of this inconsistency such habits are considered polite, but aren't necessarily expected. There aren't large-scale cultural rules like that regarding position or rank (military schools notwithstanding). You tend to see relatively consistent habits within a department or university, but the school in the next town over might do it completely differently. My university even had one department that did it slightly different than the others. They had several instructors with the same last name so they used title + first name (tradition was less important than practicality).

The general rule of thumb is to use whatever name/title that person wants you to use. If you call someone by first name and they respond by indicating that they'd prefer you use their title and last name - or vice versa - then that person won't typically be offended. You didn't know what their preference was and you made an honest mistake (it happens to everybody). When people tend to get offended is when they tell you how they want to be addressed and then you continue to call them something else. That comes across as an intentional disregard for their wishes, and people might take offense as that.

The other thing to keep in mind is the audience. Instructors (regardless of official title) might normally address each other by their first name. When in a group with students present, however, they'll typically use whatever form of address the students would normally use. It's generally less confusing that way, as students may not even remember an instructor's first name if that's not what they use to address them.

In your example, the assistant professor addressing the associate professor by first name would be perfectly normal in most cases, at least in private or with other faculty members. It would be unusual and awkward in mixed company (faculty and students together), but not seen as offensive unless it was clear that the speaker was intending to offend the other person.


There isn't really the same concept of "seniority" in general US culture as there is in other cultures. (I say "in general" because there are different varieties of US culture. Southern culture is more formal than Northern. Different ethnic groups are going to have different norms. Groups like the mafia probably enforce status differentials more than the general population does.) There are very few cases where using any name would be considered rude. Maybe if you're in court, the judge might consider it rude to refer to them by their name rather than as "your honor".

There are cases where it's considered proper to refer to people by their last names. And referring to someone by just their last name generally comes across as casual; in formal situations one uses a title or honorific before the name.

There are two general categories of where last names are expected: a formal situation where everyone refers to each other by their last names, and a situation where there is a large hierarchical distance where the "higher" person is addressed by their last name.

Although the Harry Potter books takes place in a British boarding school, so it's more formal than the general US social situation, it's an example of different norms that you might see in place. You'll notice that all the students address their professors as Professor Lastname, and the professors address the students by just their last name, while in conversations within just students or just professors, you'll see first names. So between professors and students, the interactions are formal, with the difference in social level being marked by the students using the title "Professor", and professors just using last names.

In the US, prior to college there is a clear gulf between he social status of teachers versus students, and teachers generally refer to students by their first names while students refer to teachers by honorific + last name. The honorific will usually be Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms., but if someone is teaching high school despite having a PhD, they might have the students refer to them as "Doctor". In the other directions, in less formal/"progressive" schools, the students may refer to the teachers by their first name.

During college, there is less of a gulf, especially in graduate schools. Whether a doctoral students addresses their adviser first name will depend on their relationship, although they will probably refer to them by their last name, even if they are addressing them with their first name. A TA will probably address the professor they are working for by their last name, but if the professor is less formal, the TA may address them by their first name. Students will generally address, and a TA who asks their students to refer to them by their last name will probably be seen as pretentious.

However, you have more leeway for asking people to refer to you by your last name if you also refer to other people by their last name; then it's an issue of formality rather than relative status. An associate professor is indeed a more prestigious position than assistant professor, but it's not enough of a status difference to justify last name status. Unless they refer to assistant professors by their last name, an associate professor who asks assistant professors to use their last name is going to be considered a pompous jerk. In US culture, marking someone as being a lower status is a faux pas more often than not marking someone as being a higher status is.

The military is one area where there is a rigid hierarchy. From what I gather, people will generally be referred to by their rank and last name, but in some cases they'll use just last name, and in casual settings they'll refer to each by their first name.

Also, never refer to a woman by her first name if you would not, in similar circumstances, refer to a man by his first name.


It's also worth noting that outside academia, things tend to be more "casually formal" in the South, compared to the North (where "The South" means from Texas to the Atlantic and from Virginia down to the Gulf of Mexico - "The North" is just about everywhere else (give or take)). In the South, people regularly address each other casually as Sir and Ma'am. In the rest of the country, this tends to bring odd stares.


No, in this year, it's not really "offensive" in U.S. academia to address one's seniors by their given names...

But that literal question is probably misleading, and/or invites incomplete descriptions of the situation.

For one, in some contexts it is a "matter of custom/form" that everyone addresses everyone by given name. How to know whether one is in such a situation or not? Watch others. To my perception, sometimes there is the exaggerated display of familiarity by addressing serious people far more familiarly than there is any possible justification for. This game is not only played in academia, of course.

And, for that matter, telemarketers and solicitors seem to use given names...

And medical people with their patients. When I was younger, I was tempted to both address them by their given name, and "correct" them to address me as "Professor X" rather than "given name". :)

But to my ear, though I'm some decades removed from current culture, use of given names with people who aren't one's intimates is ... ridiculous.

When grad students in my dept (quite considerately) ask what form of address I'd like, one of the diagnostic questions I pose is "do you address your grandparents by their given names?"... and of course they don't. For that matter, my partner only addresses me by my given name to make some sort of rhetorical point. Ditto my kids. :) (So we have a quite nice symbolic compromise, that many address me by my initials...)

And, as I say to grad students, tone of voice matters far more than the literal words.

Not a clear answer, I know, but hopefully informative... :)

  • 4
    I'm curious what the grandparents example is supposed to mean? They're family, and that's a different situation than non-family. I don't use nicknames for them because they're older than me, I use them because they're kin. (And one of them does go by Grandma "Alice"). Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 2:39
  • My point was that, even though grandparents are relatives, I suspect not many people address Grandma Alice simply as "Alice" on a regular basis. Perhaps I'm mistaken. In any case, I would never have addressed my grandfather simply as "Bob", etc., and not only because he was family. Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 18:56
  • 1
    But what do terms of endearment have to to do with titles? Like what does telling you my grandpa goes by "Papa" tell me what I should call you? Do you go by Papa garett? haha Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 19:07
  • 1
    Sorry, I don't understand the sentence with "rhetorical point" (maybe due to my limited English). Are you saying your partner would "usually" not call you by your given name (if they would not want to make a point)? If so, what form would he/she use instead?
    – user111388
    Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 20:22
  • The OP seems to be saying that using any name, not just given name, is considered rude. Commented Dec 1, 2020 at 20:47

I believe it's also where you're from. when i was young, my parents had several friends that they called by their given names. I didn't just call him "Frank", that would have been far too familiar, but Mr Frank was perfectly acceptable. now that I'm older, when I meet kids for the first time, i introduce myself as Mr Kevin. My wife is Miss Michele.

You'll find this a lot in the southern USA.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .