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What’s in a Name?

In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet professes her love for Romeo despite his rival house and name (Montague). “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy,” she declares.

Do you, like Juliet, care about others but regard their names as your enemies? Do you change people’s names to suit your needs?
Or do you show respect by accepting and using the names of others?

For the past 25 years, I’ve taught business writing classes in more than a hundred organizations. I have seen many people’s names turned into something else purely for others’ convenience. Consider these fictionalized examples:

  • People call Raadhak Agarwal “Red.” Yet they call his coworker Mary-Margaret by her full multisyllabic name.
  • Clodovea Cepeda goes by “Clare,” a name her supervisor introduced because he couldn’t remember “Clodovea.”
  • Guiying Zhang became “Guy” because the name “Guiying” daunts her teammates and others.

Transforming Raadhak into Red, making Clodovea be Clare, and changing Guiying into a Guy despite her gender—that isn’t the way to create solid, respectful work relationships.

I imagine that the people who love Raadhak, Clodovea, and Guiying call them by their true names. Why don’t the people who work with them do the same?

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the famous self-improvement and sales expert Dale Carnegie wrote, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” That approach seems the opposite of Juliet’s view in Romeo and Juliet. She asserts, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This one time I prefer Dale Carnegie’s plain message to Shakespeare’s elegance.

What’s in a name? The opportunity to recognize, remember, and respect a person’s uniqueness. Let’s take that opportunity. No more calling James “Jimmy.” No more spelling Kathryn your way instead of hers. No more “Mo” for Mohammed.

Will you join me?


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

19 comments on “What’s in a Name?”

  • In writing or in a conversation, I call a person what he or she wants to be called. But they have to tell me. Many people voluntarily shorten, simplify or change their first names so that others can address them more easily. If someone feels strongly about how they want to be called, they have to say so and correct those who deviate. That’s the tricky part. I have a business partner I have always called Gaby. But she signs her emails to me Gabrielle. She has never corrected me when I say or write Gaby, and calling her Gabrielle would be strangely formal, so I assume she is okay with Gaby.

  • I agreed with Walker and George opinions.

    Some people may love it when people call them by a nickname, given that they acknowledged/ introduced it first. But, some may not be comfortable with a nickname. I’ve experienced both feelings at the same time.

    My name is Muslihah, and my close friends usually addressed me as Mus. In my case, I never disclosed that nickname to my clients. But one day, somehow, one of my clients, the one which we only have conversations through the phone, suddenly addressed me by Mus. I was quite taken aback, but then, I felt somewhat a warm feeling about it. The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Why is he being over-friendly with me when we just had our second phone conversation? I don’t remember telling him about my nickname”.

    But then, after being call Mus several times, it made me rather happy as it decreases the gap between us.

    Sure, this experience might be different individually, though.

  • The way someone signs their email is a clue as to what they want to be called. I feel a little slighted when someone responds to my email with the name in my email address rather than the way I signed my original email to them. It indicates that they are not really paying attention to my preference.

  • Everyone, thanks for the comments.

    Vishwapriya, thanks for getting us started.

    Walker, thanks for suggesting that we call people the name they use to introduce themselves. I should have suggested that approach.

    George, I always appreciate your perspective. I’m curious why you would not call Gabrielle by the name she signs. It may be how she indicates her preference.

    Muslihah, thanks for your example. It illustrates how people may feel about being called by a nickname and how that feeling may change.

    Sk, how we address people is an essential part of business writing.

    Cindy, you describe the tricky situation of email addresses differing from signatures. People see the email address when they scan their inbox, and they may see it over and over, whereas they only briefly see the name you sign. I have been on the other side of that situation. I hope I didn’t slight anyone.

    It sounds like this topic may merit another column on tips for how to communicate one’s name preference.


  • I think in scenarios where you aren’t sure what to call a person, always go with their full legal name, especially if you don’t know the person well enough. Unless someone tells you to call them something different out of preference or you ask, don’t assume another name is ok. Some people may prefer a nickname, though.

  • Thank you for addressing this! With all due respect to sk, this is not about political correctness; it’s about good manners, the same as other matters of business etiquette. I always introduce myself by my full name, Lorelee. Almost invariably, people respond by calling me Lori or Lora. To my ears, you could just as well call me Amanda or Susan–it’s simply not my name. I do correct people when this happens, but it usually takes several corrections before it finally sinks in. Spelling it is another issue! I understand it’s an unusual spelling, and I don’t expect people to spell it right on first hearing. What astounds me is that, quite often, I will send an email with my name clearly typed in the signature line, and I will get a response with my name misspelled. We all make mistakes, but it seems disrespectful to make no effort to spell someone’s name correctly if it’s readily available for reference.

  • I’m so glad to hear what I’ve been thinking for years, put into such simple terms.

    Personally, my name means a lot to me and it can completely switch me off if someone doesn’t take the time or consideration to spell it correctly. I often think that when this relates to a sales person, they could miss out on a sale from the initial correspondence just because of this name thing.

  • Thanks for the input, everyone.

    Stephanie, I agree that the full name is a good place to start. And I appreciate your reminder that some people may prefer a nickname.

    Lorelee, thanks for your example of what people do to your name. I especially like your point that Lori or Lora might as well be Amanda or Susan–it’s not your name. Like you, I find my name misspelled often–to Lynne or even Lyn, which looks so weird to me. I’m not that person.

    Sara-Jayne, you’ve made an important point about sales and service. To be sure I get names right, I copy and paste them, as I just did with your name.

    Chiara, I’m feeling the love. Thanks!


  • In all the years of my work in campus ministry, much of it among students from many nations of the world, I felt the most important thing I did, the first thing I did, was to understand and speak the name of the student I was with. So often, some professor had changed that name to suit laziness and elite privilege. Honoring the name of the person in front of me seemed a deep responsibility.
    Thanks for your post, Lynn!

  • I, too, do not like having my name, Patricia, shortened to Pat. Most of the time, I will correct the person by saying “I prefer Patricia or Tricia, or Trish — anything but Pat. I add that when I was a child, my dentist called me “Pat” right before he started the drill. But, sometimes I’m in a hurry or the person who misidentifies me is, and I don’t correct them. Do you have any suggestions on how to correct someone after I’ve allowed them to address me by the wrong name more than once?

  • I don’t mind if anyone calls me Deb, Debby, Deby or Debo, but it really bugs me when they write Debora without the H! And of course I love it when people ask me if my name is with or without H.

    However, I really hated that my previous boss called me Deboruccia (something like “pretty little Deborah”, if I had to say that in english…) and I didn’t know how to tell her not to do that. She was the kind of person who could mock me for ages.

    I didn’t feel disrespected when english people couldn’t pronounce my name like my parents do (that is in italian), they would say Debra and I wouldn’t mind that they skipped the O. It made me feel more english and I loved that, I wanted to fit in!

    All in all, I think it’s a really personal matter. But since understand some might be offended, I’ll make sure to ask before using a nickname!

    Plus, I noticed that all chinese people I write to have changed their chinese name to something more western. I think it’s a pity and they shouldn’t do that.

    In business writing, is there a rule as to when to use the name and when the family name?

  • Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for your expressive comments. Nice to hear your views.

    Regarding first name or family name, we typically use the family name in business writing if we have no prior relationship with someone. And that formality can continue indefinitely. However, using a first name moves the relationship to a friendlier status.

    At work, peers typically use first names–unless they have a reason not to. That reason might be a desire to maintain a formal relationship in front of others, for example, students or patients.

    If you have a particular situation you are concerned about, let me know.


  • I think you’re absolutely right, calling someone by a name they never use themselves is very irritating.

    Often I think people do this to try and create a sense of intimacy or friendship with someone but, of course, it usually has the reverse effect!

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