Politeness in Modern American English

Modern American English has few official rules for how politely you should address a given individual in a given situation. While there are a handful of basic courtesies that you should consistently employ (please, thank you, you’re welcome, etc.), the structure of the language itself contains none of the signifiers of politeness commonly found in other languages. In French, Portuguese, and Spanish, for example, a second person singular pronoun takes different forms depending on whether you are addressing an elder or one of your peers. This formal/informal pronoun distinction is entirely absent in English. “You” is used regardless of whether a person is addressing or referring to his friend, child, parent, teacher, or boss.

Thus how politely one individual should address another depends almost entirely on the context of the conversation and the specific nature of the relationship between the two parties. For non-native speakers whose first language does have hard-coded rules governing politeness, this can be simultaneously liberating and intimidating. Sometimes the decision is easy. In situations where the person you are addressing has an explicit level of authority over you, should you error on the side of being overly formal or polite. For example, if a police officer pulls you over for speeding, you should address him or her as “officer,” answer his/her questions politely, and follow any orders (within reason) that he/she gives you. When visiting a physician for a medical exam, you would normally address him or her with “Dr.” followed by his or her last name. It would be extremely rare for you to call a doctor who is actually treating you by his or her first name.

However, most situations are not so clear-cut. As American society becomes progressively less formal, the language that we use naturally follows suit. This is especially true with interactions between and among younger Americans and in situations where the age gap between those individuals is relatively small. For example, American children are taught to address teachers by “Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, Dr, etc.” and their last names. When student get to college, they may find that this is no longer universally the case. While most professors will expect to be addressed by their professional titles and last names, a few may deviate from this rule, insisting that students address them by their first names or in a similarly informal manner. This is fairly common among young and relatively inexperienced professors, such as those who have not yet earned doctorates in their respective fields.

Other situations where “title + surname” used to be considered the norm include addressing your boss and the parents of your significant other. Many (although not all) bosses now prefer that employees address them by their first names. Similarly, the parents of a person whom you are in a long-term relationship with (but are not actually married to) may or may not prefer that you use just their first names.

The general rule is that if you’re unsure how someone wishes to be addressed you should ask him or her. This is sometimes easier said than done, but the good news is that you are not alone. The English Island in Atlanta can provide you with a customized, one-on-one class in this or any other tricky area of the English language. Our experienced, passionate teachers will help you master the challenge of being appropriately formal in a decidedly informal language.