How to Address People in Formal and Informal Settings – Part One

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I received a message the other day from an old friend. After catching up on life, I then congratulated him on completing his PhD.

I said, “Congratulations! So it’s Dr Fadli now, isn’t it?” (not his real name).

He replied, “Thank you! But please drop the title!”

It’s great to be able to be informal with friends and peers. It’s equally important, however, to know when it’s appropriate to be formal. This is about being respectful.

In this week’s video, I taught ways to address people in formal and informal settings. 

Watch part one here.

You can also listen to this session on Apple PodcastsSpotify or Google Podcasts.

There are some notable differences as to how Malaysians address people and how Westerners in the English-speaking world address people. It comes down to social etiquette, customs and culture.

Let’s start with the word “surname.” A surname is a family name that is passed down from generations to generations.

In the West, a surname is placed at the end of the first name.

For example, Wakefield is placed at the end of Elizabeth. This name is shared among her siblings and would later be passed down to the next generation. That is unless Elizabeth gets married and adopts her husband’s surname.

As long as Elizabeth remains unmarried, a formal way to address her would be Miss Wakefield. However, if we do not know whether she’s married or not, we can call her Ms. This is pronounced as MIZ. It is also the safest choice in a professional and modern setting. Elizabeth’s mother, on the other hand, would be called Mrs Wakefield.

I remember back in England, my mother was addressed as Mrs Shukry in writing. Now Shukry is my father’s first name. It is not a surname that had been passed down from generations before us.

Although taking my father’s name as a surname sounded quite odd to us at first, this was something we accepted as we had no other male name to go by!

This is because Malays generally do not carry a surname. Back in Malaysia, I would be addressed as Puan (Madam) Azimah in letters and formal settings. It’s not Puan + surname but Puan + first name.

So when I was a university lecturer teaching English in Malaysia, my students addressed me as Madam Azimah. That title has stuck with me ever since!

My male Malay colleagues, on the other hand, were addressed as either Encik, Mr or Sir with their first name. For example, Sir Nazrul. If he had a PhD, it would be Dr Nazrul.

It’s best to observe the customs, culture, environment, and most of all, be respectful. If you are unsure, you can always ask. Try out these phrases to ask how they would like to be addressed:

1.      What can I call you?

2.      What name do you go by?

3.      How do you like to be called?

4.      Can I call you…?

5.      Is it okay if I call you…?  

Among peers and in a more informal setting or to create a bond, you may prefer to drop all formalities. You can tell people, “Oh, just call me…”

As for writing letters and emails, you have several options. Among them are:

1. Dear  Mr / Ms [last name/surname],

2. Dear [first name],

3. To Whom It May Concern:

3. Dear [Job title] e.g. Dear Hiring Manager,

4. Dear Sir/Madam – although this is formal and still practised by some, it can be considered outdated.

Above all, please observe the customs and formalities so do your research beforehand!

If you enjoyed this article, please share this with your friends.

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Hi there!

We’re Azimah, Amnah and Aisya from Malaysia. We created My English Matters as an online platform to help people improve their English.

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