What's in a name?

Dec. 21, 2004
Forms of address vary across countries and cultures.

In many countries, one of the surest ways to make a poor first impression is to misuse a person's name, forget a title, or try to use a first name too soon. As U.S.-based companies continue to venture out into the rest of the world in search of customers and suppliers, the cultures, languages, and names of the people they deal with will become increasingly varied. With that thought in mind, here are some guidelines for dealing with names in different cultures. Let's start with a tough one: Chinese names. Compared with the order of most Western names--first name, middle name, and last name (also called the surname or the family name)--the order of Chinese names is reversed. They appear as last name, middle name, and, finally, first name. For example, in the name Chang Wu Jiang, Chang is the surname; Wu could be a generational name given to all siblings; and Jiang is the first name. This person would be addressed with a title plus his surname--that is, Mr. Chang or Dr. Chang. He should not be called Mr. Jiang. When U.S. officials made this mistake during a visit to China, they were reminded that they were being too informal too quickly. Hispanic names can be confusing, because most include two surnames often connected by a de or y. The first surname comes from a person's father, the second from his or her mother. For example, for a man with the name Jose Antonio Martinez de Garcia, Jose is the first name; Antonio is the middle name, Martinez is his father's surname, and Garcia is his mother's surname. Both surnames may be used in written communication. But only the father's name is commonly used in verbal communication--the person in this example would be addressed as Senor Martinez. A distinctive feature of Russian names is that the middle name traditionally is a patronymic--a name derived from the given name (first name) of a person's father. For example, in the name Fyodor Nikolaievich Medvedev, the first name (given name) is Fyodor; the surname (last name) is Medvedev; and the middle name, Nikolaievich, means son of Nikolai. A Russian may be addressed by the surname (the last name). But it's also considered respectful to use the first name and the patronymic. Arabic names can be difficult for non-Arabs. Arabic names usually fall into the basic pattern of given name (first name), middle name (which may be a patronymic), and surname (last name). But there also may be titles to be considered. For example, think about the name of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. His title is King; his given name is Fahd; his middle name is the patronymic bin Abdul-Aziz, which means son of Abdul-Aziz; and Al Saud is the family name. Traditionally most titled Arabs are addressed by their titles and given names--that is, in the example of the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd. Arabic titles are not restricted to nobility. For example, Sheikh (pronounced shake) is a title frequently encountered on the Arabian peninsula. In some countries it designates a member of the royal family. But in others it may be used by any important leader who is well-versed in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Other significant titles are Haji and Hajjuh, its feminine equivalent. These titles indicate a Muslim who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca. And they are often used in Islamic countries far from the Middle East, such as Malaysia. For Arabs without titles, there is no general rule of address. For example, Mr. Shamsaddin bin Saleh Al Batal could prefer to be called either Mr. Shamsaddin or Mr. Al Batal. A couple of suggestions: Don't hesitate to ask your foreign contacts for assistance in correctly pronouncing names and utilizing titles. And be sure to err of the side of formality when addressing international contacts; many cultures do not use first names at work--or nicknames at all. Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries, and Dun & Bradstreets Guide to Doing Business Around the World. For more data about Getting Through Customs Seminars, Online Database, and books: Tel: (610) 353-9894; fax:(610) 353-6994; e-mail: [email protected]; or Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit Getting Through Customs Web site at http://www.getcustoms.com

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!