The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 23 February

Dear Thomas

Forms of address? Where are we?

At one end of the spectrum is the trend for first names only, as with call centre operators and supermarket staff. At the other end is the increasing use, particularly by reporters and commentators, of surnames. I always thought this practice was reserved for the military and boys’ schools. It even crept into a recent The Lady Briefing (13 October issue), where the item about the reunion of Kerry O’Hara and her cat, Rosey, after the Grenfell Tower fire, ended: ‘“She recognised me straight away,” O’Hara said.’ This really jarred with me.

What is the etiquette? How should we address people? I’d love to know.

Carol A Dennard, by email (In case you think I am being coy, the A stands for Ann.)

Dear Carol

The basic rule of thumb for today is: first names at all times, in the workplace and in social life. Anything else is stuffy, old- fashioned, class-ridden, etc.

A classic modern difficulty is not knowing someone’s surname when suddenly it is necessary, if for instance, the police are making enquiries. It looks dodgy that you don’t know it.

Another challenge is whether to deploy a nickname or an abbreviation of the name. I always stick to the name given on introduction. If someone is generally known as something else – well, they should have said so in the first place. Don’t abbreviate unless you’re very sure of your ground. It doesn’t suit everyone to use certain shortened forms – I’d rather die than address someone as ‘Si’ or ‘Kat’. Better to call them nothing at all.

A lot of us don’t like the familiarity of first names when being cold-called by fundraisers or persons touting cheap electricity. The better class of such operators ask how we would like to be addressed and I imagine most of us consent to our first name being used. My cousin, when she was a nurse, was always punctilious in not assuming that older patients would be happy to be called ‘May’ or ‘Bert’. But that was 30 years ago. Now I suspect there are far fewer in hospital who are very firmly ‘Mrs Walford-Conningsby’ or ‘Major Seaford-Glossop’.

The reason people in call centres don’t have surnames is so that you can never find them again. If you ask for their surname they say it’s their human right not to reveal it. It’s also a sign of inferiority. The managerial class have surnames. I’ve not noticed a tendency of reporters to use only surnames but the practice should be reserved for criminals and disgraced people like ‘Profumo’. Sometimes journalists are short of space or don’t know the marital status of the woman they are writing about. Some women, on feminist grounds, relish being surname only, even though they have done nothing wrong. It’s all very well, but it makes a muddle.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Standing Up

Delighted to hear from Clare Grove, offering a rather different perspective re my column on 19 January about ladies standing up when other ladies appear.

‘Two weeks ago, I found myself hosting in my professional capacity a working lunch in a very smart London restaurant with three delightful gentlemen of a certain vintage – one semi-retired, two fully so. I am considerably younger. Each is well known in his field and highly respected. The lunch party was most jolly and they are charming company. I left the table briefly, and on my return, there was much consternation from my guests, who were admonishing themselves for not standing when I reappeared. There followed a discussion and some banter about how times have changed and how this would have been viewed in days gone by. At the end of the lunch, as host (and holder of the company bank card) I signaled for the (substantial) bill and promptly paid. I laughed inwardly and wondered how this would have been viewed in the past!’ intriguing: I suppose, strictly speaking, their instinct was right. They shouldn’t have stood. Their host did not require special treatment as a lady; she was their equal, to say the least.