Increasingly, in our working relationships and, therefore, also in business relationships, we tend to use informal terms of address. If this may seem obvious with regards to established business relationships, it is not so obvious when, for example, you meet a new customer at a fair.

I believe that it was Apple in 2009 that first changed the way it communicated with its customers, using a less-formal tone. This model was then followed by many multinational corporations. In those years social media also spread rampantly, thereby accelerating this tendency to be informal in business relations. In English “you” is always used, but when you want to adopt a more confidential tone then you also use the person’s first name (Good Morning, Martin, how are you?).

I have also noticed, however, that people of my generation – but not only of my generation – often find themselves in difficulty in recognizing when it is opportune to use a more informal form of address in their commercial relationships. Personally, I find myself undecided between the desire to not seem too formal (and too old), and the fear of not being respectful enough to a person who I have just met. For me, the deciding factor is often represented by age: if I am with a much younger person than I then I’ll choose a more informal type of address; if older (or in doubt) I will not. In some cases I will ask them at the outset if we can address each other by our first names, the underlying message, if accepted, being that our exchanges will be on a more informal level. In writing an email, on the other hand, I will initially use a more formal type of address and then adjust further replies accordingly based on the form used by the client in his first reply to me.

The writer-semiologist Umberto Eco said darsi del tu è una finta familiarità che rischia di trasformarsi in insulto loosely translated, it means that addressing someone informally is a fake familiarity that risks becoming an insult. I think that this is true, especially if we also take into account the attitude we have when using it. There are many informal terms that can be used in various ways and when you adopt an overly familiar tone you run the risk of being disrespectful.

This year I will turn 61 and maybe I’m too far removed from the new generations that enter the workplace every year; those who have been accustomed to calling their teachers by their first names since elementary school and who will continue to do so also in their working relationships. Hence my difficulty in finding this confidential form of address natural which for millennials is, instead, the normal way of relating.

I have already talked about these issues in my March 9, 2018 post Initial Contact With a Customer