Monday, 08 August 2022




By T.L. Shanson 1997

First published in 1997 by Macmillan. Second publication revised and updated in 2013.

It is your first meeting and you are introduced to an important business contact. Impressions count.

They present their card, and you are faced with a complicated series of names. You have no clear clue as to whether the first name, last name, or fifth name is their surname. How do you cope?

This book tells you.

Essential to avoid offense or embarrassment (particularly in the formal cultures of the Middle and Far East), this authoritative guide is ideal for anyone with business, diplomatic, or journalistic contacts abroad - in person, by phone, by fax or letter. In more than 200 entries (covering all the world's major countries) the book gives clear advice on thousands of areas which cause difficulty for the English-speaker, including: How should you approach the long name strings used in the Arab world?, What is the order of Japanese and Chinese names?, What do you need to know about special business forms of address in Korea? and new trends in the former Soviet States.

For the English-speaker, foreign names and titles are often treacherous. In Japan, surnames come before "first" names. In Iceland you should formally address strangers by their first name. Arab full names may include father’s, grandfather’s, and other ancestral names: how many do you need to use, and which is the "surname"?

This unique and authoritative guide explains clearly and accessibly how to use people’s names and titles correctly in correspondence and in person, for almost every country in the world. It concentrates on common titles for business people and professionals, but also deals extensively with political, diplomatic, and other titles.

The book also makes sense of expanded names, as those of India, Latin America, and the Middle East. It is a reference book for everyone who has contacts abroad – in embassies and government offices, in journalism, and in all forms of business.

INTERNATIONAL GUIDE TO FORMS OF ADDRESS. T. L. Shanson. 263pp. Macmillan. 0 333 66297 0

There are dilemmas which look worse in contemplation than when faced in the flesh. The potential purchaser of this book is invited to sweat at the thought of being handed a business card bearing not so much a name as a roll-call of ancestors, punctuated it may be by bin, haji and al. How can one be sure of addressing such a person by his correct name and not that of his father, grandfather, tribe or village? In practice, one suspects, confusion is minimal. Bertrand Russell worried about how to address the Aga Khan, but that potentate was probably adept at putting philosophers at their ease.

In theory again, the innocent abroad can be embarrassed by the need for guessing people's ages. In Austria, this book tells us, a fraeulein becomes a frau at eighteen, whereas in Germany "modern custom is to address all women as frau, even teenagers". But look at the situation in Burma (Myanmar), where a female under thirty-five is called Ma, but after that, and "especially if older than 50", as Daw. The age of thirty-five could be a tricky one to gauge on the Irrawaddy. In Mexico, things are simpler: "You may feel uncomfortable addressing a woman of 90 as Senorita, but it is correct."

T. L. Shanson spent some years as a correspondent in South-East Asia. His guide to international forms of address reflects the nuances of feminism and political sensitivities in a world which has not relinquished its respect for ancestors and evil spirits. It records the flight from the Russian system of patronymics in countries like Latvia and Estonia, and the phasing out of tovarishch (comrade) in once-Communist lands. It notes the increasing, and confusing, hyphening-up of women's maiden names with their husbands' surnames. It tells of the curious mutation in the use of the Turkish Efendi, once proscribed, but now used as a politeness to a person of lower, not higher, status, as when introducing one's gardener. In Kirghyzia, the equivalent word is Appendi, "used sarcastically, so best avoided".

There are still lands in which correspondence with a married woman is carried out via her husband (how unlike Britain, where bank managers are forever writing to other men's wives trying to lure them into debt). Caution is necessary in South Korea. "Inexperienced Westerners should not try practising Korean forms of address on a married woman because an over-respectful term might reflect adversely on the status of the husband. A Company President might feel in these circumstances that he is being treated by the Westerner as if he is holding a menial position."

This book lends support to the view that engineers have never been accorded proper status in Britain. In entry after entry, we learn that persons with engineering degrees should be addressed as Ingegnere, Enghenheiro, Inzinier, Insinjur and so on. In Iran and Iraq, the English word seems to suffice, as in Engineer Tehrani or Engineer Ali Al-Ghamdi.

Sometimes architects are similarly honoured. All Europe, of course, is awash with doctors, as is America with professors. If Lindsey Shanson is right, the most basic degrees in Italy are enough to merit Dottore and Dottoressa. Worthier degree-holders merit Egregio in correspondence. Are there perhaps academics in Britain who should be styled Egregious Doctor?

Greenland is a country without honorifics, which may or may not commend it, and Norway fights shy of "dear" in correspondence. "The award for simplicity", we learn, "must go to Israel where it is difficult to insult even the most exalted personality by an inarticulate honorific. Expressed another way, you can probably insult everyone with impunity." Some will feel there is enough trouble there already without testing this out.

Repeatedly the author advises his readers not to use first names unless invited. In Britain such niceties have ceased to apply, thanks in great part - though this book does not say so - to that fount of familiarity, the BBC (interviewers on the Radio Four programme You and Yours cheerfully first-name industry regulators, company spokesmen, experts and authorities in all fields). Nurses and policemen are inveterate first-namers too. For such refinements of British usage as survive, Shanson wisely refers his readers to Debrett's Correct Form. He seems shaky on the reason why "Lord Jeffrey Archer" is wrong, and he is invidious when he says "Children of female life peers are The Honourable". Debrett will tell him that so are the children of male life peers.

The odd whimsical sidelights are welcome amid the aridities of law-giving. If Englishmen find themselves with schoolboy nicknames in adulthood, so apparently do some Chinese peasants, who are still Fatty Wu or Spotty Ma, "even though they may no longer be fat or spotty". In Papua New Guinea, it is respectful to address tribal chiefs as Big Man, just as in Western Samoa dignitaries are entitled to Your Excellency, "respectfully intoned".

For those unfamiliar with the languages involved or uncertain about the pronunciation of names, a knowledge of how to address strangers must inevitably be of limited value, though every scrap of information helps. International Guide to Forms of Address covers a long string of countries, not omitting Pitcairn Island, though it has little to say about the tiddlers. It will not help travellers who may wish to know how to address the paramilitary officer who pulls them over on the autoroute, or the customs officer making trouble in hope of a bribe. There are frequent injunctions to use military ranks, always supposing that these are recognizable. In France, we are told, a man says Mon Colonel but a woman says Colonel. Nancy Mitford in her pursuit of Colonel Gaston Palewski would surely have known about that.

Business Traveller magazine:

A clear and authoritative treasure trove of common titles for anyone who needs to speak with or write to business contacts abroad.

The Times:

How to get it right when addressing almost everyone in the world, from French duchesses to Saudi doctors and Macedonian merchants.

The South China Morning Post:

For those worried with how to address true kings rather than become one – or avoid a fight when they step out of their hotel – there is the immensely useful International Guide to Forms of Address by TL Shanson. It covers embarrassing difficulties like what honorific to give a woman in Burma (answer: Ma for the young, Daw for the older or more elevated) and how to speak to someone who confronts you with the name Abdel Aziz Saleh Eddin Abdel Aziz in Egypt (answer: Al-Sayed Abdel Aziz should work).

Sunday Telegraph:

It may not have the most exciting title, and won’t ever be a best-seller, but a supremely useful book….Written by the foreign correspondent Lindsey Shanson, this tells you everything you always wanted to know about how to address people across the world. For instance, in Italy, whom do you call signore and whom dottore? What What is a Russian patronymic and when do you use it? How should you address a Korean company president and end a letter in Turkish?

Milan Kundera could perhaps have used such a book many years ago when he received a letter from his French editor (female) at Gallimard. She signed off, as is the custom in France, with a ritual assurance of her "warmest sentiments". When this reached Kandera, who at that time had little acquaintance with French manners, he imagined his editor to have made, in the midst of an otherwise formal letter, a passionate declaration of love. The sober pages of International Guide to Forms of Address would have prevented such daydreams.