‘Dear Firstname’ email sparks informality row

First or last: There were 151,671 surnames and 5,163 first names in the most recent US census.

Labour party members responded angrily when they got an email which began ‘Dear Firstname’. Naming conventions have grown more informal — so how should the party have addressed its message?

The UK’s Labour party was trying to rally its supporters to keep Britain in the EU. But when its mass email arrived in members’ inboxes, some readers did not get past the first two words.

‘Dear Firstname,’ they read.

The party tried to limit the damage. Out went a second message.

‘Dear Fristname,’ this one began making it even worse.

The reaction was damning. Comments on Twitter included: ‘Thanks for my not-so-personalised email’, ‘Dear Lastname would have felt uncomfortably formal’ and ‘Nothing compares to feeling a valued member of @uklabour’.

This all reflected a deep-rooted attachment to first names. In Christian tradition, the first two people are known only as Adam and Eve. One author has claimed the oldest known name in recorded history is Kushim, an accountant from around 5,000 years ago.

But Independent columnist Grace Dent mocked the offended response to the email. She said it ‘suggested people wanted to believe Corbyn, Milne and Thornberry had been up with the lark that Sunday, typing 350,000 individual, personalised begging emails’.

So how should Labour have addressed its members? The informal use of first names is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even in the early 20th century, social etiquette in western societies dictated that first names should only be used with children or in intimate relationships.

The use of surnames and titles is still common in circles such as the armed forces today. But traditional naming customs are used more rarely and have been attacked on feminist and socialist grounds. Stars such as Muhammad Ali and Marilyn Monroe have challenged social convention by changing their names. There is some evidence for the theory of nominative determinism, which means names can shape life paths.

Many people, though, are suspicious of modern methods of address. In 2008, a global study found that call centre customers were irritated with staff who used ‘a North American style of familiarity’. Five years later, half of British respondents told a survey they preferred it when strangers greeted them formally.

Naming rights

Lighten up, say some — using first names is a good way of equalising the differences between us. Surnames and titles are the preserve of stuffy, class-ridden societies. We should celebrate increased intimacy, particularly in a world which can seem to be run on cold, calculated and businesslike principles.

Spare us, respond others. We should treasure our first names and use them sparingly. Familiarity is worth more when it is earned, rather than assumed. Our first names are among the most personal indicators of our identity, and only people who know and understand us should have the right to use them.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer being called by your first name or surname?
  2. Has modern society become too familiar?

Activities

  1. Make a list of different types of people you will need to write or speak to in the next few years (for example, your family). How would you address each of them? Discuss in pairs.
  2. Write your own response to the Labour party email — explaining how they should have addressed their members and why.

Some People Say...

“Life would be fairer if we were all anonymous.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not a Labour party member, and I did not get this email. What difference does this make?
If you have an email account, it is likely that you receive mass emails, put together by mail merge software. Even if you do not get these now, you will get them in future whenever you sign up to alerts or email subscriptions. These emails may address you differently: do they use a title and a surname, for example, or just your first name?
But it’s just a mistake. Can’t Labour members just move on?
Perhaps they should, though some say the fuss was reflective of a deeper malaise in the Labour party at the moment. But it is worth considering how you would like to be addressed in situations like this, whether others agree with you and how you might address different people in varied circumstances.

Word Watch

Oldest
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari wrote that Kushim was named on a clay tablet from Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
Corbyn, Milne and Thornberry
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, his aide Seumas Milne and shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry.
Feminist
Some dislike traditional practices such as women taking men’s names after marriage.
Socialist
Some say names give those from wealthier backgrounds an advantage, for example in the workplace.
Muhammad Ali
His given name was Cassius Clay. Ali said he changed it as he considered it a ‘slave name’.
Marilyn Monroe
Her given name was Norma Jeane Mortenson.
Nominative determinism
The editors of the New Scientist coined this phrase in 1994. For example, Bruno Fromage led the dairy company Danone; William Wordsworth wrote poetry. Among Ashantis in Africa, names include the day of the week a child is born on — and research suggests they affect their chances of committing crime.
Study
Dr Kristina Hultgren of Oxford University surveyed people in Britain, Denmark, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Survey
Commissioned by Ask Jeeves.

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