During colloquial conversation, what is the difference between calling one first name or last name? I assume one if colloquial and one is more formal but not sure. Thank you very much!

  • 2
    Are you referring to calling Joe Blow simply "Blow" as opposed to Mr. Blow? It is advised to really know a person before you do that.
    – lurker
    Dec 2, 2015 at 3:32
  • In general, first names are more informal and last names are more informal, but this is extremely dependent on local culture. For example, in the Northeast US we use "Mr. Lastname" or "Mrs. Lastname" almost exclusively for strangers and formal situations, and everyone else is called simply by their first name. But in the Southern US, in which "Mister (or Miz) Firstname" is the appropriate way to refer to someone old enough to be your parent with whom you are familiar!
    – stangdon
    Dec 2, 2015 at 14:44

2 Answers 2


The use depends a lot on the specific cultural and sub-culteral norms. For example, in the U.S. (even more so in California, but these days much of the country) given names are widely used in many contexts. In many companies or organizations, even lower-level employees address and refer to more senior employees by first name. This started in high-tech companies but has now spread widely. However, in much of Europe and the U.K., only good friends do this, or people of more senior rank do this to people of lower rank. There is also a tradition in some sub-cultures of addressing acquaintances by family name only (no honorific), while in other cultures this would be considered rude.


Generally speaking, we use a person's given name when we are friendly with, or close to, the person. Or if we are addressing a junior, for example an adult addressing a child, or a manager addressing a worker.

We use rather than an honorific, or a title and family name (known as a surname), in the opposite cases.

Acquaintanceship, or addressing a senior, such as a child addressing an adult or a worker addressing a manager.

As time goes on, in the UK, it is more and more common for children to address adults by first name, for example when addressing one of their friend's parents.

In the West, family names are generally the last name. In many parts of the East, family names are generally the first name.

This reflects two different traditions and outlooks.

One in which you are the named person, and you have a supplementary name to distinguish you from all the other people with the same name.

I'm John [the] Fletcher (someone who make arrows for a living) I'm John, Michael's son. I'm John [with the] red[ ]beard.

The other tradition has you as a member of a family, who can be distinguished from the other members of that family, if need be.

Who is that? It's Hayao. You know, the elder one - Hayao Miyazaki. Not the younger Hayao.

This can cause cross-cultural mis-matches. A senior engineer from Scotland, working in Thailand, was constantly referred to as "Mr. Jim" by the respectful local workers. "Jim" is a diminutive and so is an even more casual, friendly or intimate form of his given name, "James".

  • A family name (surname) is also called a last name in many parts of the English-speaking world. Dec 2, 2015 at 5:10
  • And in many parts of the world it is the first name. :-)
    – Euan M
    Dec 2, 2015 at 5:12
  • I meant to say "English-speaking." Edited. Dec 2, 2015 at 5:13
  • I've expanded at length to deal with your Anglo-centric nit-picking :-)
    – Euan M
    Dec 2, 2015 at 5:24
  • I wasn't nitpicking. I was pointing out to the learner that they might see the word last name, which is a synonym. This is an English language learning site, and the family name is the last name in all English names. No need to call me out for Anglocentrism. Dec 2, 2015 at 5:27

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