What is the appropriate level of formality in commercial relations?

It depends on many factors such as local culture, of course, but a few concepts should be basic.

When communicating with a customer, patient or student, the level of formality we use may vary greatly. Someone’s age, culture and professional responsibilities will all play a part into how they should be addressed.  Respecting those traits and characteristics is key to selecting the appropriate language, gesture and topic to be used.

Names – the first, outermost sign of our identity

Our name is the only sign of our identity we may show even before seeing someone in person.  It goes on paper and must be stated on the phone to identify us.  When someone decides for a name change, that is another proof that the new name reflects the new identity, may that be because of marital status, gender, or religious or cultural affinity.  So why would a stranger decide how we should be called?  Unfortunately, that seems to happen frequently, and it makes for awkward, annoying and even disrespectful communications.  In business, it may make for lost sales.

In my professional practice, I know at least three gentlemen named Robert, and I do not dare call any of them Bob!  (I have seen someone be admonished by doing so.)  One goes by “Robert”, one by “Rob” and the third one by “Bobby”.  How is one supposed to know?  Simply by listening attentively and repeating what they introduced themselves as or were introduced by someone else.

We must respect people’s names by saying it the way they say it, and never assume that it is okay to call someone by a nickname that we find cute or easier.  If your customer’s name is William, but he introduces himself as Will, call him Will!  Perhaps at his kid’s school he is Mr. Sinclair, but he truly identifies as “Will”.  However, circumstances and official requirements may prevent teacher and school staff from calling him “Will”.  The formality, in this case, is part of the rules which maintain the necessary seriousness and distance in certain school settings – more on that below.  By the same token, if the patient at your reception desk greets you saying, “good morning, I have an appointment with Dr. Vieira…my name is Jennifer”, do not call her Jen!

Forms of address

There are guides and books dedicated to addressing people in the professional arena; forms of address vary depending on whether you are dealing with private entities or government officials.  They also vary according to the culture, as some egalitarian societies are usually more casual and dispense with honorifics in day-to-day communication, whereas cultures where high-power distance is prevalent value the use of titles and official distinctions.  This article is not about whether to use Ms., Mrs. or Miss – it is about drawing attention to the fact that respect and self-awareness when communicating with anyone are your best guides.  Until you know your audience, make sure you are using the politest form of address.  The rule of thumb is to start with the most formal approach, and as situations permit or the person actively communicates that formalities are unnecessary, you may safely adjust without causing embarrassment.  It is always possible to dial back and become a little less formal, but being forced to dial up means you have caused offense or displayed ignorance.


If you are dealing with someone whose title or profession carries an honorific (Doctor; Father; General, etc.) you must use it in speaking and in writing when first addressing that person.  If the person allows you to address them otherwise (“oh, we are at a barbecue party, please call me Anna!”), you are then free to do so – but until then, stick to the formal title.  Note that this is not about the person – someone is not a better human being than others simply because of their position.  This is about the office or profession they represent and has reasons behind it rooted in chain of command, protocol, or are legally required.  If you are introducing two people to each other, it is your duty to state their honorific when required; that will ensure the appropriate level of formality of their exchange.  At the same time, in social situations you should never state your own honorific – you don’t say: “I am Doctor Lopez, how do you do” at your neighbor’s party.  In a professional setting (i.e. when seeing a new patient) you definitely want to introduce yourself that way, but doing so at a social gathering will make you come across as pedantic.

Use of emojis and terms of endearment

Internet language has made many relationships more relaxed and casual.  In certain industries, the use of slang, emojis and cute compliments is widespread and immediately accepted.  Other settings require a level of sobriety where jokes and nonchalance do not have a place.  It matters if a nurse is properly addressing a physician while they are giving a patient’s family an update; how a military officer is addressing her unit makes a difference for her to command the attention needed.

Although in everyday commercial relations one can expect a certain level of casualness, caution is to be taken to avoid an off-putting connection.

The other day, I went shoe-shopping and browsed a few items at a store.  The salesperson was polite and friendly, and after I bought only one of them, she asked for my phone number so she could keep me updated on a particular style.  I reluctantly gave it to her, since I was going to be in town for just a few days.  The day after, she texted me saying: “hello, I am so-and-so from such-and-such store…did you think about that beautiful pair?” to what I jokingly replied: “yes, I have been thinking about it every day”, and left it at that.  Her text came from what looked like an “official” number with the brand, so it didn’t bother me – as a consumer, I am comfortable with deciding how much communication I want to receive from the brands I like.  However, the next morning I received another text saying: “hello, my beautiful!”, and about five emojis with hearts, smiley faces and roses.  Well, that was certainly inappropriate!  I know our 5-minute interaction at the store, two days prior, did not allow for that degree of closeness – but the salesperson did not perceive it that way.  Is it her fault, or just her personal style coming through?  Or is it poor training on the company’s part to allow for such a personal approach?  What may have come from an eagerness to sell could backfire and scare away customers.  Maybe there are buyers who appreciate that sort of instant intimacy.  But until you are 100% sure you are dealing with such a customer, friendliness and politeness are the behaviors to apply – and nothing more.

“Doc, is my lipstick too bright?”

Healthcare settings have stringent regulations in terms of what kind of information may be shared and what appropriate interactions between professionals and patients look like.  Paradoxically, the level of knowledge about one’s personal situation may give the idea of false proximity.  Recently, I had an appointment scheduled for a few days ahead and received an automated reminder via SMS.  Annoying, yes, but it seems to be standard practice at many places.  The next day, however, I received a text from the doctor’s assistant with another reminder (not an introduction, not a name, just “I’m doctor X’s assistant”).  I politely replied and thanked her.  She replied back with a kiss emoji (!).  In many cultures, a kiss on the cheek is acceptable (and expected) behavior among people who work together or are engaging in a professional relationship – nothing wrong with that.  And the electronic equivalent of that little kiss is the emoji, right?!  But that sort of exchange implies that both parties are in agreement.  At the first encounter with a healthcare professional, one expects to receive polite, respectful and confidential treatment.  Warmth may be welcome when receiving medical care, but it is not to be confused with familiarity.

So what is the secret to ensuring a proper approach?

The secret to employing the correct level of formality to each situation is to: first, understand the nature of the relationship and both parties’ expectations; then, observe your customer’s own behavior and try to mirror that without losing your identity. Starting with the more formal approach and adjusting as necessary will not only display respect but also business savvy.  For supervisors, ensuring teams facing the customer are trained to reflect that will result in increased customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.


By Viviane Vicente