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How Do We Know What to Call Someone?

“You should call me mom.”

Key points

  • What we call one another has consequences for the relationship.
  • Terms of address reflect the status of the relationship and can influence or reflect relationship strengths and challenges.
  • Communication strategies to choose terms of address include modeling, direct communication, indirect communication, and code switching.

All of us have had to figure out what we are supposed to call someone else. Should this person be called Debra, Debbie, Deb, or her family nickname of Dandy? Should she be called Ms. Zahara, Mrs. Zahara, or Dr. Zahara? These are common questions about terms of address, which are the words or phrases we use to refer to others and ourselves.

When marrying into another family, what should you call your partner’s parents? You may have found yourself muttering a series of names hoping you have landed on the “correct” name for your mother-in-law, “Um, Ms. Frietas… Mom… Carmen…” Likely, as you ran through this list of names, you looked to your new in-laws for clues about whether you got it right.

Often you must decide when to use a formal or an informal name for someone. For example, your family may have called your brother Robert the more informal “Bobby” or “Bob.” What do you call your brother when you hear his peers call him Robert?

Of course, just when you think you have things figured out, the term of address someone desires changes, for example, your mother-in-law may express, “I know you’ve been calling me Carmen, but I hope you’ll feel comfortable calling me ‘Mom.’” What should you do?

You have undoubtedly had to decide what you want other people to call you. For example, over the years many university students have referred to my husband as “Dr. Braithwaite” while automatically calling me “Dawn” or “Mrs. Braithwaite.” How would you respond in this situation?

How Do We Know What to Call Someone?

What we call people or how they address us does matter. In my first post, I discussed how relationships are talked into (and out of) being as we interact to develop, create, maintain, and alter our relationships.

Terms of address reflect the status of the relationship (Murphy, 1988). The required or preferred terms of address give us clues into the closeness and distance of the relationship and about the context or culture in which a particular relationship is embedded. For example, an adult son who was estranged from his mother left a 75th birthday card in her mailbox, addressed to Mrs. Starling. Another son stopped in for a visit with a card emblazoned with hearts and “Dearest Mama” written on the envelope. What did the choice of term of address reveal about the sons’ view of their relationship with their mother?

Terms of address can influence or reflect relationship strengths or challenges. Sometimes terms of address take little thought, for example, many first-time grandparents simply expect to be called “Grandma” or “Grandpa.” However, some grandparents-to-be are not ready to be called by that label. Following divorce and remarriage, children may have six or eight grandparents (or more). At the birth of her first grandchild, with divorced and married parents on both sides, my friend chose the term “Zippy” rather than Grandma. She communicated her preferences to the parents and extended family members. Everyone seems to enjoy having a Zippy in the family.

Divorced Mother, Co-Parent, Single Parent or…

A reporter recently called me to talk about terms of address. Country music singer Jana Kramer had recently divorced her NFL player husband, with whom she has children. Ms. Kramer caused a stir on the internet by referring to herself as “a single mother” rather than a “co-parent” with her ex-husband. Ms. Kramer said:

"People were hating on me because I said I was a single mom so apparently I’m not allowed to say that. But I am single. I am a mom. But to further drive my point home, I looked up the definition and it’s a parent who has the kids more than 50 percent... Come over for a glass of wine and then judge me all you want after [you] get to know me and my single momness." (Donneley, 2021)

You may look at this situation and think, well, Jana Kramer can call herself whatever she wishes. You are correct of course. However, I want to stress that our communication choices regarding terms of address, like all choices, have consequences.

Terms of Address Matter

As a specialist in interpersonal and family communication, I know that terms of address are important and help us reflect our understanding of (a) our place in the world (how we see/perceive ourselves), (b) how others perceive us, and (c) how we perceive others.

Terms of address will reflect and affect relational changes. For example, divorced parents will need to think about what terms of address they will use for themselves and their ex-partner. They may refer to their former partner as “my ex,” stressing the change in the relationship. Or they might refer to the ex as a “co-parent,” focusing on their shared parental role. A divorced parent can signal the state of the relationship for their children and others, by the term of address they choose. For example, “I am a single mother of three children” versus “Ramon and I are working out how to co-parent.”

Given my expertise in post-divorce communication, I cannot help but think calling oneself a “single parent” does not invite an open door for the divorced couple to work together. Consider whether using the term “co-parent” or even highlighting “the kids’ father and I” communicates something important to the former partner, to the extended family, as well as to the children about parental interaction and parenting goals.

Competent Communicators Use Different Strategies to Choose Terms of Address:

  1. Use modeling: Watch and listen to what others around you say and do, and then model your behavior after those who seem to be communicating competently. When entering a new family, listen for what the other children-in-law call the father-in-law. You can also work your desired term of address into the conversation and model what you’d like to be called: “And he asked me, ‘What’s new, Paula?’”
  2. Use indirect communication: Ask another person to clue you in to the preferred terms of address, for instance, “What does the pastor like to be called in a social situation?” You can also experiment with working different terms of address into the conversation and observe the response. One important tip: In most cases, it is better to start more formally and have that person tell you to call them by their first name or a nickname. It is face-threatening to start more informally and be told, “Please call me Pastor Jorgenson.”
  3. Use direct communication: You may find it more desirable to ask someone what they want to be called or tell them explicitly how to address you. For example, I opt to use my title with undergraduate students. When I talk with students I often say, “Hi, Dr. Braithwaite here, how may I help you?”
  4. Use code-switching: Competent communicators know it is often helpful to code-switch back and forth between terms of address, depending on the situation and audience. In college, we found out that our friend Al was called “Buzz” by his family. Much to Al’s chagrin, we started calling him “Buzz.” However, in a professional situation, we know it is appropriate to code-switch to a more formal term of address.

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Donneley, E. (2021). Jana Kramer's post sparks debate over use of 'single mom' term: 'Why are we demanding that mothers prove how hard their lives are?' Yahoo Life. Downloaded from:…

Koenig Kellas, J., LeClair-Underberg, C., & Normand, E. L. (2008). Stepfamily address terms: “Sometimes they mean something and sometimes they don’t.” Journal of Family

Communication, 8, 238-263.

Murphy, G.L. (1988). Personal reference in English. Language in Society 17, 317-349.

Wardhugh, R., & Fuller, J. M. (2021). An introduction to sociolinguistics (8th ed.). Wiley-Blackwell.