Getting names straight around the world

From east to west, there is no universal standard on how we order names but should we or shouldn’t we invert our names when encountering someone from another culture?

A flexible man

I once met an Australian businessman who had a two-sided business card as he frequently travelled to China. One side stated his name in the western fashion (given name – surname). The other followed the Chinese order (e.g. Pemberton Mark). A noble (and novel) networking approach but he admitted that people still asked: “What’s your first name?”

A national reversal

Interestingly in Japan, where people have for many years reversed their names (for the benefit of visitors), the government has issued a decree that states all written documents rendered in the Latin alphabet must revert to the Japanese norm. For example, the Japan Times  must write Murakami Haruki when mentioning the world’s best known Japanese novelist (you can still call him ‘Mr Murakami’ or ‘Haruki’).

Just trying to be friendly

Young Chinese and Vietnamese nowadays commonly reverse the order of their own name. Presumably it’s to help westerners but it can go wrong when someone assumes the person is following their culture’s traditional order. It’s also worth noting that in formal settings, many Asian cultures use given names rather than surnames. In Vietnam, the former prime minister is called Nguyen Van Dung. Nguyen is his surname but you would call him: ‘Mr Dung’. This just goes to show you can be aware of the name order but still call someone by the wrong name.

Somewhere in the middle

Should you be in India where names have been derived from titles, locations, genealogical information, caste and religious references, a given name might be in the middle. The name Kogaddu Birappa Timappa Nair follows the order ‘village name – father’s name – given name – last name’. So you can call him Timappa or Mr Nair.

Could you just tell me…

Our advice? In this mixed up, muddled up and multicultural world, don’t be afraid to politely ask: “How may I address you?” That sadly won’t be possible if you’re trying to connect with someone on LinkedIn. So if you’d like to invite Abu Karim Muhammad al-Jamil ibn Nidal ibn Abdulaziz al-Filistini from Palestine to join your network, what would you write? Postscript: his given name is Muhammed but we still don’t know the answer!

This article was originally published for the thousands of expat partners that Global Connection supports around the globe. It is reproduced here in its original form.

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