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How To Talk To Adults: How Should Teenagers Address Adults?

Mr. Mrs. Ms.? How Should Teenagers Address Adults?

Is it ‘Cathie’ or ‘Mrs. Ericson’ or even ‘Ms. Ericson’? How should teenagers address adults who aren’t their relatives?

When my kids were little, I started with the formal thing. “Do you want to say hi to Hannah’s mom, Mrs. Ross?” Inevitably, that mom would laugh and say, “Oh that makes me think of my mother-in-law. Call me Laura!”

With close friends and neighbors, first names were the norm, but now that doesn’t always feel right. Maybe it’s because sometimes teens and adults don’t really know each other: They’ve met briefly at a pre-prom event or at a study group.

So what’s the etiquette if you’d like a teen to use your surname?

One tactic is for adults to refer to each other with the preferred moniker, says etiquette expert Rachel Wagner.

“For example, if Mrs. Smith is conversing with the teenager, she might say, ‘Mr. Smith mentioned you were starting a lawn business,’ to model the behavior.”

And if a teen refers to you in a way you’re not comfortable with, it’s fine to politely correct her, although it might seem awkward at first, Wagner says.

When To Use Mr and Mrs: Adults Can Correct Teens

Case in point: Wagner’s husband, a school principal, was always referred to as “Mr. Wagner.” But soon after commencement, a newly-graduated student addressed him by his first name, as if they were peers. “My husband just nonchalantly said, ‘I’m still Mr. Wagner,’ and continued their conversation.”

And if it’s your teen using the casual first name? “Explain that teens addressing adults with titles and surnames is a sign of courtesy and respect,” Wagner says. “It’s alway better to err on the side of formality than immediately go to the first-name basis.”

For men, of course, that’s a simple Mr. Women are more complicated, as many married women now prefer Ms. over Mrs. Help your teenager consider which (Ms. or Mrs.) to use. It may be as simple as what’s most common in your community. In some regions, that’s Ms., while in others Mrs. still prevails.

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, and mom of three teen boys. Read more about Cathie at

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