name tags with names in various nationalities
Most of us are aware that there are different naming conventions in different cultures. What many of us are not aware of is just how complex dealing with this issue can be. One problem is, of course, cultural: What do you call someone when you greet them or address them in a letter or an email? An even greater problem arises in localization: How do you design forms that will handle all different naming conventions and still allow you to use the data for the required purposes? There is, in fact, no formula that will cover all the possibilities that can arise.

Here are just some examples of the different practices out there:

Eastern Convention

The Eastern naming convention started in China and is also usual in Japanese, and Korea. A person’s name consists of their family name followed by their given name. Middle names are rare. Generally you do not refer to someone by their given name, but use either the full name or family name with an honorific. The protocol can get complicated.

There are also variations on the formula. Vietnamese follow the same name order but usually with a second given name at the end. But here is it impolite to refer to people by their family name. Instead it is common to address someone by their second given name preceded by an honorific. The honorific to be used can vary according to the person’s position and the speaker’s relationship with the person. Here are some examples from Chinese:

  • 先生 (xiānshēng) is the equivalent of mister. 王先生 (Wang Xiānshēng) or Mr. Wang
  • 师父 (shīfù)  means master and is used from people who are very skilled in their craft, 康师父 (Kang Shīfù) or Master Kang
  • 经理 (jinglǐ) means manager.  张经理 (Zhang Jing Li) or Manager Zhang

The question of what happens to someone’s name upon marriage adds a further complication. In many Asian cultures, women traditionally do not take their husband’s family name when they marry, so not all members of a family will have the same name.

Surprisingly, Hungarians also use the Eastern name order. This came home to me when an email correspondence from a Hungarian company addressed me as “Dear Quinn.” By law, both women and men have several options for dealing with the family name after marriage. The most common is for the woman to take her husband’s family name with the suffix -né added.

Spanish Convention

Spanish naming conventions are probably the ones that most people in the U.S. have had some experience with, given the large number of Hispanics in the country and just across the border. Under this convention, a person’s full name is their given name, their father’s surname, and their mother’s family name. Generally, the father’s surname (appellida) serves the same purpose as the English last name, and people are addressed either by their given and first surname or by an honorific and the first surname. The full name is their legal name, however, and is used for any formal purposes. Women traditionally keep their name at marriage.


Full Russian names traditionally consist of a given name, patronymic (father’s name), and family name. The patronymic is the father’s name plus -ович/-евич (-ovich/-evich) for a male offspring, or -овна/-евна (-ovna/evna) for a female. Similar naming conventions apply in other Slavic countries, such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Bulgaria.

This is not too difficult for Americans to deal with since the family name is used the same way as in English and, more familiarly, people can be addressed by their given names. Actual forms of more informal address among Russians can range from use of the full given name and patronymic through use of the given name only to use of a variety of more or less intimate nicknames.

More difficult for most Americans to comprehend are those cultures where there is no family name per se, just a patronymic (or matronymic). For instance, in most parts of Ethiopia people have a given name followed by their father’s (or sometimes mother’s) given name. Names do not usually change at marriage and there is no family name to track a person’s family history. It is not correct to use a person’s patronymic as if it were a family name. Ethiopians are legally required to register three names for a baby—given name, father’s name, and grandfather’s name. I was told by an Ethiopian woman I met that this is because of the large number of identical names that existed.

Iceland uses the old Scandinavian Convention—once also used in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark—which involves a given name followed by a patronymic or matronymic made up of the father’s or mother’s given name plus “ssón” or “dóttir.” Interestingly, first names must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee unless they are already on the existing list of approved names. This is to ensure that new names are in accord with Icelandic culture and language. Icelandic names are a bit easier to handle than Ethiopian names, however, because the patronymic or matronymic is used like a last name.


It’s not just the name itself but the proper use of titles that can trip you up in different cultures. For instance, in the United States we usually only use one title when we address someone (for example, Mr. or Professor or Doctor Smith). In Germany, on the other hand, it’s proper to string them together (Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt). When you’re traveling the world it’s always a good idea to get some advice on the proper means of addressing someone in that country. If you’re not sure, it’s usually fine to ask politely about local usage.

Software design, on the other hand, can raise very complicated issues when it comes to using names. The design of your forms and messages has to take into account the naming conventions in the audiences you want to reach. It’s complicated because naming conventions can differ even within countries, and a form that’s meant to be regional or international will often need to take into account different possibilities.

In localization as in cultural relations, it’s always important remember that the answer to the question “What should I call you?” is often not obvious.

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