Tuesday, June 12, 2012

First name last name

Today I participated the second part of cultural training, this time it was about the British culture. As one of the exercises the trainer showed pictures of famous Brits wearing different kind of suits. We were supposed to recognize the dress code and the person. The first celeb was Elton John in white tie - or Sir Elton John, like the trainer corrected us. Second image was easy and hot one, Daniel Craig in black tie. Then he showed a picture very similar to these:

Well, I knew the dress is saketti in Finnish, and I learnt it's called morning dress in English. And of course I knew they were William and Harry in the picture. The trainer kindly corrected me that they are not "William and Harry" but "Duke of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales".

I must admit this time I didn't call the princes by their first names because they are my age (or because they are imaginary friends of mine). I called them by their first names because that's part of spoken Finnish language: President Sauli Niinistö is Sauli. Former president Tarja Halonen was Tarja. And the previous presidents were Mara, Manu and Urkki. Ok, quite often we do call the presidents only by their last name - but my point is, it's not unusual to call even the presidents by the first name. Well, as long as we don't speak them in person.

So it is a fact that in Finland we use our first names quite a lot. For example in a mid-size company the CEO and the directors are quite often called by their first names, some of them even by nickname. More formal way of calling someone in business is simply firstname lastname, Matti Virtanen. Very seldom we say or write Mr. Matti Virtanen (Herra Matti Virtanen) or Mr. Virtanen (Herra Virtanen) - it's almost always firstname lastname, until we're familiar enough to use either or. We don't use too much of titles either. Well, maybe in business cards, but we don't usually receive mail as Dr. Virtanen. So don't worry, you're not being impolite even if you forgot someone's title or degree.

Something to remark is that we indeed use the format firstname lastname - not the opposite. I've learnt that for example Hungarian call themselves as lastname firstname. In Finland only the official institutions call you by lastname firstname (Virtanen Matti) - so that format is used in official papers, transcripts, certificates, taxation, etc.

I already mentioned that presidents are often called by their last name only. It's the same with all politicians. But we may also call someone we know (I mean a peer) by their last name only. In that case the person must be some kind of a personality - he may be the loudmouth of the group, a joker or a guru expert of the company. If you call a person by his last name, there's usually something special in that person, because the norm is to call people by their first name.

Where does this obsession with first names come from? I'd like to say it's the equity in our society. The lack of hierarchies and the lack of classes in society. But let's face it, two generations ago we were all equally poor. There's no tradition of aristocracy or rich or educated upper class - so we have a strong history of being peers, and that makes it more natural to use the first names. Another historical thing to note is the short history of the last names: it's not that long ago since the last name became mandatory.

The first name really has weight in the Finnish culture. Maybe that's why parents take time to think really carefully the name of their baby - after the baby is born. Quite many want to see how does the baby look like before they decide the name. I've understood in many cultures the babies are given the name immediately after they are born, but in Finnish culture the name of the baby may be a secret, unknown or undecided even for three months after the baby is born. And despite the thoroughness in the planning phase, we have a saying: ei nimi miestä pahenna (jos ei mies nimeä) - the name doesn't spoil the man (but the man may spoil his name).

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