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Addressing Others

Although guidelines exist, proper forms of address vary greatly from culture to culture. Be sure to check local customs, but a few general rules follow.

The spirit of formality among diplomatic representatives usually means not addressing others by their first names as quickly as is done in the United States. One should rely on courtesy titles until invited to do otherwise. Socially, one can refer to a spouse by their first name or as "my husband," or "my wife" rather than as "Mr./Mrs. Smith." When dealing with household employees however, you should still refer to your spouse as "Mr./Mrs. Smith."

Ambassadors are addressed as Mr./Madam Ambassador or Ambassador Jones. Only by special invitation or long friendship should one address an ambassador by first name and then only when not in the public eye. In indirect address, refer to the ambassador as "the ambassador", with his/her spouse as "the ambassador and Mr./Mrs. Jones", or if the ambassador's spouse is a woman who kept her maiden name after marriage, "the ambassador and his wife, Ms. Smith." An ambassador of the United States may continue to be addressed as "Mr./Madam Ambassador" after retirement or after returning from his/her duties abroad. In some French-speaking countries, the wife of the ambassador may be referred to as Madam Ambassador. Therefore, in those countries, refer to a female ambassador by her last name (Ambassador Jones) to avoid confusion and ensure that she receives her due respect.

Those of rank below Ambassador are addressed as Mr., Ms. or Mrs., if marital status is known.


The purpose of making introductions is to exchange names between people so that a conversation can follow. For a formal occasion, the traditional "Mrs. Smith, may I present Mr. Jones?" is used internationally. For less formal occasions simply stating the two names, "Mrs. Smith, Mr. Jones," is acceptable. Making personal introductions (i.e., introducing oneself) is perfectly acceptable and encouraged. Adding context about yourself and your role is helpful. For example, "Hello, I'm Jane Smith, Vice Consul at the United States Embassy." In English, the accepted, formal response to any introduction is, "How do you do?" Informally, a smile, "Hello," or, "It's nice to meet you," are fine. Other languages have very particular phrases, so be sure to learn them upon arriving at post.

When making introductions, honor is recognized by the name spoken first. Courtesy gives honor to those who are older, higher in rank, titled, have a professional status, or are female. However, women are introduced to ambassadors, heads of state, royalty, and dignitaries of the church. To make the introductions more pleasant, tell each individual a bit of information about the other. This encourages the conversation to continue.

As they do when a woman enters the room, men should rise when being introduced to a woman. In some countries, a man kisses a married woman's hand. Men also rise when being introduced to another man. Women should rise when being introduced to another woman for whom she wishes to show great respect, such as the hostess, a very distinguished woman, or much older woman. In some countries, women rise when introduced to all others.

Throughout the world, greeting and leave-taking customs may include handshakes, salutatory gestures or other specific expressions. If there is such a tradition, use it with host country nationals, foreigners and fellow staff members. Failure to abide with tradition may be interpreted as rudeness or a lack of respect for colleagues.

The best and most courteous way to handle recognizing someone without recalling his or her name is to mention your name again. For example, "Good evening, I'm Jim Smith. We met recently at the ambassador's home. I'm pleased to see you again." More than likely, he/she will reintroduce himself/herself. Starting from the assumption that he/she may also not remember your name could save both of you potential embarrassment.


Forms of address for foreign government officials and people holding professional, ecclesiastical, or traditional titles vary among countries. The correct local usage can be verified at post. Following are titles for US and some foreign officials that are widely used in both spoken and written address. It is appropriate to begin letters and refer to others directly and indirectly with the following titles.

Diplomatic Titles

Chiefs of Mission

  • Mr./Madam Ambassador (this also applies to an ambassador with a military title), or Ambassador Reed.
  • Sir Richard - British ambassador who is a knight (Sir Richard's wife would be addressed as "Lady Smith".)
  • Lord Montgomery - British ambassador who is a baron
  • Mr./Mrs. Douglas or Ms. Williams - the ambassador's spouse

Chargé d. Affaires

  •  Mr./Ms/Mrs./Madam Randal

Ministers and Others

  • Mr./Madam Taylor

Although the US does not use the term, "Excellency", some countries do when referring to ambassadors. Even if the host country uses the term "Excellency", American chiefs of mission in those countries are addressed as "Mr./Madam Ambassador" by US citizens. Foreign chiefs of mission who are accredited to the US are also referred to as ambassadors.

Adapted from material published by the Overseas Briefing Center of the U.S. Department of State.
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