2014.05.09 Addressing strangers

As most readers will have observed, I use LinkedIn, the professional social network site.

With over 300 mill users and versions in many countries, it is quite interesting to see the US cultural fingerprint slowly invading other cultures. Not that American business culture hasn't been exported before, but there is a difference between attending a management seminar where the theories taught may or may not be adaptable to the local culture and then having a day-to-day tool slowly tweaking your perception of normality.

I had my eyes opened by a discussion concerning how to address other people.

This article in The Economist described how using the wrong greeting could have unintended consequences and how, even if we speak the language, we may not "speak the culture" and know when to use one or another phrase correctly.

In the article, a woman had ended an otherwise English language email with "Abrazos" - hugs - and thanks to my Spanish speaking colleagues on LinkedIn, I now know that this sign-off is usually used by men in the singular form and only if you would actually give the other person a hug when you met.

What has this got to do with LinkedIn?

If you have ever been part of a discussion on LinkedIn, you may have seen a row of little pictures in the left of the discussion trail, pictures of the person making the comment.

In most instances there really is a picture. Some LinkedIn members don't have a photograph, they have a cartoon, or their dog, or something they are interested in - I saw a sailboat once - or nothing.

Under the picture there will in most cases be a name.

I am using the US version of LinkedIn, but I have the notion that you may see a similar thing: The picture comes with your first name.

When I see names of people not in my network, they are often shown as first name and the initial of the last name, ex. "Henry B.".

So can you choose a setting where what is shown to people not knowing you is "H. Brown" rather than "Henry B."?

I highly doubt it. I haven't been able to find it and I have also seen profiles where the names have been following this form: "Gerber, H. PhD". In this case Herr Doktor Gerber probably doesn't appreciate strangers calling him "Hans".

As you can imagine, the name was not chosen at random. In Germany as in many other countries, you wouldn't say "Hans" to somebody you don't know - and certainly not in a business relationship, which LinkedIn claims to be.

On the other hand, the country with the absolutely and by a huge margin lowest measure of Power Distance in the world (read about this concept here) is Denmark where I come from. I am primed for informality. When somebody says Ms. Wittenkamp, I feel slightly uncomfortable. Not the least because it is often used in contexts where I only know the other party's first name but they know my name from my credit card or from their customer relationship system. I am sure they mean well.

LinkedIn is a baby of the laid back Silicon Valley culture where most are pretty informal. Americans are in general very open to using first names in business dealings and a normal self introduction could be: "William Clinton, just call me Bill." (OK, this particular one would probably not be normal and the correct way to address him would still be "Mr. President" - unless you have gotten the invitation to do otherwise.)

While Americans jump to using first names very quickly among peers, they still are quite hierarchical in so many other situations. Children call adults "Mr./Ms./Mrs Last Name". Students call professors "Professor Last Name" unless otherwise invited. Among doctors, the "Dr. Last Name" is still a norm (and that can create confusion if the doctor uses first name but only has initials on the name tag or uses the introduction: "Hello Charlotte, I am Dr. Adams.")

So what do you do if you are commenting on a LinkedIn blog or in a group discussion?

As far as I have observed, the norm in the American LinkedIn is to refer whose comment one is replying to by using their name. If you comment on a blog, you may be able to refer directly to the author or other commentaries using "@full name" and the system will help with suggesting names. But in group discussions this feature is not enabled. So comments usually follow this form: "First Name, you asked about..." or "As First Name wrote..."

Let us say that I three years down the line meet Dr. Adam Grant, one of the people I follow on LinkedIn? What should I call him to his face after having been calling him "Adam" on line for years? The man has 73 thousands followers - he wouldn't know one from the other even if they have their photo, not their cat, as profile picture.

I will cross that bridge when I meet it. Meanwhile, 300+ mill people and growing are all part of an interesting international social experiment. How it will play out, only time will show, but if LinkedIn becomes as popular abroad as it is in the US, the Gerber, H. PhDs of this world are going to have many more interactions where people are not sure what to call each other.

So for now, tread carefully when greeting people you don't really, almost, somewhat know. And to any member of this experiment, my apologies if I have offended you.

Me? By all means, just call me Charlotte. Unless you want me to call you by your title and last name, that is. But to me that signals distance.