The Oban Blog



How do naming customs vary around the world?

Everyone’s name is made up of first name + surname and maybe a middle name or two, right? Wrong. How people name themselves varies around the world. This matters for marketing because:

  • The trend towards personalisation means you need to understand how to address someone correctly in each target market.
  • If your website contains data capture or check out forms, you need to have form fields that accurately reflect naming conventions in each market. Failure to do so will negatively impact conversion rate.

Aside from marketing, if you’re doing business across borders, then understanding how to address and introduce people correctly is important. Read on to find out more.

 

The word order of names varies by culture

In many Western (and non-Western) countries, people’s names follow the pattern of first name + middle name + family name (which is usually your father’s surname). This word order isn’t universally the case.

In China, the word order is the reverse. Chinese surnames usually come first, followed by given names. This is also true in Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese cultures. However, this order may not always be observed in translation.

This reverse word order applies to Hungarian, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian cultures too.

 

In some cultures, multiple surnames are the norm

In the UK, most people have one surname and very often, this is their family name which traditionally (but not always) has been passed down their father’s side. This isn’t the case around the world. For example:

  • In Portugal and Brazil, it’s first name(s) + mother’s paternal family name + father’s paternal family name.
  • In Spain and Columbia, it’s first name(s) + father’s paternal family name + mother’s paternal family name.

 

Not every culture has middle names

In Japan, for example, it’s very uncommon to have a middle name. The concept is not followed or legally recognised in Japan, except for foreigners. This means that online forms which have an option for middle names can seem confusing to Japanese customers.

 

Surnames can be gendered

In Czechia, it’s traditional for woman to have the suffix “ova” appended to their surnames. For example, if the family name is ‘Novak’, the male members of the family will bear that name whilst the female members will be called ‘Novakova’. (In recent years, steps have been afoot amongst law-makers to end this practice without success.) Other countries such as Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine also vary the family name by sex.

 

Honorifics aren’t universally in front of names

In English, titles like “Mr” and “Mrs” precede family names. In Japan, honorifics such as “san”, “sama”, “kun” and “chan” are used as suffixes after the family name.

 

Best practice when designing form fields

Given that naming conventions vary around the world, bear in mind these UX and personalisation tips:

  • Remember that not everyone’s name may conform to the honorific + first name + last name format – make sure form fields reflect the naming convention in each relevant market
  • A single name field (as opposed to multiple name fields) can accommodate the broadest range of name types but means you cannot reliably extract parts of a name (which you would need to do, say, for “Dear <first name>” emails)
  • Depending on the market, consider the appropriate use of labels – e.g. whether the term ‘family name’ is more appropriate than ‘last name’
  • If your website stores personal information, you should make it easy to users to update their details, including their name. People change their name for various reasons, such as a change in marital, family or gender status
  • Make sure fields are long enough to accommodate the names of your customers – some languages and naming conventions are much longer than English
  • Support all the characters users may need to enter, including symbols
  • When creating online forms for Arabic customers, remember that Arabic reads from right to left, so your form design should be changed to be right to left
  • Some languages and cultures are more formal than others. Don’t assume everybody is on first name basis in all cultures – adapt your personalised greetings to suit different languages and cultures
  • As always, use a Local In-Market Expert to guide you.

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Oban has a 20 year track record of helping UK businesses grow internationally using digital marketing techniques. Talk to us about how our network of Local In-Market Experts can accelerate your international expansion.


Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.