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Auntie SparkNotes: What Should I Call My Cousin at Work?

Auntie SparkNotes: What Should I Call My Cousin at Work?

Kat Rosenfield

Dear Auntie,

I have a dumb etiquette dilemma! It involves "what to call your coworker who's older and more experienced than you." See, I was raised to never address an adult by only their first name, especially family—even my youngest uncle, who's like 5 years older than me, is called "Uncle John."

A couple of months ago, I got an internship, my first job to actually involve older and more experienced coworkers. It was initially a little awkward, but I got used to addressing them by their first names pretty quickly. Except one person—my mom's cousin Jane, who worked there (which I did not know when I got the internship). Between family members she's Cousin Jane, but you can't do that in an office. Her being a relative, and 30+ years older than me, I felt grossly inappropriate not using some kind of title, like calling the Pope "Frank." So I referred to her as Jane to other people, but I addressed her as "excuse me" and stuff like that.

And then—happy ending!—when my internship was over, they hired me. Which is nice and all, but I can't call Cousin Jane "Excuse Me" forever. What do I do?

For starters, Sparkler, you realize that even your strictest family rules have a limited range—and that range does not extend to settings outside your household that have their own mores and norms. It doesn't matter what you were raised to do; in an office, what you were raised to do is always going to be superseded by what it's appropriate and professional to do.

Or in other words, you might also have been raised to greet older family members with a kiss (or depending upon your particular dynamic, a pat on the butt and a series of intrusive questions about why you're not married yet). But even if that were an ironclad tradition that it felt really weird not to engage in after spending your whole life doing it, you wouldn't smooch your cousin every time you ran into her at the coffee machine. Right? Because professionalism requires that we don't kiss our coworkers—even if our coworkers are also family members.

And with that in mind, what you're going to do is grit your teeth through the weirdness and call your cousin by name, the same way you would with any colleague. Anything else would be not just inappropriate, but in violation of some pretty well-established taboos surrounding nepotism in professional settings. And look, if it makes you feel better, you can tell your cousin that you feel really awkward about this considering the importance your family places on this one particular standard of address (it might even be a good idea, lest she wonder why you look like you're being electrocuted every time you have to say her name to get her attention). But as an adult yourself, it shouldn't be long before you get used to it—and to this kind of code-switching in general, which will be good practice for a lifetime out in the world where your family rules don't always necessarily apply.

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Topics: Life
Tags: etiquette, auntie sparknotes, advice, internships, family issues, getting a job, family relationships, tough issues

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About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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