First Name First?
October 28, 2009 9:49 AM   Subscribe

How do people in places where last names are ordered before first names like to see names displayed in their software applications?

A large part of the software product on which I work is a database of people's names. We display these names in a number of contexts. We have some hard coded rules for people working in other langauges - if the user is working in Japanese - order the name fields Last Name, First Name. We're thinking about making this more configurable.
The first question I have is whether people in places where a person is addressed "Last Name, First Name" want to see that same order if the person being addressed is from a place that uses "First Name, Last Name". Is this usually tied to a language - or a culture. Does a person using the application in Japanese, but operating out of the US with mostly US contacts want to see Last Name, First Name or the other way around?
posted by Wolfie to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you label them "Surname" and "Given Name"? This will clear up any ambiguity. Otherwise, with no label, people will be left not knowing if they're in "American Form" or if you've put them in the "correct" form for their country.
posted by brainmouse at 9:57 AM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's almost no way to answer this question without asking this same question of your user base. They're the ones that will be using it, so they should weigh in on how they'd like to see it. A lot also depends on what the software is to be used for, and how many people are in the database.

Another thing to ask - how big is the company? In my career (I'm American, working in America), I have found that in smaller environments people tend to prefer Firstname Lastname, as it's more familiar, but as a company gets bigger and you don't know Ralph personally, or there are 16 Marys, it becomes more necessary to display things as Lastname Firstname for ease of finding someone.
posted by pdb at 10:19 AM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: Its a CRM database used across multiple industries with companies from 5 to 50,000 employees. The people in the database are your customers, partners, friends, but mostly people with whom you have some kind of professional relationship. Common usage for us is that people in Japan have business relationships with other Japanese people but I want to make sure we account for alternative uses.
Changing the labels could be helpful for data entry - but when we display the name - without field labels - on a record, in an address block or in a report do we display the name order based on the language/locale of the user or of the contact record.
I have a contact in Japan, if I'm supposed to call them by their last name - I'd want a record to display with that name first - asking the hive here to see if my assumption jives with other people's.
posted by Wolfie at 10:43 AM on October 28, 2009

First name, last name always. That's why it's your first name. It you need to get cordial, add "Mr." or its equivalent.
posted by xammerboy at 10:50 AM on October 28, 2009

Japanese is a tricky case.

For starters, to be punctilious, Japanese names are not "lastname, firstname" they are "lastname firstname" (no comma)—or to be more punctilious "surname givenname."

All Japanese people who speak English will put their given name in front when speaking English, and almost all Japanese people (including monolinguals) know that English-speakers put their given names in front. Whether you address a given Japanese person by given name or surname is more of an individual matter.

The case when you're dealing with a Westerner in Japanese is prone to confusion. I set my Japanese business card as givenname•surname, but I had a job once where they set my cards (including the English side) surname first. Looking through business cards I've received from others, I see examples of both.

The French custom of setting the surname in all-caps would help clarify this, although there are no capital letters in Japanese, so that doesn't help your Japanese users. Apple's Address Book app lets you swap name order on a person-by-person basis, fwiw.
posted by adamrice at 11:01 AM on October 28, 2009

If you're asking for personal preference:
If this database is for sorting purposes, I would want lastname first. However, if, like in your example, I have one name, and I'm supposed to call that person Mr. LastName, I would want the name to be written FirstName LastName, not Lastname, FirstName.

However, I maintain that unless these fields are always labeled, someone will get it wrong, because there's no universal right answer.
posted by brainmouse at 11:21 AM on October 28, 2009

Wait, your example was the opposite of that, wasn't it. That's why you can't use last name and first name, you have to use given name and surname, otherwise it's always confusing.
posted by brainmouse at 11:22 AM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: I think the apple example is likely the best way to handle this. Thanks adamrice, I'm not a mac user and hadn't seen any good examples in any apps I use. Default to the general custom in that language and allow users to override. Now to see how that works for us, in practice....
posted by Wolfie at 11:35 AM on October 28, 2009

A lot of people who work in academic fields where they are communicating with people from many countries will write their name either as "Firstname LASTNAME" or "LASTNAME Firstname" (capitalizing the last name in either case) to reduce confusion.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:15 PM on October 28, 2009

This really depends. There's no way to answer your question definitively. In Korea, for example, if the name is written in Korean, it's almost always "surname given names" with no comma in between. If it's written in English, different people do different things. Let's say there's someone named "Kim Eun Young" (surname given names). That name might be written just like that, or it might be written "Kim Eunyoung" or "Eunyoung Kim" or "Kim, Eun young." There's no hard and fast rule. This isn't a problem in Korea because it's almost always obvious (to other Koreans, or people who have lived in the culture for a while) which name is the family name, but it can be confusing for outsiders.

So it's hard to answer your question directly.
posted by smorange at 11:02 PM on October 28, 2009

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