Nicknames: Understanding When It’s Appropriate To Use Them

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Nicknames can be shorter versions of a person’s full or given name, or something else that’s unrelated to their actual name. They may also be funny names or cute names that people call best friends. While some people exclusively go by their nickname in all situations, others are known by their nickname only to close family and friends. This is why it can be challenging to decide on appropriate names to call people. If someone in your life goes by a nickname in some scenarios, you may be wondering if it’s appropriate for you to use it. Or, you might be considering whether it’s okay to give a new nickname to someone or use a term of endearment or friendship with them. Sometimes there are many names to call people and it can be confusing to know if a nickname is only used by closest friends, by a partner, or if it is a fun nickname that anyone may use.

Names are often very personal, so creating or using a nickname with someone when they feel it’s unwarranted or underserved can make them feel uncomfortable or even offended.

Before presuming that someone would want you to use their nickname or give them one, there are a few things you may want to take into consideration first.

Are you struggling to act professionally at work?

Why people use nicknames

First: Why are nicknames so common? Some people prefer another name to the one they were given at birth. In cases like these, the person may go by their nickname all the time, which generally means that it’s fine for you to use it. But what about nicknames that are reserved only for use by loved ones, or terms of endearment among friends or romantic partners? These types are typically used to show affection and belonging to a specific in-group. Funny nicknames may only be funny names if a certain person uses them.

This human tendency is commonly seen among romantic couples, who may refer to each other by names or terms that no one else uses for them. Demonstrating affection and care in this way may actually benefit the relationship, too. One study found that “idiosyncratic communication,” or “insider language” used only within a specific group, was associated with marital satisfaction among couples. Family may also use nicknames and find them adorable; depending on personality, it is not uncommon for young girls to be called princess or young guys to be called champ or the like.

What to consider before giving or using nicknames

So you’ve heard someone you know called by another name, or perhaps you assume that they’d be fine with a shortened version of their full name. Or maybe you thought of a few nickname ideas that you think would suit them or would bring you closer together. How do you decide if it’s the right move to start using it? Here are a few factors to take into account.

The nickname itself

This consideration applies mainly to nicknames that you come up with for another person. If it could be construed as inappropriate or offensive in any way, it’s best to err on the side of caution and not use it. Nicknames are usually used to make someone feel comfortable or cared for, so if there’s a risk of it having the opposite effect, it’s usually wise to avoid using it.

The setting

Not all nicknames are appropriate for all scenarios. Some people reserve their nicknames for use in social settings or with family and friends, but go by their full or given name in professional settings, for instance. Similarly, the pet names some couples have for each other, but may not be appropriate to use around other family and friends, or may be confusing or even seem exclusionary to them. If you’re thinking of using a nickname for someone, consider where and when you might use it—and where and when you probably shouldn’t.

Your relationship

This is perhaps one of the most important elements to think about, since nicknames are often reserved for people who have a close relationship. Using nicknames between two true friends may be appropriate, however, if you start using a nickname you’ve heard for someone you don’t know well, they might find it uncomfortable or strange. If you start trying out a pet name with someone you’ve just started dating, they might feel that you’re moving too fast whereas cute names for a long-term boyfriend or girlfriend may be acceptable. If you make up a nickname for a coworker or employee at work, it might sound lovely, however, it could make them feel uncomfortable and might even qualify as harassment.

Age and culture

People of different generations or cultures may feel differently than you do about nicknames. Older people may prefer the formality of their full name or even an honorific (Mr., Mrs., Professor, Doctor, etc.). Those from cultures that are different from your own may also have views on or feelings about nicknames and their usage that you’re not aware of.

What the person thinks about it

Not sure whether using a nickname with someone would be inappropriate or would make them uncomfortable? You could ask what they prefer to be called, and then you’ll know for sure. If you don’t want to ask, it’s never a bad idea to err on the side of caution and stick to the name they originally introduced themselves with. If someone wants you to call them something else over time as your relationship evolves, they can ask you. Or, once you form a closer relationship over time, you might feel more comfortable asking if you can use a nickname to refer to them.

What to do about inappropriate nicknames

If you choose to use a nickname for someone and it makes them uncomfortable, be receptive to their feedback and their request that you call them something else. It doesn’t matter if the nickname isn’t offensive to you, what matters is if it is offensive to the other person.  After all, we’re each entitled to have preferences on how others refer to us—which includes both names and pronouns. Respecting someone’s wishes in regard to topics like these is a basic kindness.

If someone starts calling you by a nickname that you don’t care for or are offended by, what should you do? In a case like this, you can simply let them know: “I prefer to be called [name], so I would appreciate it if you only referred to me in that way.” In the best-case scenario, the person will change their behavior accordingly. If it’s become a habit for them to refer to you by the nickname you don’t like, don’t be afraid to kindly but firmly correct them a few times until they get it right. If someone is not receptive to your request in a setting like the workplace, you may need to speak to a manager or to HR personnel for help addressing the issue.

Getty
Are you struggling to act professionally at work?

Getting help navigating social situations and relationships

Knowing how to handle interpersonal scenarios can be difficult. Humans are complex and diverse, and sometimes the best course of action isn’t clear. Those with conditions like anxiety, for example, may find the nuances of a topic like nicknames to be extra stressful or even overwhelming. Whatever your situation, a trained therapist may be able to provide useful guidance. They can help you sort through your emotions about people or events, improve communication skills, or develop strategies for managing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other conditions.

Virtual therapy is an option for those who prefer to speak with a therapist from the comfort of their own home. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can connect with via phone call, video call, and/or chat. Since research suggests that online therapy offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, some people prefer this format. Remember: The best style of therapy for you is usually the one that you feel most comfortable with.

Takeaway

The way others refer to us can be a very personal thing, sometimes layered with complex emotions. Guy and girl best friends may give each other nicknames to signify friendship and a bond, and nicknames can signify being part of a larger group. Before using a nickname for someone, you might consider the circumstances, ask their preference, and avoid using it if you’re not sure.
Seeking to improve your mental health?
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started