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I was wondering if Chinese people ever get confused addressing multiple people with the same last name.

For example, let's say you are at a gathering and you meet many people who are from the same family, so everyone's last name is 林. You are only acquaintances with these people so you cannot use their full name/given name/nickname. Or maybe they are all older than you so using their given name is disrespectful.

But in either case, there would be so many people called 林先生 (or another 林+title) that nobody knows who you are referring to anymore. Then how would you make it clear which person you are talking to/talking about?

In English there is less of this problem because we can use first names for acquaintances and older people but Chinese is different.

  • Unless there are doctors, lawyers, professors, presidents, prime ministers among the 林 clan. – Wayne Cheah Jun 30 at 7:40
  • "You are only acquaintances with these people so you cannot use their full name" <--- where did you hear that from? – Sweeper Jun 30 at 12:14
  • Oh, I think someone a long time ago just told me it was rude. I guess they were wrong? That is good to know. – jcwn Jul 2 at 23:15
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This depends on what kind of gathering it is, and what your relationship with the people are.

If you are attending a family gathering of your friend, you can just call most of them the same as how your friend would call them (except your friend's parents, obviously). But usually, using just "叔叔" "阿姨" "爷爷" "奶奶" would be enough for older people. For younger generation, using full name / given name is perfectly OK. When you want to refer to someone, the relation between your friend and the person can be use, such as "XX的二叔" (XX's second uncle). You don't use last names at all in this situation.

If you are attending profession meeting with a lot of people for different organizations, and many of them happen to have the same last name, using the full name before "先生" (or other appropriate title) is perfectly OK and normal.

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When I worked at Nankai, we had multiple 李老师s. If there was ambiguity involved, the students would just say the teacher's full name then put 老师 at the end. E.g. 李忠伟老师.

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A common way to distinguish between two people with the same last name is using: 小 and 老.

For 林 that would give us: 小林 for someone who is younger and 老林 for someone who is older.

And of course using someone's full name is never an issue.

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You can judge them by their age or family relationship, which would be how I would do it. I'm a Cantonese, and I'm not sure if people in different areas prefer different names.

In a casual setting, you may use:

<- younger                                      older ->
弟弟, 妹妹, 哥哥, 姐姐, 叔叔, 姨姨, 伯伯, 嬸嬸, 爺爺, 婆婆.

Or I may also choose to say "[family relationship] of [my friend's name]". E.g. If my friend is 志明, I may say "志明爸爸" or "伯伯"/"林伯伯" to refer to his dad.

You can refer to someone by a younger kinship name. Instead of "林婆婆", you can e.g. use "林姨姨". Someone may even go younger with name such as "大姐" if the speaker themselves are closer to the referred person in age.


Depending on the language they speak, (under the Chinese language family of course,) they may prefer you using different relationship names. For example, in Taiwan, since they speak Hokkien (Min Chinese), they often prefer "阿嬤" over "婆婆" if referred to an elderly woman.


Also, please pay attention to some special roles. For example, the wife of your teacher is "師母". But as a Cantonese, I personally haven't heard people say that here. Another example is that you should use "伯母" to refer to the mother of a friend/colleague/classmate.

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