Posted tagged ‘informality’

Naming rights

March 7, 2014

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I was enthusiastically elected by my fellow students to represent them at staff meetings of my Faculty. Well, I was elected. When I came to the first meeting, I found that all the academic staff present addressed each other by their surnames. In fact, it went further: staff always called students Mr or Miss (Ms hadn’t yet become popular; yes I am that old) Bloggs.

When I started as a lecturer in the same institution I initially continued the tradition (I was even known, at first, to lecture occasionally in a gown). But after a while I got tired of all that and started calling everyone – staff, students, anyone within earshot – by their first names. And that’s how I have kept it as I climbed up the academic ladder and, eventually, became a university president (or principal, here in Scotland). In DCU I used to tell colleagues that the only time I would tolerate being addressed as ‘President’ was if the person so addressing me intended to follow that with something entirely insulting.

But it is useful to remember that not everyone is comfortable with this. In an article on the website Inside Higher Education an Australian lecturer laments the growth of the now standard informality because, in her view, it undermines the lecturer’s authority and the desire to teach students in a professional manner.

So now, I am wondering whether her views are more typical of the profession than mine. It would be interesting to hear feedback from readers of this blog.

Hi! I’m Ferdinand

January 15, 2009

A little while ago I was hosting some visitors from a German university. I explained our teaching and our research strategy, I showed them some of our buildings, I told them about some of our achievements (we had just entered the top 300 universities in the world at that time). No doubt they found some of this interesting, sort of, but what really caught their attention was none of that. As we toured the campus we met a professor, and I stopped to introduce him to the visitors. When we walked on, they told me they simply could not believe that this professor had addressed me as ‘Ferdinand’. But they had hardly got over their palpitations caused by that amazing occurrence when we passed the Students Union President, who also cheerfully called over to me, addressing me by my first name. At this point my visitors looked as if they might need medical attention.

Germans, on the whole, don’t do informality at work. My first job, before I went to university, was as a trainee/employee at the German bank, Dresdner Bank. I worked in a regional office employing perhaps 100 or so bank officials. I was there for two years, and during my entire time there I managed to get on first name terms with only one colleague. Even when we socialised after work (which we did quite regularly), there were still no first names. I had imagined that some of this might have changed, but my German university visitors kept insisting that they could not see how I could have any authority as a President when everyone called me Ferdinand. I told them that I absolutely refuse to be addressed as ‘President’ – unless, that is, the person addressing me wants to say something insulting.

Ireland may be different, but it is not all one way here. When I started as a young lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, I was on first name terms from the first day with everyone in the Department, including the Head (the late Professor Charles McCarthy, a truly wonderful man). But even there, just a few yards down the corridor, there was a Department in which, as far as I could tell, people avoided addressing each other at all if they could help it, and if they did it was always by last name. In another Department, the Head condescended to be addressed by first name by most academic colleagues, but insisted that the secretaries should use his full title and surname because, as he assured me once, ‘they would be more comfortable that way’.

In the end, I guess it is all a matter of culture. Different countries do things differently, as do different organisations. On the whole we have taken on board the US culture of personal informality, and I can recognise that this won’t necessarily work elsewhere. We have to recognise and respect that. However, it is also true that the way we address each other tells us a lot about social hierarchies, and about the extent to which people can feel free to apply initiative and enterprise. Right now, we need a culture of initiative, accompanied by respect; but it is respect not for status, but who we are as people.

As I walked my German friends back to my office, one of them decided to try an experiment, and said something to a colleague (with whom he had worked for over 10 years). He addressed him by his first name. Both of them burst out laughing. No, they decided, it wouldn’t work. Recently he sent me an email to wish me a happy Christmas, and he revealed that the visit had changed them, and that some of the then-visitors were now on first name terms. Let’s keep an eye on Germany.