Insert Title Here: Feeling Somewhat EnTITLEd Today

So what’s in a name, or more specifically, a title? I’ve been thinking about this subject recently since a former student of mine, Holliann (who recently graduated from University), wanted to get together for a chat concerning some of her strange and unusual experiences while away at school.

“Thanks Professor. I will see you then,” is how she concluded our social media conversation.

“Please, call me Jimmy,” I told her.

“I don’t think I can,” she said, “but I’ll try.”

“Just do it,” I told her.

Such formal titles make me somewhat uptight and uncomfortable. I understand why certain people would rather stick to formal convention, yet it still does not set right with me.

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This exchange really got me to thinking. What are the criteria for determining whether we call someone by their first/last name or their title/position?

I teach for crying out loud…I am not part of  some kind of regal Monarchy.

If someone asks me what I do for a living I will say Professor. When someone, anyone—students and non-students alike—ask me what I would prefer to be called, I usually instruct them to call me Jimmy. Yet I have found over the years that students, both past and present, are very reluctant to call me anything but Professor.

As a result, now I simply instruct students to refer to me in the moniker they feel most comfortable calling me, provided it is not disrespectful.

So I feel like “Comedian” Seinfeld when I ask, “What is the deal with this whole title thing?”

Please understand…I realize most companies have a myriad of job titles from CEO’s to Janitors, yet we do not call the Janitor, “Janitor Fred,” rather they are Fred -who happens to be the Janitor.  Or we refer to Frank Jones, CEO of such and such a company, rather than CEO Jones.

I wanted to find out more so I went where most of my students go for research, Wikipedia. The site did not provide much help though did offer me the following definition: A title is a prefix or suffix added to someone’s name in certain contexts. It may signify either veneration, an official position or a professional or academic qualification. In some languages, titles may be inserted before a last name.

Yes, I knew that. Thanks Wikipedia. You reminded why you are a crappy source and my students cannot cite you.

I get the whole old school idea of respect, professionalism and appropriateness, yet where do we draw the line and why? I do not refer to Baseball Player Kershaw (ironically we do call his coach, “Coach”), Plumber Stan, Musician Slash, Model Klum, Artist Nick, Accountant Jones, Neuroscientist Williams or Announcer Scully.  Then when it comes to 5 specific fields—namely religion, politics, education, military and medical—we engage in a mad orgy of title-driven monikers.

Why?

If one contends that those 5 areas are more deserving of respect than some others, how unnecessarily disrespectful is that to those other professions?  Are there commonalities in these 5 areas that might designate them for fancy titles? Or is just random cultural bullshit that we have just adopted because, as one of my students recently observed, most people are just “sheeple” and usually do not ask such questions.

I do. In particular when I give a shit about something.

It does seem that within each of the title-driven fields the one common theme is that the various “titled” people directly exert a certain amount of power and control over others. Yet, so do directors, producers, and most business owners and they do not warrant a title when others refer to them.

Then I think about nobility. Are religious, medical, education, military and politics more noble professions, hence a fancy title? Hmmmmm…I wonder what my musician and artist friends would have to say about that?

When I was telling Holli about this blog I was writing, she suggested that maybe we place more trust in the people in those 5 areas, hence the titles. Yet we still must place trust in our engineers so our bridges and buildings will not fail us. In fact, we must place the most trust in our babysitters and childcare workers and they are not referred to as Babysitter Mary.

Therefore it is not about power, importance, nobility or trust…why the titles?

It would seem to me to be an issue of basic identity. When we refer to someone by their title, it is important we see them as first and foremost by their profession.  Is it that when we speak to Pastors, Senators, Professors, Generals and Doctors it is imperative that we see them through this lens exclusively?  Why? What if I would prefer to be known as Jimmy first, Father second, Partner third and then, maybe, just maybe, Professor would land around fourth. Blogger? Maybe 20th.

A title really is a show of power and authority.  As a low power distance person in general -meaning I do not gravitate toward separating myself great distances from those over whom I have power- I have no great need to be thought of in terms of title first, person second. In terms of authority, separating yourself from others by slapping on fancy titles is hardly an effective means of gaining respect. I would rather be respected for the quality of what I do over the quality of the title that has been bestowed upon me.

For those who do not respect my style of teaching or leadership, throwing an ornate title to my profession is not going to change that anyway.

I am not dismissing titles as worthless or in some way negative, rather I am questioning the inconsistent use of them and whether or not they are entirely necessary.

So call me Jimmy. You can do it Holliann! But, hey, if you can’t, I get it.  Just try.

 

jimmysintension

7 Comments

  1. Hey Jimmy,

    I don’t believe titles are necessarily arbitrary or inconsistent. I think in contexts when a relationship is ambiguous, titles can help set the tone for the relationship. For example with one of my professors at CSUSB: In the classroom, he asks of his students to refer to him as Dr. Corrigan, but outside of the classroom he happily encourages his students to call him T.C.

    Also, I work in the service industry and refer to my customers with an appropriate “sir” or “ma’am” because at times it would be unnecessary to develop a first-name repertoire with an occasional patron. I believe when a relationship has no intention of continuing, titles serve as a means to identify with the other. (e.g. a grocery clerk and customer, doctor and patient, etc.)

    Titles may also connote power or experience as you briefly touched upon. For example, I once heard an anecdote: Imagine two people walking down the street and one suddenly has a heart attack. You spring into a heroic action to save the person suffering the heart attack when the other asks if you are a doctor? If you say no, that you are just a concerned bystander, they may be less inclined for your help. This suggests that people are less inclined to care about who you are and more interested in what experiences or services you can offer. (I’d be interested to here your thoughts on this theory).

    Lastly, I believe titles set expectations of how we anticipate those who hold them to behave. We develop norms of what to expect when we interact with an officer of the law, a doctor of medicine, or our academic professors.

    Great post though, it’s interesting to see what titles can say about relationships, and one thing I’d like to explore is the idea of titles suggesting entitlement? How much does a title influence one’s perception of self toward others? The mind is reeling.

    • Thank you so much for your (always) insightful and eloquent comment Lou. I will respond best as I can.

      I suppose I needed to be more clear concerning titles and how we reference someone. Pretty much EVERYONE has a title…yet we then (somewhat arbitrarily IMO) select who gets to be referred to IN LIEU of their name through titles ONLY. I do not refer to you as student Lou. I do not believe the example you provided of Dr Corrigan demonstrates ambiguity…you know full well who he is both inside and outside the classroom…there is no ambiguity, right?

      In regards to titles and business, if I am trying to obtain customers, I will defer to the most conservative choices of titles available in order not to possibly offend. Though I have no plans to ever continue my “relationship” with Kathy who works down at our local Circle K, I think referring to her by name is a nice personal touch and builds community…even though if I never saw her again I would be just fine.

      In regards to your example of a doctor and a heart attack, this really has little to do with titles as much as profession. Of course I would call out for a doctor first and foremost, but if said doctor said “Just call me Mary.” I would be fine with that…I care more about what they can do for me over what I would call them…so yes, I agree with you concerning what people have to offer is far more reason to care for someone.

      Regarding titles and norms of behavior…I suppose that is a euphemistic way to say we can stereotype. AS you full well know, my life is one big break from stereotypes and I play with that and use it to my advantage. I think the stereotypes that titles promote can work both positively and negatively. I expect officers of the law to be assholes…so years back they tried to change their title to “Peace Officers” and, well, you can see how well that PR move worked. No matter what we call someone, at the end of the day, it comes down to behavior, not titles…hence my “uptightness” being called professor, as, in my mind, that pictures a stuffy academic who lives in an ivory tower.

      Thanks again Lou!! I love you mind!

  2. When I was your student, I had no problem calling you Jimmy in class, since that’s what you asked us to call you. I did have a problem, however, referring to you as “Jimmy” when talking to someone else … another professor, for instance, or even other students. Then it seemed more appropriate to call you Professor Urbanovich. It could be a hold-over from high school, when all the teachers were referred to as Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. Of all the instructors I had at Crafton Hills, only you and a couple of others asked to be called by their first names. I do view addressing a professor with a their last name as a sign of respect. I always called T.L. Brink, Dr. Brink. (Plus, who even knows his first name?) I called Kris Acquistapace, Professor Acquistapace. Now that we have become friends outside of class, calling her Kris just doesn’t seem right … but then neither does Professor. As Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or perhaps more appropriately, Gertrude Stein’s, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Whatever we call you, you’re still one of Crafton’s best professors.

  3. As I once said, “Flattery will get you EVERYwhere.” Thank you so much Sandy. Your final sentiment pretty much sums up my own. I am far more interested in being judged by the quality of my “product” rather than the fanciness of my title. I suppose this is not an issue I care a GREAT deal about though I find the discussion a worthy one.

  4. my two bits… once upon a time titles were important, Duke, Barron, Price, King, most every culture has a time in history where social class’s were divided up. Those of importance had a title. Even a small village had a shaman or medicine man or king. Even in democratic settings the Tribal Elders were ranks, the title was associated with some of influence. There is some sort of Ranking, One way or another A title is associated with power and influence….Why we still have titles who knows.

    I see titles in places where there are limited positions that should be considered an honor to hold, such as senator or General. Not a position, job, rank, way to make a buck, that is easily obtained considering we have 50 senators to represent over 300 million. A Judge is a title that demands respect or they will put you in jail for contempt, and that title definitely has power and influence, Outside the court room the power is almost gone but not their influence. and the rank of General requires bullets being shot you at some point in time and you kinda like it. But military has always had ranks and titles and its a chain of command, that’s very traditional.
    As far as Doctors i think its just trying to hold on to that title of medicine man…. but again doctors have to spend a lot of time and effort to gain that title…. Most pay enough …

    It all Boils down to Tradition…. the “status quo” …..People with titles used to interact with common folk so it had some meaning… Senators don’t need the title anymore. We use titles now create a social status and that’s about it, And Identify those with specific powers or influence maybe…

    • Thank you for your contribution Wes. The more I think about it, people really need to have their “heroes” or a person/group of people that they can look up to and, perhaps, even aspire to be. Perhaps titles are a sign of hope at best and a means to create larger than life people at worst. Why is this bad? Because when the man behind to curtain is revealed, it is always a disappointment.

  5. I feel like in those fields, titles are basically more earned and less acquired, if that makes sense. In the military, you move up in ranks kinda like how a professor could be considered higher up in the ranks than a gradeschool teacher. It might also have to do with lack of a personal relationship with someone, like if you were best friends with your friend who is a doctor, you would just call him Jerry and not doctor Seinfeld yet you would call your actual doctor doctor Costanza and not doctor George, same with your professor or a fellow person in the military with you or your rabbi. If you didn’t personally know these people you would generally use titles.

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