Please Sir, do you mind if I just call you Tony?

28th September 2001 at 01:00
A name is a name. Or is it? What's yours called? Your boss, I mean. More to the point, what do you call your boss's boss and those further up the hierarchical line?

It may seem like a trivial point but the way names and titles are used to reinforce rank and deference can say a lot about a workplace.

When I first started in colleges a score or more years ago, it was seen as a bit daring to call your head of department by his or her first name. Above that, as far as you knew, the men (and invariably they were men) didn't actually have first names. To be addressed as Mr by your subordinates was simply part of the territory - on a par with owning a luxury caravan and being at least 120 years old.

Those at vice-principal level and above were more or less another species, dwelling in the rarefied air of the "top corridor" - a strange and forbidding place that you only went to if you'd been summoned.

It's all different today though. Even our Prime Minister is a Tony - a common man like the rest of us - to be found at his leisure strumming a guitar or posing for the cameras in loafers and denim.

We have come over all American, choosing KFC over fish and chips and wearing baseball caps in place of the flat variety. More importantly, we now communicate with one another in a way that would have seemed ridiculously informal, even impertinent, back in the Seventies.

You only have to look at the stream of chatty, personalised sales letters that drop through your letterbox. Face-to-face communication is no different. Where once it would have been a stiff "How do you do?" we now slip automatically into a transatlantic "Hi". First names are the order of the day, even with perfect strangers. To insist on a Mr or Mrs would be seen as quaint, old-fashioned, stuffy.

However, an old friend who's just taken a job in another part of the country tells me that that's exactly what the top tier of management requires in his new college. At least the unwritten rule says that it should be so. Like most matters of politeness and power, how you address a superior is more likely to be based on custom and practice than actual diktat.

If asked, no doubt both the givers and receivers of such deference would justify it on grounds of "respect". But then so too did King Darius of Persia when he demanded, on pain of instant death, that his subjects threw themselves face down into the dust whenever they came into his presence. Doesn't true respect come from what you do and what you are rather than the trappings of office? Like other forms of distinction, it has to be earned rather than demanded.

It's the same in the classroom. If my students see me as a boring old tosspot, aren't they still going to think that however much I insist on being "Mr Jones" rather than "Stephen"? For their first three weeks in college, the dewy-eyed 16-year-olds will still call you "Sir" anyway. Repeat as you might that you're neither a prison warder nor a Knight of the Garter, the habit of verbal subordination has been too deeply ingrained to be thrown off quickly.

While not even the most sycophantic aspirant for promotion calls their principal "Sir" any more, I can't help wondering if my friend's new college is entirely a one-off; or are there dozens of other workplaces out there where the "them and us" mentality is still being played out through the name game?

Clinging to outmoded forms of address seems a highly dubious practice to me. I have my doubts about aspects of the creeping Americanisation that characterises the modern world. But the spirit of egalitarianism that comes with "Hi Steve" or "Hi Tony" isn't one of them.

Verbal deference is part of the paraphernalia that has come down to us with the British class system. Insisting on its retention is a bit like continuing to wear a bowler hat or dressing for dinner.

Stephen Jones is chairman of governors at the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research

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