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Formality, not respect…

October 20, 2019, 9:34 AM

Something has always grated on me when people would say that the use of terms like “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Sir”, “Ma’am”, and so on allegedly indicated respect.  It also bothered me that, at least in school, the alleged respect only ran one way.  The students were required to address the staff by title and last name, while the teachers generally addressed the students by first name only.  It only made sense to me that if using last names meant respect, that it would reciprocate, but it never did.  You knew that something was fishy about that, because anyone who’s ever seen a teacher get told off by a student knows that the student will typically use the formal nomenclature for the teacher, but still be rather uncouth.  The student won’t say, “The hell with you, Maureen,” but more likely will say, “The hell with you, Ms. Kelly.”  The teacher in question might still hustle the student out of the room and fling their stuff out into the hallway so hard that their stuff hits a locker before falling to the floor, but they were respectful, because they addressed the teacher by their title and last name, right?  Right?  I see you rolling your eyes, because the argument clearly doesn’t hold water.  The hypothetical kid in the example was clearly being disrespectful, and what name they actually called the teacher, be it formal or informal, was irrelevant.

Then in 2014, when I began work at my current company, it all became clear during orientation.  Use of last names wasn’t about respect at all, but rather, it was about formality.  Formality made a whole lot more sense than respect for that type of address.  And unlike in school, everyone was on a last name basis with everyone, as in regardless of rank or title, you are on a last name basis with your colleagues.  The general rule was title and last name.  Operator Schumin.  Supervisor Walker.  Instructor Jacobs.  Superintendent Walkup.  And so on.  I can respect that, with everyone on a last name basis.  We may have different titles and ranks, but everyone is on a last name basis.  It’s not a matter of “I’m up here, and you’re down there, and I will address you accordingly,” that you get in school.  If schools want to do formal address properly, everyone should be on a last name basis, students and teachers alike.  In other words, if the teacher is “Mr. Matherly”, the student should be “Mr. Schumin”.  Or if one is going to use position titles, “Teacher Matherly” and “Student Schumin”.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the latter usage is something that we often see on television with administration, but which I have never seen in real life.  I’m sure that you can think of a television show where the principal is referred to by title and last name.  For me, The Simpsons immediately comes to mind, with Principal Skinner in charge of Springfield Elementary.  None of the principals that I ever had were addressed as “Principal” on a regular basis.  It was always Mr. or Mrs. whoever, regardless of title.  I had a few professors in college who referred to themselves as “Professor [Whoever]”, but that was about the extent of it when I was in school.

Also: never introduce yourself as “Mr. [Name]” or “Ms. [Name]” to an adult.  It just makes the person saying it seem stuffy and unfriendly.  It’s better to go with title and last name, or just using the full name and then letting the other person figure out the level of formality on their own.

Then the other alleged “magic words” of respect that grate on me are “sir” and “ma’am”.  We’ve all been told that the use of those terms indicates respect.  I’ve rarely seen it that way in practice.  It’s a formal method of address in lieu of a proper name, but not a sign of respect.  My experience in most cases is the exact opposite.  From childhood, I remember many occasions where when someone would say “yes” to a teacher without any additional embellishment, and they would subsequently demand that you say, “yes, ma’am” to them.  I always took umbrage at that.  That sort of behavior on the part of the authority figure (the teacher in this case) is extremely disrespectful, especially when they’re demanding the use of a term that allegedly conveys respect.  Sure, that makes a whole lot of sense.  Nothing like weaponizing a term of alleged respect and using it to be disrespectful to the person that you are demanding respect from.  I’ve also experienced the terms being used in a condescending way more often than a respectful way.  I’ve noticed that usage comes out when someone is tired of someone else’s nonsense.  It takes the language a step up in formality, but the intent is “cut the crap”.  And then there’s what my mother does when she knows that she has lost the argument and concedes: “Yes, sir,” in an annoyed tone.  She used to just do that with Dad, but after I took away her ability to successfully use “don’t argue with me” as a way to end a discussion in her favor by declaring victory whenever she said it, she started doing that with me, too.  And I suppose at least to some measure because of all of the above, I don’t like being called “sir”, and have actively requested not to be called that on a routine basis in the past.

All in all, formality is pretty easy.  All you have to do is follow the conventions of formal address, and you’ve got it.  Respect is a longer process, and cannot be demanded.  It must be earned.  And formal address has nothing to do with it.  I can think of plenty of teachers that I lost all respect for, but still referred to by title and last name.  Same goes for some colleagues.  They may have lost my respect, but that won’t stop me from treating them in a professional manner, including the necessary professional address.  So let’s drop the notion that formal address is synonymous with respect, because it’s most definitely not.

Categories: Language