Call me Joe … just Joe

I never know what to call people. Do I address them by their first name, or more formally by their last name? It’s a problem that often frustrates me, leaves me tongue-tied at the most inopportune times, or makes me wonder why that person hasn’t told me their preference.

See, I grew up in a traditional East Indian household. My parents drilled into mine and my sister’s heads that we don’t call adults by their first names. If they were close family friends, I had to call them aunty or uncle; if not close, it was Mr. or Mrs. But under no circumstances was it ever Tom, Dick or Harry! (My parents didn’t like those guys anyways.)

Even now, I revert to Mr. or Mrs. for anyone who I don’t know too well (I try not to call people I don’t know Uncle or Aunty…) and either wait for them to give me an alternative, or leave it if they don’t.

See, to me it’s not a big deal. I don’t expect people who are just meeting me, those who have worked for me, or those who are a little younger than me, to call me Mr. Chawla. It makes me feel old. So I ask them to call me Joe. But every once in a while, I find this philosophy backfires on me.

Take the case of my recent visit to my wife’s fourth grade classroom. She stood up in front of her class and introduced me as Joe. A couple of her students immediately responded with a “What’s up Joe?”

Now, like I said, I’m not much of a stickler for formality, especially when it comes to colleagues or people of the same, or roughly similar, age. But having an eight or nine year old kid refer to you by your first name seems to smack of impertinence. I almost expected to start channeling my father and give the little fellow a lecture on manners.

Instead, I said hi, and sat there wondering if I should have corrected my wife and insisted she tell her class to call me Mr. Chawla. Oh well … too late.

But that brings up another point which has been plaguing me. What is the proper decorum to take, when your chosen career path is public relations?

Don’t get me wrong, I know on a job interview, its Mr. So-and-so or Mrs. Whatchamacallit, but outside of that, what’s the word on formality? If the purpose of our business is to engage and interact with our audience on a personable level, do we really achieve that by making them call us Mr. or Mrs.?

Take for example the recent visit to our classroom by Martin Waxman, president of Palette Public Relations. Our assignment had been to present him with a resume and cover letter for a fictional job posting. He came in, after marking them, to give us feedback.

After his presentation, I went up to speak with him. I introduced myself, and called him Mr. Waxman. Without any hesitation, he corrected me, just by simply saying “Martin.” Now I’m not trying to ingratiate myself or kiss ass; but at the same time, I have to admit that my level of respect for him went up a notch. Here’s why.

I’m a student. Plain and simple. That doesn’t mean I’m not as important or don’t have feelings, but when the president of a public relations agency doesn’t distinguish himself by insisting on a formal designation, that makes me think this guy might be one cool cat to work for.

Anyways, that’s my question for all you bigwigs, and not so bigwigs, out there. What’s the word on formality?

What do you prefer? Am I making a big deal out of some non-existent rules of etiquette, or is it better to go formal and wait for the person to offer up some options? And when is it the best time to use it? Should I just assume that everyone wants a formal title? (Trust me, I have common sense, but every once in a while … 😉 ) Anyways, let me know…

Oh, and for those of you thinking I might be trying to apply for a job at Palette … don’t worry, Martin gave me a B+. I’m pretty sure he would probably hire the guy or gal with the A+ resume and cover letter.

And for the record, its Joe … just Joe; unless you’re under the age of 15.

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9 Responses

  1. Canada has a pretty egalitarian culture, so I think that it’s becoming less common to call people Mr./Ms. as a sign of respect and showing respect through other behaviours. It’s easy to feign respect through a title; being respectful is another thing completely and I think extremely important. I think that the use of the title Mr./Ms. is just losing it’s meaning as our culture becomes more egalitarian.

  2. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the comment! I agree with you. The traditional boundaries between adulthood and youth have blurred and so has the perception that one group is deserving of more respect than another.

    Having grown up in a pretty strict culture, however, I find it more difficult to discard these norms. That said, I think it still is pretty common nowadays for people to revert to using Mr./Mrs. as a “safety blanket.”

    The respect that goes along with it, though, may not be inherent in the designation.

    In the end, I think even with an egalitarian society like Canada’s, getting the inside perspective of what is expected, from those who are used to dealing with subordinates, could be immensely useful!

  3. Joe — I find your post very interesting. Especially your reference to meeting Martin Waxman. I had the exact same experience when I met him, and it also had a great impact on me. I think the exchange resonated because we have such high regard for him as a PR professional, and when he showed us that he respected us too, it demonstrated his humble and down to earth character. Often confused, and sometimes mistaken, Until told otherwise, I also err on the side of Mr. or Mrs. In fact, after our class with Martin Waxman, I e-mailed him to volunteer for the Canada Blooms opportunity. I addressed my e-mail to Mr.Waxman.

  4. I agree with you Joe and I always preferred to be called Megan, and with friends prefer just Meg or Megs.
    When it comes to others, especially people with authority, I always play it safe and use the formality of Mr. or Ms.
    Tonight however was a social gathering among PR folk call Thirsty Thursday and there was no formality in place. Everyone just used first names regardless of whether they were professional or student. To be honest, I almost like things better that way. I’m a pretty casual person.
    But it seriously depends on context, especially during introductions. I think we should adopt the European way of doing things and greet each other with kisses. I don’t know if that is formal or informal though…?

  5. There is definitely a time and place for titles. When I taught English in Korea I was called Paul teacher. Poor English aside, this was a natural way for my students to refer to me – it was the same way they referred to their Korean teachers. It showed a sign of respect for the teaching profession and me.
    I next taught grade two in Sarajevo, where I was called Mr. Jenkins. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Sure it made me feel old, but there are certain roles that society (even a European dominated ex-pat society in Bosnia) expects one to play. I quickly got used to the title as did my students. The first thing they were required to say when they entered class was, “Good morning, Mr. Jenkins” and when they left at the end of the day, “Have a good day, Mr. Jenkins.” It provided structure to our classroom and defined what was expected from our relationships.
    I like the use of titles, but will call anyone what they want me to – within reason. I am still reluctant to refer to my parents’ friends by their first names because I grew up using titles when speaking with them.
    My long ramble aside. Good post, Joe.

  6. Hi Kristen, thanks for the comment! You’re right, I think it really demonstrates the down-to-earth nature of someone when they can look past traditional roles and treat another person like an equal.

    Martin Waxman has years of experience on us; he is pretty well known across this city for his work in PR; and he knows that in just a few short months we are probably going to flood his office with resumes and cover letters.

    Still, he did his best to make us feel like individuals and not like we were addressing our future boss (even if some of us might eventually work for him.) That definitely earned my respect!

  7. Hi Megan, thanks for the comment! I agree with you. I think a lot of our attitudes towards formality are determined because of context specific situations.

    However, like I commented to Kristen, I still think its hard to break old habits, especially those from our youth. Which means, for me, I end up using formal references over casual ones in most situations.

    That said, though, I am willing to bet more people would prefer me calling them Mr. or Mrs., rather than plopping big wet smooches on them in place of a hello! 😉

  8. Great post Joe! You can call me Crystal.

  9. I grew up in a very conservative old school European household. Names and formality were drilled into me from early childhood. Adults were always Mr. & Mrs., and everyone had a title of some sort. Neighbours wanted me to call them by their first names and I simply could not, but now that I am older, I refer to my mother’s old friends by their first names.
    I am extremely uncomfortable when I am referred to as Mrs. or Ms. And please don’t get me started about ma’am. Nothing worse than being accosted in a clothing store by a sales clerk in her/his late teens/early 20s and hearing “Can I help you with something, ma’am?” Just makes me cringe. Anyway, Joe realized that you beautiful wife gave birth to your beautiful baby boy. Congratulations my friend! You sir, will have to get used to a new title – Daddy.
    Shameless plug – will somebody read my blog? PRattle On – finally have a post. Karin

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