What’s in a name?

Does a 'Mr.' or 'Mrs' really make a difference?I was introduced to our chief executive many years ago when they wandered over to my desk, thrust their hand out and told me their name.  As a young, junior member of staff I actually had no idea who they were, being separated by six layers of management from them, and since then have known them only by their first name.

I now sit on their management team, and still have a very good working relationship with them.  We speak about non-work related issues, and often share humorous opinions on current events.  We are by no means drinking buddies, but would certainly make a point to say hello should we bump into each other in the market or a restaurant.

This is a situation that is not entirely unusual, but one which was unheard of in previous generations.  Just a generation or so ago I would have been introduced as Mr. Clooney (hey, if I’m going to be anonymous I’m going to choose a good pseudonym) and they would have been introduced as Mrs Smith.  And this level of formality wouldn’t have been restricted to senior officers either – surnames were the norm for anyone outside of close working relationships and friendships.

Some of these conventions do survive today.  Doctors are usually called ‘doctor’, judges are ‘judge’ and MPs are ‘right honourable’ even when they are not.  These traditional titles are criticised by some for making things a little out of touch with “ordinary” people, but are valued by those involved.  They reinforce the standing of the person in question, and as @jimhacker pointed out they show respect for the office if not the person themselves.

Have we lost a degree of this respect within local government for those with positions of responsibility or power via such informal relationships being fostered?  Does it even matter?  Are these old forms of address a throwback to a bygone, staid and starched era which have no place in modern society?

Respect is an easy word to throw around and very difficult to quantify.  By making use of a more formal title for my chief executive or any colleague whom I do not know well I may not treat them differently consciously, but it may change my relationship with them.  My normal mode of working is low-key, informal and friendly, building close working relationships with people quickly and working together to a common goal – by making our relationship more formal this would need to change significantly.

That being said, there is something about the formality which calls out to me.  Perhaps it is the deeply engrained sense of class and society that haunts the British psyche, but those who are introduced by their title – even if it is merely Mr. or Ms – instantly rise up a level in the eyes of many.  We may not admit it or like it, but a title infers that the person has earned it in some way.  The examples of doctor, judge or Rt. Honourable mentioned above certainly have a lot of work behind them, but even when someone is introduced with a more generic title it makes them stand out just a little more.

The easy answer often given to the point about respect is that someone has to earn respect before it is given; I think this is a great shame.  Whether someone earns your respect or not, their office should be afforded respect even if you don’t particularly like the person holding it.

So just for the day, I will be Mr. Clooney rather than just George.  I already feel more authoritative; all I need is a trilby and I’m set.

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4 Comments on “What’s in a name?”

  1. LG Worker Says:

    What about Councillors? As someone who works closely with them I always feel it is proper to caller them Councillor Clooney (see I’ve now made you an elected representative). This respects their office, as you say. However, that close working relationship I have with them means I often fall into calling them by the first name (never in a public meeting though). The point is, I’m using the title to show that I recognise there is a big difference in their roles and mine. Equally interesting, as someone who has moved Council’s a lot, the convention of what to call the Councillors also changes.

    • localgov Says:

      I totally agree, I feel extremely awkward calling a Councillor by anything other than their title and surname, although there are just a couple I have worked with closely who insist I use their first names. However, as you say, this is a convention I only use when not in public.

      Some have actally got quite snarky when they are referred to by the first name by people who don’t know them personally.

  2. Ed Hammond Says:

    I always call Councillors “Councillor” – but then again I have only ever worked in relatively traditional authorities. I know several people in other councils whose Members are far more relaxed about this sort of thing, and have spoken to a number of Councillors who get annoyed when I *don’t* call them by their first name!

    Most Councillors of my acquaintance have called me by my first name but quite a few called me “Mr. Hammond”, even when I was a mere slip of a 23 year old and the whole thing seemed slightly ridiculous.

    I think titles can be used to add some – valuable – professional distance, but they can also foster an “above / below stairs” mentality whereby the word “councillor” is used almost contemptuously.

  3. Dave Owen Says:

    At my first LA 25 years ago (my first job) staff were expected to stand up if the Chief Executive walked through the office (which was a very rare). At another LA 10 years later it was a shock to be introduced to the new CE by his first name, and even more so that he joined in with colleagues play football and squash.

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