A Guide to Academic Forms of Address
Dr. Clinton (“Clint”) Staley
So, you’ve spent four years of high school respectfully calling your teachers “Mr Smith” and “Ms Jones”. Then you show up at the big university, and right in the middle of class, an upperclassman calls your gray-haired professor “Bob”.
“Bob”?? Is that allowed?
A fellow freshman dares follow suit, asking “Bob” another question, and he gets away with it, but the professor’s slightly bemused reaction indicates the freshman’s committing a minor faux pas. What, freshmen don’t count?
You’ve been raised to be respectful, so when you show up at another professor’s office hours, you address him carefully as “Mr Jones”, and you get a slightly irritated correction that he prefers “Dr. Jones” – he didn’t spend 5 years earning a doctorate for nothing, after all.
So, lessee. One professor the students (at least some of them) get to call “Bob”, but another’s irritated even by “Mr. Jones”. WTH?
It’s really not that complex. Well… OK, it’s a little complex, but you’ll do fine if you remember the following simple rules.
Rule 1: Call senior people by first name if and only if invited to do so
This isn’t just an academic rule. It’s a US-adult rule worth learning. First name address among adults is common in the US, and if you can vote, you count as an adult.
An aside for cultural anthropologists and those hailing from other cultures: this rule reflects America’s determined and sometimes conspicuous egalitarianism. It’s a social convention similar to replacing the traditional bow with a handshake, which in fact is also an American innovation of a couple centuries’ ago. Importantly, first-name address does not reflect disrespect for the more senior adult’s authority or position. You can call your professor “Bob” (or the corporate CEO “Sue”), but you’re still expected to get the homework done and to heed corporate directives. US culture draws a distinction between treating the individual as a superior and treating his position as superior. First name address is about the former, not the latter
Between relatively equal adults, e.g. business associates both from the US, first name address is assumed without permission, but between relative unequals it requires invitation. You’re always safe starting with formal address to a more-senior adult, and adopting first name address when invited to do so. That’s why the professor in the opening paragraphs was bemused by the second student’s use of “Bob”. It wasn’t that the student was a freshman; it was that “Bob” knew the first student, but hadn’t met the second one, nor invited him to use first names yet.
And here’s the part you’ll probably find hardest to get used to. If you are invited to use first names, and you refuse to do so, that’s rather rude. It says, in effect, “Sorry, but you’re too old (an insult in the US, remember) or you’re too imposing for me to do that”. Even if it feels strange, when asked to use first name address, do so.
Now, frankly, we professors know that well-raised young adults sometimes find this hard, so you’ll get some slack on it, but please get used to it by the time you hit the US business world. And, a special dispensation is given for those raised in more-formal cultures, especially those of South or East Asia, to whom first name address to a superior has the same appalling familiarity as the US football players’ slap-on-the-butt greeting. If you’re from those cultures your insistence on formal address will be taken merely as a sign of good foreign manners. But please at least give first name address a try when invited to do so. Think of it as a US cultural experience like eating a Big Mac or drinking a Coke J.
Rule 2 When in doubt, use “Dr” or “Professor” instead of “Mr” or “Ms”
This one is strictly an academic rule, and applies only if you’re not using first name address. Almost all university professors, and many university lecturers, hold PhDs. They are thus entitled to the honorific “Dr”. Some of us think the honorific is unimportant; after all, there are many major life accomplishments that don’t come with a title. Others feel that they’ve darned well earned it for all of that work, and prefer that you use their correct title. And still others are from those more-formal cultures mentioned in rule 1, and find formal address more courteous.
You’re always safe using the “Dr”, or if you like “Professor”, for any course instructor. If someone doesn’t hold a PhD, or is a not a professor, they’ll correct you, but they won’t be insulted by the implied promotion.
Rule 3 The rules are different for each instructor
Our faculty, like our students, hail from all over the world, and were raised in diverse cultures both in and out of the US. Follow the two rules above for each instructor, and you'll be fine. But don't assume that what one instructor likes, another will also. And don't think that an instructor who dislikes first-name address is being distant; they may simply come from more-formal roots.
Rule 4 Never use no-honorific last names in person
For anyone born before about 1980, no-honorific last name address (e.g. “Hi, Staley”) is permitted only among same-gender age-mates, and even then only between close friends or in an athletic or military context. My male college buddies called me Staley, as might a fellow athlete or soldier, but no one else.
Many of my colleagues and I have noticed students using such address to our faces completely unselfconsciously. Don’t do this; it’s startlingly rude to most in our generations.
Interestingly, it’s perfectly OK for you to refer to us by last name when we’re not in earshot, or even if we are as long as it’s plausibly believable that we couldn’t hear you. If I walk up unexpectedly and you’re referring to “Staley” and then shift to “Dr Staley” as soon as you notice me, that’s perfectly fine and carries no offense. But do it to my face deliberately and you’re being rude. And saying “Hi, Johnson” to the company CEO would be a serious “Career Limiting Mistake”, especially if she’s of an older generation.
In summary, you can call me “Dr. Staley”, and in my case I don’t mind “Mr. Staley”. You should call me “Clint” if I invite you to do so, but you must not call me just “Staley” unless I can’t hear, or I can hear but you don’t realize I can.
See, I told you it was simple… J