June 24th, 2003

Fishy Circumstances

Modes of Address

Academia generally has a very hierarchical culture. But what does that mean in terms of how to address other academics? Only rarely in my academic life has anyone made it clear how the wished to be addressed. ("I'm Professor A." or "Call me B.") Most have never specified, and I've developed the bad habit of avoiding calling them anything at all as a consequence. It's amazing the degree to which can I get away without calling by people by their names, even if I know his or her name quite well. I don't generally use other peoples names frequently under any circumstances, but the situation is extreme when I am unsure how they wish to be addressed in the first place.

Now that I'm a PhD student, professors are going to become colleagues before now. That's part of the training process. But for now, how do I address them? I have one friend who errs on the side of extreme formality, (always "Professor A...") but that usually feels stilted to me. Another complication with it is that not everyone who teaches both undergraduates and graduates finds their primary identify in being a teacher (i.e. they may feel no more comfortable being called "Professor" than I do calling them thus.) First names feel too informal, and while first-name-plus- last-name works fine for introductions, it's no way to refer to someone to their face. It seems excessive to ask everyone I meet how they wish to be addressed - although it would certainly clear up the issue quite directly - especially since then I would be obliged to remember exactly how each and every individual academic I ever meet in the future has requested I address them, especially under formal circumstances.

How have any of you dealt with this?