“Hello, this is Mr. Jones”. That’s how they answer the phone at one of the organizations that I’m affiliated with. Seriously, they still use titles like Mr. and Mrs. in the office. Ok, it’s Hello Mr. Jones, Hello Mrs Smith, I get it. When you’re talking to a stranger, the use of a ritualized formality that’s enculturated from your youth is a good thing. This is especially true when you may not know what the situation is that you are discussing, i.e. what the nature of the person is that you’re speaking with. What I find so unique about this particular office is that they don’t use the titles just with strangers. I work closely with these people and they still use the titles appended to their names with me. Their assiduous commitment to using titles got me thinking about these types of titles, where they come from, why they are used. I also started thinking about what is important to keep in mind when you are in a business environment that is dedicated to the use of titles.
Where do titles come from?
Titles pretty much start in the school system. Your teacher isn’t Joan, it’s Ms. Jenkins. Their is a purpose for the formality in the same way there is a purpose to the school bells and being taught to raise your hand to speak. The idea is to convey authority, teach respect and to develop order and structure to the inherently chaotic type of human being known as a child. Kids need to understand these things to survive in society. In this case the titles aren’t really a bad thing.
Titles are still used even when we get out of school. Physicians need some gravitas to try and get people to engage with whatever the health routine they prescribe will be. “The doctor said I had to do this or i’d die” has much more impact than “Bob says I had to do this or I’d die”. Officer Brown will most likely be in a less dangerous situation than if he was just called Bobby when he gives out a ticket.
Why are they still used?
Titles are formality, but formality is on the wane. We used to dress up in suits to take a flight or to go to court. I see more bra straps and tattoos when I visit either of these environments than I see ties. IBM was famous for making the blue pinstripe suit the standard for all business interactions, even beyond the tech sector; it was thee uniform of the professional. These days if you do a google image search for “IBM Team” you’ll still see blue, but there are just as many T-shirts and button down logos shirts as their are suits. So if formality is on the wayne, but are titles on the wayne?
Let’s go back to the school system. Mr. and Mrs. Teacher still get the title. The head of the school is still principal such and such when everyone refers to them. It’s necessary because it teaches important societal structure, right? Well not so fast. Remember formality is going the way of the dodo. I have friends who have little kids who call me “Mike”. Ok, codger alert.. That’s not how it was in MY day. In my day every single adult was “Mr. or Mrs. Last Name”. Now i’m just “Mike”, but that’s OK. I don’t have an issue with it because I get the sense that the kids today still see the clear delineation between ‘adult’ and ‘kid’. They may not use the title, but they respect the age based seniority.
In some cases it’s still necessary. Let’s go back to the school system. The parent’s aren’t in close proximity. Teachers can’t spank, can’t speak sternly, and generally have to follow reams of instructions on the accepted practices of interacting with children. To do this effectively, the kids need to have instructions and structure on how to interact with the school staff. Titles as part of the identity of the teacher help with that. This is the same with other systems such as the medical or legal systems I alluded to earlier. In those cases the title can literally facilitate life or death.
But what about work?
Some organizations still use titles even in the professional world. I tend to see it in organizations that change at a glacial pace. They include government and education systems, which is to say all forms of government. This is where you hear the titles such as Judge, Senator, Dean, etc. These and others including Speaker, Doctor, Professor, Officer or Sergeant are used to convey authority . These organizations operate in a world of credentials and easily identifiable authority. They need the segmentation that comes with the title because of the legislated formality that founded and oversees the organization’s.
We don’t see titles attached to names much in the private sector. There are positional titles, yes. We have directors, and Vice Presidents. Heck, if you work for some banks and have spent a year as a teller, you instantly become a bank vice president the second you step away from the cash window. As we continue to thin out the middle management senior managers play title roulette. You can be Customer Experience Czar, or Social Media Engagement Director, but these titles aren’t appended to the name. The teller is just MaryAnn, and the Vice President isn’t “Vice President Chalmers”, it’s just Jenny. Long have their been movements to eliminate or streamline formal titles. Disney is famous for using name tags that only include first names in order to drive a personal connection to their customer. In truth the Mr. or Mrs generally only gets appended to people’s name when the formality of hostal consumer relations is at play. Ever speak with a collector or had a fit with a manager of a retail organization with restrictive regulations? All of a sudden we are back to Mr. and Mrs. very quickly. It’s gotten so casual that If there is a title obsession in the private sector organization that’s not engaged with government or education, then you should probably consider running. If the entire organizations is filled with Mr. This and President That, then my guess is that the organization is seriously dysfunctional.
On the other hand, If you work in the types of organizations that have historically used titles as part of the nomenclature for the workforce, then you have to realize that those titles are important for many reasons. That means your goal may be the title more than the job in question. You could take advantage of an opportunity to slot into a vice president role that only oversees a team of three or become the Dean of a department where all you have are dotted lines and no direct reports. That’s ok, once you are a Dean, you will always be able to move into those positions that have the title and some sort of broad authority that traditionally been associated with the title. Additionally there are usually healthy income tiers associated with the titles no matter the scope of their oversight. I want to stress that last bit. An individual contributor in these organizations who coordinates 100 people or a ‘manager’ of three direct reports with a high level title like department chair will most likely have a larger take home pay.
Don’t fall for the trap of the Title!
If you deal with titles, don’t let the title scare you or influence you. These are normal people and sometimes they know less than you do. Physicians are the prime example of this. Their practice is usually overrun with paperwork and addressing common maladies in their patients. If your physiology is an outlier.. I.e. your Blood Pressure is normally in the high range, or you have a problem with some oddball test result, they may tell you to engage a specific routine or treatment that just wastes time and money and never helps. Just because your general practitioner has MD appended to their name and is called “Doctor”, doesn’t mean they know more than you do about your own health. This is especially true in the information age where you can most likely diagnose yourself better than most physicians given a bit of dedication.
It gets a little tricky when it comes to titles that actually have some decision making authority behind them, i.e. Judge. You have to be respectful of the decision making authority but not the title. A Judge may not really understand what’s being argued no matter what people have to refer to him as. Another example is a college Professor who insists they be referred to as “Doctor” may not actually know as much about the subject at hand. If they are employed as a consultant to your organization but don’t live in the confines of the realities of the industry, all the great research in the world isn’t going to change your profitability or effectiveness level.
As an example of the influential nature of titles, Dr. Bacardi, the PhD who was a travel agent told me it’s easier to sell travel to people because of her title. How does a PhD in a subject like mathematics make someone a better travel agent? A more popular variant of this theme is the famed radio tallent Dr. Laura Schlessinger. She always uses her title and so do the listeners who call in, but in fact her PhD is related to physical wellness, not any of the social disciplines. This doesn’t make her a bad radio host, nor does it discount the validity of her message, but it does say quite a bit about how she understands what the use of her title can bring her.
If you are a professional you should always remember that a title is just a title. There can be real meaning in titles, and the title can be meaningless. The advice or guidance from a title holder can be good or bad. The title doesn’t make a better decision maker than you nor does it make the title holder infallible. The title also doesn’t always demand respect beyond how you would respect any other colleague. Like many other things in life, it’s best if you look at the use of titles in your organizations with some reservations and act accordingly, you may just eliminate some unnecessary barriers in your professional life and make your job a bit easier. Finally don’t forget that if anyone with a title asks you why you are contacting them directly, challenging their authority or have reservations about their decisions, you can tell them that Mr. Peluso said you should.