April 9, 2007
First-Name Basis with
the Boss? Watch It, Mister!
you remember when – in an era when there weren’t many female bosses –
people used to call their bosses “Mister This-or-That?” Calling the boss
by his first name was like calling your dad Bob, which is weird, even if
his name is Bob. (My brother’s kids call him Gus. My brother is
you don’t remember this, chances are you are under 35, and at some point
in your life you may have referred to a science teacher as Phil. Ah, but
would you go that far if the principal walked in? That’s Phil’s boss!
That’s Mr. Bleepinbungle. Let’s not get carried away with this first
name thing. Even you – MTV-generation degenerate that you are – know
when to pony up some modicum of respect.
used to be pretty clear cut. You were on a first-name basis with your
peers. Your boss was a mister. If you had any subordinates, then you
were a mister. If you were a Mrs. or a Miss and you had subordinates,
you were awfully unusual, but you got the title just like every other
boss. Somewhere along the line – I suspect the supposedly conservative
1980s – the whole Mr., Mrs. and Miss thing (just as “Ms.” was emerging
on the scene) started to go by the wayside. It might have had to do with
the ‘60s generation of beatniks starting to become bosses, and thinking
such titles were the formal domain of the Man and the Establishment.
What a drag, man.
“Mr. Phillips? That’s my dad, man! Call me George!”
George it was. George it is. The employees loved it. George seemed like
a real human. And when the employees ripped George’s management style
over lunch, it saved time! It was a good arrangement for everyone.
But George is middle management. The CEO – Tom, or Mr. Smithson – what
about him? He doesn’t walk among the cubicles very often. He mainly
stays in the executive suite, talks to investment advisors, reads the
Wall Street Journal. He’s not familiar like George. What do you do
when he walks in? After all, you’re all down with this first-name thing
so popularized by George.
you dare call him Tom? You’ve never been formally introduced, after all,
and you don’t really know what he wants you to call him.
oh! Here he comes! He’s walking among the cubicles! He’s walking
“How are things going?” he asks you.
You think about that one for a second. Are things going fine? Is the
company the target of a hostile takeover that I don’t know about?
Should I know? If I say things are fine and he thinks they’re not,
will he fire me? And what do I call him?
“Just trying to do my best every day,” you say.
Oh. Good one. He’s never heard that line before. But you did
manage to avoid the name thing. You don’t know what to call him so you
call him nothing. The question is how long you can get away with it?
“What are you working on right now?” he asks.
Why does he want to know that? Until one minute ago, he probably
didn’t even know you existed. Now he’s all interested.
“It’s a report on the Klingdinger project. Very important project for
the company, of course.”
see,” he says. “You’re keeping very busy with that, Steve?”
How does he know your
Name plate. Yeah, that’ll do it. Now what? Do you say his name? He said
“Yes. Very busy.”
Coward. But you know you can’t win. You call him Tom, you might be
crossing the familiarity presumption line. If he corrects you and says
“It’s Mr. Smithson,” you’re on the watch list forever. If you call him
Mr. Smithson and he tells you to call him Tom, you’re OK with him, but
all your co-workers – who probably already call him Tom – will laugh at
you for not knowing that. And if you panic and whip out a “sir,” you’re
a laughingstock forever.
You never had this problem before George the beatnik made middle
management and started throwing out all the rules. Now you don’t know
what to do, and here I come, the boss, about to ask you about some
random nonsense. Better watch it, Mister!
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