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D.F. Krause
  D.F.'s Column Archive

April 9, 2007

First-Name Basis with the Boss? Watch It, Mister!


Do 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 weird.)


If 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.


It 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.


Do 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.


Uh oh! Here he comes! He’s walking among the cubicles! He’s walking toward you!


“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.”


“I see,” he says. “You’re keeping very busy with that, Steve?”


How does he know your name? Oh. Name plate. Yeah, that’ll do it. Now what? Do you say his name? He said yours!


“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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