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What’s In a Name?

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

I remember learning in an English class as a kid a number of grammar rules that people break all the time. It’s maddening information to know. I now live in a world where I can’t help but notice when someone says “less,” “which,” or “good” when, according to Ms. Southerland, the speaker should have said “fewer,” “that,” or “well.”

My ears also unintentionally perk up when I hear names and titles being slung around in conversation ever since reading Dr. Deborah Tannen’s 2001 book Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. Many of her observations and explanations of people’s communication styles, expectations, and rhetoric have stuck with me and come to mind when I interact with colleagues.

Consider which of these is not like the others: “Turner, Smith, Jones, and Annie.”

Dr. Tannen uses this list of names in an example in her book saying:

He referred to the three men by their last names, the one woman by not only her first name but a diminutive, even though she was older and more experienced than the other three candidates. Two of the men were graduate students who had not yet received their Ph.D.’s, and one was a recent Ph.D. who had been teaching for a year; the woman was an experienced faculty member at another institution who had held her Ph.D. for half a dozen years.

But she goes on to say that while a lack of respect may be at play, it may also be true that those referring to a women by her first name could believe they are doing so because they feel friendly toward them – chances are it’s a little bit of both.

The story that really sticks in my head, though, is that of Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was first lady at the time Tannen was writing the book. Tannen points to a New York Times article written shortly after President Clinton took office. The article quotes a senator as saying, “You can’t imagine how great it is to talk with her, to call her ‘Hillary.’” But in an article in the same paper the day before, “‘Did you hear,’ they muttered among themselves, ‘that she had actually been calling some senators by their first names?’”

Tannen’s explanation made a lot of sense to me.

People who see one interpretation or the other – the status view (first-name-shows-lack-of-respect) or the connection view (first-name-is-friendly)—tend to see their interpretation as the right one, the other as “reading things in.” It’s like the drawing that can be seen as a chalice or two faces. Thought we can see both pictures when they are pointed out to us, we can’t see them both at once. Yet they are both there, all the time.

While I have Ms. Southerland to thank for training me to hear grammatical faux pas and Dr. Tannen to thank for opening my eyes to see the grey areas between friendliness and due respect, both these women have helped me become more aware of the words I choose.

When it comes to discussing colleagues (and especially people you don’t know personally), I recommend erring on the side of respectfulness no matter how friendly you happen to feel toward any one person in a cohort. But more importantly, show the same level of respect for everyone in the grouping (be it first names, last names, or formal titles). The flip side, of course, is to expect – and if necessary ask for – that show of respect from others.

CC Image Courtesy of Robert Occhialini on Flickr

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