Tackling titles and honorifics
Cues to beginning a professional relationship correctly.
What may I call you please? Asking this question, listening to the response to it and then following the instruction given is the most candid and important way to break the ice and build a sustainable relationship when meeting someone for the first time.
I met a couple of US Congressmen the other day at a dinner party in India. That was the first time I was meeting a Congressman (the equivalent of our Member of Parliament, I found out). I was introduced to Sheila Jackson Lee, and I asked, “May I call you Sheila?” Her response was “Sure, whatever name is easy for you to retain.” But I later found others in the congressional party calling her ‘Congresswoman Jackson Lee’ and the other person, ‘Congressman Moran’. So I followed suit and thus stuck to protocol.
The title of a dignitary must be maintained, so it’s better to get it right the first time, but otherwise at least listen, learn and imitate. Titles are precious to those on whom they have been conferred.
A medical degree or a doctorate is usually earned after much hard work, so in using the title ‘Dr’ while addressing a medical practitioner or a PhD holder, you are showing respect for the person’s educational qualifications. You can’t go wrong there. And while addressing top diplomats and the heads of mission, it is customary to use titles like ‘Ambassador’ and ‘Your Excellency’, as appropriate.
But what about the common ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’? Sometimes, their use can be tricky. For instance, when you’re unsure whether it is a man or a woman you are addressing in an e-mail — the name could belong to either sex — like the English name Lewis or the Indian Roop and Kiran. When in doubt, use the full name leaving out titles; say ‘Dear Lewis Philips’ or ‘Roop Chander’ or ‘Kiran Kapoor’, as the case may be.
And if you have to send a letter to someone you know is a woman, but whose marital status you’re unaware of, fall back on the tried and trusted ‘Ms’ ( pronounced ‘mizz’).
These tips are mainly for written communications and formal meetings. They need not be carried through to all occasions you meet the same people, especially once you establish a degree of comfort with them and they request you to drop the formality.
Many Americans wonder why Indians can’t simply address them the way they want to be addressed.
During my visit to a joint venture company to facilitate a team building multicultural workshop, an executive assistant to the co-CEOs said in front of her two bosses: “I am confused, Tom Hawkins wants me to call him Tom and I know Sanjay Prafulla wants me to call him Sir, so which one do I have to follow?” This is because in India, in traditional corporate interaction, seniors like to be called ‘Sir’ or addressed as ‘Mr so-and-so’. In the US, ‘Sir’ is used mainly for the military, while in the UK , it could refer to the high honour of a knighthood, in which case the person is addressed by his first name prefixed with ‘Sir’ .
We Indians are taught from early childhood that it is disrespectful to address grown-ups by their given names. We carry these instructions through into adulthood and even when specifically asked to drop the ‘Mr’, ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ persist in using these titles. And actually, we could end up annoying Westerners in the process.
Recently, Brian Woolworth from Wales was in a ‘working in India’ programme I ran. He said he found it difficult to handle so much ‘Sir-ing’. He also asked when his team of 80 engineers would stop jumping up and quickly tidy their desks if he came around for a chat.
The trick would be for us to always have our desks more or less organised, so we could be confident both when our boss is there and not there, isn’t it?
Also pause to think for a minute — is your refusal to adopt the less formal form of address a matter of your personal comfort? If the other person is not comfortable with your mode of address, wouldn’t it be better to put his or her comfort before your own?
I also told Brian not to have too many informal chats till his team felt at ease with him and also to talk to them over a coffee about his work and personal interaction style. After all, good manners has to be about feeling at ease both ways; so we do teach Westerners to adapt too, and believe me they are willing.
When I met Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, he said, “Call me Jeff.” I found that everyone in his entourage called him “Jeff”, so I followed suit and built that relationship. While writing to him, I kept it formal, but while speaking I used his first name. On the other hand, when I first met Captain Shantanu Banerjee, I asked him my favourite question, “What may I call you please?” The response was “Whatever you like,” but knowing he had come from a navy background and was now a corporate leader in a multinational job, I used the title ‘Captain’ when I continued with my dialogue. My presentation went rather well because of that, I thought.
The bottom line: Be a chameleon and switch as the occasion demands.
|This entry was posted by editor on July 27, 2009 at 3:03 PM, and is filed under Business Line column for the New Manager by Ranjini Manian. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.|
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