Probing Question: What should I call my boss?

June 23, 2005

Picture this: You've just been handed your much-needed morning cappuccino by the blue-smocked barista at the office coffee cart. You pivot for your cubicle, only to find yourself face to face with Barkley Bragg, the company president, who has quietly taken his place next in line. In a flash you're as tense as a cat in a wind tunnel.

"Good morning," he says pleasantly, eyes fixed evenly on yours. It's casual Friday, and you're wearing your jeans and sneakers. He's business as usual in charcoal suit and blue satin tie. He looks like he never sweats. Your mind scans possible responses.

Hi, Barkley! is just too familiar. That's what the CFO calls him.

Good morning, Mr. Bragg. Now you sound like the guy who fixes the copiers.

What else is there??

Not much. So you lower your eyes and slide past him, blurting a lame "How are ya?"

According to David Morand, professor of management at Penn State Harrisburg, scenes like this play out frequently in today's business environment, reflecting a hidden tension in the modern American workplace. Even in organizational cultures that claim to be egalitarian, he says, differences in status still affect personal interactions.

Thus, for example, "Subordinates who feel uncertainty in their relation with a superior ... may hesitate to use that individual's first name. And while title-last name is theoretically available as an alternative, this option often tends to be perceived as overly formal or conversationally awkward."

Morand dubs the resulting impasse a conversational "black hole." The typical way out, he says, is via "name avoidance," a.k.a. the path of least resistance. But avoidance may only reinforce feelings of uncertainty and workplace tension.

Morand bases his conclusions on a survey he conducted among 74 part-time M.B.A. students about their office conversation patterns, the results of which were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Among his findings are that "name avoidance" is more likely to be used not on one's immediate boss, but on superiors who are two or more rungs distant on the organizational ladder, and most commonly of all on the company CEO. He also found that women are more apt to use this default strategy than men are.

The good news, Morand says, is that once conversation partners are conscious of them, black holes can be avoided simply by facing them. "When employees experience qualms about addressing a superior by his or her first name, they can either muster the courage to use the first name or call their superior by title and last name, thus verbally letting the superior know that they do not feel comfortable with informality. Conversely, a superior who picks up an awkward silence could invite subordinates to "call me Barkley."

"Corporations can also resolve the problem," he says, "by having an explicit policy that spells out the appropriate situations for using first names." In fact, many major U.S. corporations, including G.E., U.P.S. and Corning, already have such policies in place. "They reserve the title-last name form for external relations."

Source: Penn State (by By David Pacchioli)

Explore further: All about the fossilized bones of (maybe) Homo naledi

Related Stories

All about the fossilized bones of (maybe) Homo naledi

September 14, 2015

As you know, most fields of science, especially the ones best beloved by media, are dominated by white guys. Paleoanthropology, for example. Unless you are pretty familiar with human paleontology, Meave Leakey is likely to ...

Superior Super Earths

November 30, 2009

Super Earths are named for their size, but these planets - which range from about 2 to 10 Earth masses - could be superior to the Earth when it comes to sustaining life. They could also provide an answer to the ‘Fermi Paradox’: ...

What workplace emails reveal about culture

January 8, 2015

Most of us use emails at work without so much as a second thought—but new research from Victoria University of Wellington shows a range of socio-cultural forces govern what and how we write.

Recommended for you

'Material universe' yields surprising new particle

November 25, 2015

An international team of researchers has predicted the existence of a new type of particle called the type-II Weyl fermion in metallic materials. When subjected to a magnetic field, the materials containing the particle act ...

New gene map reveals cancer's Achilles heel

November 25, 2015

Scientists have mapped out the genes that keep our cells alive, creating a long-awaited foothold for understanding how our genome works and which genes are crucial in disease like cancer.

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...

A blue, neptune-size exoplanet around a red dwarf star

November 25, 2015

A team of astronomers have used the LCOGT network to detect light scattered by tiny particles (called Rayleigh scattering), through the atmosphere of a Neptune-size transiting exoplanet. This suggests a blue sky on this world ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.