You don’t know me

In case my last post seemed to line me up with the trendy young things, against my stick-in-the-mud colleagues, here is a corrective. I am pleased to announce a return to grumpy old pedant mode.

People call me Andy. Everybody knows this. However, in this semi-intelligent computerised world, I find myself increasingly obliged to type my name in boxes as “Andrew” because it will then be the same as it is in other official forms, and no confusion will ensue. As a result of course I get letters from companies starting “Dear Andrew”, or get phoned by people I don’t know who call me “Andrew”. Well, we can all have opinions about the correct mode of address in various social circumstances, but for me there is this extra irksome twist. Anybody who calls me Andrew is acting like they know me but they transparently don’t. Its not my name. Only my mother  calls me Andrew. And only when she’s cross. And she’s dead, so thats not often.

Yesterday I  got an email from a central university administrator who I didn’t know that started “Dear Andrew”. I am afraid I ranted about this somewhat in a return email. I apologised for being a bit of a prat, but I still did it. She replied vary graciously and and now she calls me Andy, so maybe its ok – but it shows its a difficult thing to get right as social rules evolve. Even nice people are unsure of themselves. Anyhoo, what I said was that usually people who know me write “Andy – ” and people who don’t write “Dear Professor Lawrence, …”. In the latter case I nearly always sign my reply email “andy lawrence” which then gives them permission to call me Andy. I guess this tells me that I am at the same time both informal but and rule-bound.

I find this a very confusing matter so will be interested to hear what others think. I know that the change we are witnessing is largely driven by a long term decline of formality and pomposity and class structure in society, all of which erosion I thoroughly approve of. And at a personal level, it comes from a desire to signal friendliness, or in the case of commercial contacts, to simulate such friendliness. So I think the niggling is to do with power and respect. Somehow names still do have power. When someone uses your first name without your permission, its like an adult speaking to a child. Its patronising.

Anyway. Better do some work now.

38 Responses to You don’t know me

  1. Sarah says:

    In 10 years’ time names and titles will be obsolete and we’ll only have twitter handles 😉

  2. Chris Evans says:

    And beware of budget airlines and passports – I routinely write “Chris” in web-forms without thinking, yet I’m “Christopher” on my passport. A couple of years back, a friendly person from FlyBe kindly pointed-out that some airlines (have a wild guess) would charge me for a name-change on my booking and that I should always use my full name.

  3. Rob Ivison says:

    it was pointed out over lunch yesterday that i am a walking contradiction (less delicately, a hypocrite) in that i can’t see the point of capital letters in most situations (i make exceptions for some proper nouns), yet cannot see through to the content of a scientific paper unless the latex and grammar are “just so” (i am thus Professor Hyphen in the world of Smail).

  4. ‘scuse me… just trying to visualise a letter signed “Malky Longair” or “Vince Reddish”…

    It’s a sign of the times, and of the person. Informality could be a double-edged sword though, in that it could be seen as giving permission to be as informal and familiar as you like. Still, you make your bed…

    Perhaps your (eventual) successor as Prof. will choose to be known as Nobby or Thrash, and good luck to him/her.

  5. Alex M says:

    Rather than getting annoyed, I find it quite useful. I’m only Alexander to my mum too (and I guess in an equally stern voice…). Someone else calls me that and it instantly tells me a lot. I’m happy with Alex or Alec, but again, once said I start to draw conclusions.
    But pity the Japanese. Dear professor Andy-sensei? Andy-san?

  6. Tony says:

    At least your two names have the same initial 😉

  7. Stuart says:

    After the recent election campaign I entirely agree with your last few sentences. The big three political parties (Con/Lab/Lib) all sent me election leaflets that addressed me by my first name. I saw it as simulated friendliness and it made me feel uneasy.

  8. Sarah EB says:

    I’m not understanding what you’re confused about here..?

    • andyxl says:

      I am confused in that part of me says “Harrumph, unjustified first name use, horrible, lack of respect, what is world coming to” and another part of me says “ok, so thats what people do these days, whatever”. I am also confused in that it irritates me but I can’t quite spot why.

      • Sarah EB says:

        I say go with the part of you that’s not irritated. 🙂 But hey, I live in California and I might even get away with addressing emails to “Dudes…”

      • Nick Cross says:

        If I receive any emails starting Hey Dudes, they are quickly deleted.

  9. Omar says:

    Funny, I definitely prefer “Hi Omar” to “Omar – “, even from people I know. To me the latter sounds too blunt, like a command, but perhaps I’m alone in thinking this.

    I’ve noticed that many undergraduates aren’t quite sure how to address their lecturers, so I get plenty of emails that begin “Hello”, “Hey” or “Hi there” to dodge the title issue.

    I can’t stand “Hey”, by the way, unless you’re inviting me to go surfing…

  10. This is one area where more formal languages have an advantage. There is a polite form of the second-person pronoun (often the same as the second-person plural even when used for one person, or the same as the third-person plural, but in both cases often capitalised for distinction; Dutch has a completely separate word). The convention is to use the polite form by default until a change is agreed on, such a change by custom being initiated by the more “respectable” person. Also, the last name goes hand-in-hand with the polite form. One could of course keep the last-name address in England until a similar agreement is reached, but perhaps the lack of a distinction in the pronouns makes this more difficult. (Historically, “you” is the plural form, the singular being “thou”.) The more formal languages allow more shades of distinction than just polite/last name vs. familiar/first name, with the latter being used both for people who know each other well and also by adults for children. For example, in German, familiar/last name implies talking down to someone without any hint of friendship (typical case: boss of a bunch of workers refers to them this way) while the opposite implies familiarity but with respect (for example, pupils in the last year of school, but always used by some people in Hamburg, such as Helmut Schmidt, who is famous for using the intimate pronoun only for his wife and daughter).

    When I was at Jodrell Bank and had more frequent contact with UK astronomers, at first it took a while to get used to addressing knights, (former) Astronomers Royal etc by their first name. Sir Bernard, however, was always Sir Bernard, that title denoting respect despite the first name. He tended to call people by their last name without a title, which is similar to the familiar/last name form in German. (No one would think of calling him “Mr. Lovell”, much less just “Lovell”.) So, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, I would address the director by his first name (also Andrew back then) while the founder would address him by his last name (though without a title).

    An awkward situation can arise when one speaks English with someone with whom one normally speaks a more formal language. People who know Prof. Dr. X much less well than I do refer to him by his first name, so it sounds silly for me not to, and I sometimes relent, only to address him by last name, title and polite pronoun in the more formal language a few minutes later.

    There is one example of a student who, in the thesis acknowledgements, thanked Prof. Dr. X. In the next paragraph, her boyfriend was also thanked, with his first name, of course—but the two people were the same.

    • parv says:

      Is “Prof Dr X” not excessive, instead of just “Prof X” or “Dr X”?

      • “Is “Prof Dr X” not excessive, instead of just “Prof X” or “Dr X”?”

        Not at all, at least in writing (as was the case here). Titles are cumulative. “Herr” (or “Frau”) (“Mr” and “Mrs” in this context) precedes all others, but then it is in decreasing order of difficulty, e.g. Universitätspräsident Prof. Dr. X. When speaking, usually the highest is used (e.g. Professor and not Dr.), though perhaps both would be used when introducing someone.

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      Coming from a culture where the distinction between polite and familiar pronouns no longer exists, I did find this somewhat of a minefield when I moved to Germany.

      However, I soon discovered a relatively simple guideline which served me well to begin with: anyone with whom I had to speak in German was usually in the polite, formal category, while those Germans who were closer to me usually spoke in English, thus leaving the point moot.

      Thus, I almost exclusively found myself using the polite form whenever I spoke in German. However, after a few years in Heidelberg, matters became blurred and the wheels fell off spectacularly with one of the admin staff I got to know fairly well (albeit just professionally).

      We mutually decided (and this is a minefield in itself; who gets to pick and when?) to become “du buddies” (as the local Americans called it), i.e. in principle to use first names and the familiar pronoun in German, which was how we continued to speak with each other.

      But given my programming, I would almost always revert to the polite pronoun when we spoke, which annoyed her to the point that she’d whack me on the shoulder every time it happened. After enough bruises, I learned …

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      Separately, I have seen a well-known astronomical knight and peer of the realm referred to in public by his last name alone.

      It was at the opening ceremony of the International Polar Year at the Royal Society and during her address, the Princess Royal referred back to the welcome given by the president of said learned society, saying “As Rees has told us …”.

      At first, I was a bit taken aback, but quickly realised that for royalty, there’s no need to use the titles of mere lords and knights. But at least he had a name; the rest of us were merely a mass of peasants.

  11. Actually, if you live in a culture where addressing people by their first name is common, even if not explicitly agreed on, then it seems logical that people would address you as Andrew instead of Andy.

    I’m in the opposite situation. No-one who knows me well calls me Phil, except my father sometimes (I don’t like it, but have never said so), so I’m used to everyone calling me Phillip. Anyone who calls me Phil has immediately indicated that he doesn’t know me well, probably the opposite of what he was trying to convey.

    • parv says:

      I personally like to be called by my first name by everyone, everywhere. It really irks me when my first name is shortened; being called by last name is just a bit less irritating.

      • andyxl says:

        The confusing thing for me is that actually I too prefer everybody to use my first name; I just don’t like people assuming. It removes my power to say “please, call me Andy”, and instead they take the power for themselves, effectively saying “I’m calling you Andrew, whatever you want mate”.

        Oh and Sarah, I never had this problem in California. Its true nearly everybody uses first names, but it feels completely normal, and actually the guy in the bank called me “Mr Lawrence” … Sometimes I would get phone cold callers who said “Hey, Andrew, did you realise…” but I think they were always from the East Coast and didn’t really mean it. So basically its the artificiality, or the out of context use, or the insincerity, that grates, not the actual first name use, which I like.

      • “I personally like to be called by my first name by everyone, everywhere. It really irks me when my first name is shortened; being called by last name is just a bit less irritating.”

        And “parv” is the shortened form of what?

  12. Monica Grady says:

    I agree with the sentiments of this posting. I rarely stand on ceremony, and almost always prefer to be informal. But a recent series of phone calls to my bank irritated me beyond measure, when I was passed from one call centre to another. Each conversation starting with the security clearance ritual followed by the faux friendliness: “hi Monica, how are you today?” it assumes so much – where is the courtesy and respect of the service provider to the customer?
    Professor Grady (very occasionally from a new student)
    Mrs Grady (the postman in our village)
    Mrs Professor Ian Wright (my mum, on purpose)
    Monica (lots of people who know me)
    Mon (friends and family)

  13. Ross Collins says:

    In the future we will have to ensure that we don’t give our children first names with more than 5 characters. I certainly have no problem with being called Ross in any circumstance and find it very odd when someone on the phone starts calling me Dr. Collins (and have never particularly like Mr. Collins – that will always sound like my grandfather).

  14. telescoper says:

    I find it quite difficult to persuade undergraduate students to use my first name. Most insist on saying “Professor Coles”, but some even say “Sir”, which I can’t get used to at all. On the other hand, I absolutely hate it if anyone calls me “Pete”. Is the second syllable really so difficult?

    • I know someone who shortens *everyone’s* name, so that my wife, to him, is just “H”. He can’t agree that it might be unacceptable to some folk.

      Andy, maybe you should just go the other way, and become “Lawrence” to all and sundry.

  15. Andrew Liddle says:

    Dear Andy,

    Opposite to you, I always prefer Andrew to Andy. A disadvantage is that the only option for parental dissatisfaction is then Androoooo.

    Though when I play football it invariably gets shortened to Andy. It seems that Andrew just isn’t a proper name for a footballer. A reader challenge: how quickly can you think of a premier league footballer called Andrew by the fans.

    At a recent MNRAS editorial board meeting, I found myself at a table with Andrew Bunker, Andrew King, and Andrew Collier Cameron (with Andy Taylor joining by conference phone) so apparently that is the career choice for Andrews/Andys. Leading me to suspect that you will be the next managing editor …

    Andrew (occasionally Andy, never Drew, And, Andi, …)

  16. Michael Merrifield says:

    Andy — perhaps you should take a leaf from your almost equally famous namesake, and adopt “El Aurens.”

  17. Cusp says:

    I’m happy with Professor Lewis, or Sir. At least it saves on people mashing up the pronunciation of my name.

  18. Ryan Aire says:

    Dear Lawrence,

    I don’t like it when people use my first name.

    Yours sincerely,

    Mrs Trellis

  19. Clive Page says:

    Following up on Phillip Helbig’s remarks: there can be generational differences even within the same culture. When I was a research student in (Prof Sir) Martin Ryle’s group in Cambridge, the rule was that everyone used first names for everyone else; that took a tiny bit of getting used to, but worked pretty well.

    However, I worked at Jodrell Bank for a short time and one day while chatting with Graham Smith, the figure of (Prof Sir) Bernard Lovell loomed in the entrance, and said “Excuse me Smith, may I have a word”. I was shocked for a moment that he should refer to a fellow professor by his surname. But I realised he was just perpetuating the old courtesies and standards. After all, how did Holmes and Watson refer to each other? As Holmes and Watson of course. No doubt that was how Sir Bernard was brought up, and he hasn’t seen the need to change.

  20. Francis says:

    When emailing or writing to someone I don’t know, I would use their title and surname. I don’t think its ‘proper’ to immediately use their first name – especially when you don’t know what form of their name they use. If they reply on first-name terms I would then use their first name in any subsequent letter or email.

    What really annoys me is when people shorten your name ‘off their own bat’. The number of times I have been called Frank (when I only respond to Francis) is more than I like to remember.

    In several meetings people have said during the conversation ‘can I be frank?’, and I have replied ‘Can I still be Francis?’ Some get it, some don’t.

    By the way, there is no doubt (speaking as an old fart) that twitter etc have had a negative impact on our students. I have received emails from students addressing me as ‘Hi there’ and even ‘Hi ya’.

    • Francis – I do agree that “Hi ya” is gharssly, but I don’t see it has anything to do with Twitter. I have never seen a Tweet that started Hi Ya. I think its just a sign that people don’t know what the rules are any more. Using “Hi Ya” avoids having to decide whether you are supposed to say “Dear Professor Keenan” or “Frank -” or “Esteemed Sir” or whatever.

      • Francis says:

        Andy – I was just showing my ignorance of twitter, facebook and all these other new-fangled interweb thingys! (Will now say ‘harrumph’ several times and put my slippers on….)

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