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Variable Forms of Address as an Indicator of Social Instability

Forms of address in every language are always a reliable indicator of the norms of interpersonal behavior in any given society. The American situation in the twenty-first century as it pertains to this matter is a picture of instability and of a marked disintegration of traditional norms. Here is some interesting evidence as contained in a contemporary set of data.

While grading a total of 19 papers turned in by 18 freshmen and 1 sophomore in a Masterpieces of European Literature course at an Ivy League university, I noticed a lack of uniformity in the notation of my name on the first page, to wit: (1) no designation whatever– 5; (2) “Professor Shapiro”–7; (3) “Professor Michael Shapiro”–1; (4) “Mr. Shapiro”–1; (5) “Prof Michael Shapiro”–1; (6) “Michael S[c]hapiro”–3; (7) “Shapiro”–1.

Summing up the distribution, one notes the predominance (14 out of 19 cases) of some form of the instructor’s name, with the word “Professor” (abbreviated or not) prefixed in 9 cases, and 4 cases lacking it. Curiously, 4 papers include the instructor’s forename as well as the surname.

Whatever the upshot of this distribution, it is patently clear that the problem of deciding on a proper form of address in contemporary American society is a vexed one. When speaking with strangers answering queries over the telephone, for instance, one is routinely addressed by one’s first name whether one has licensed such informality or not, and attempts to right this incivility are only to be met with incredulity. Another increasingly common example: in some so-called progressive schools, students are encouraged to address their teachers by their first names, a situation that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

An anecdote to conclude. Three years ago I taught a course as a visiting adjunct professor on “The Philosophy of the Russian Novel” at a small private college in Vermont, where students are in the habit of addressing their instructors by their first names [sic!]. On the first day of class, just before I was about to start lecturing, and sensing the awkwardness of such a practice to a newcomer, a (clearly sophisticated) student raised his hand and asked me how I would like to be addressed, to which I answered (taking a leaf from my father’s book), “You may call me Your Excellency.” I said this with a smile, but its purport was not lost on the group, and from that moment on the students all addressed me in accordance with the traditional norm.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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