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February 7, 2008 1:27 PM   Subscribe

When addressing a professor by a title via letter or email (e.g., Dr. Smith), and they respond by signing their name (e.g., John), are they inviting you to refer to them by their first name?

I've been involved in academia for awhile, as a student transitioning to an instructor, and now hopefully a future student again; so I have corresponded quite a bit, and on different social levels academically, with people that you don't just run around referring to by their first name.

As such, I'm sometimes unsure when it's appropriate or inappropriate to refer to people by their first names. The transition thing from student to instructor was weird, when you are now teaching with those who used to instruct you. But one thing that throws me for a loop a bit is when I refer to someone who is deserving of the title of Dr. (or Professor if I want to be slightly less formal), and they respond in writing with their first name. Is this an invitation to refer to them as such? And is it impolite to keep addressing as Professor or Doctor, when they have referred to themselves as Steve? (for example).

I may be over thinking this, but it tends to cause some social awkwardness for me.
posted by SpacemanStix to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
...they respond by signing their name (e.g., John), are they inviting you to refer to them by their first name?

Generally, yes, this is the cue that I use, unless it's part of a generic signature that automatically goes at the end of any email they send. In the past, when I'm unsure, I continue with Dr. So-and-so until I get a further cue. In meetings where I'm going to be working closely with a professor (e.g. as a TA or RA), I ask right up front what he or she prefers to be called.
posted by messylissa at 1:38 PM on February 7, 2008

I stay formal in communications, regardless of how people sign their names I usually refer to people in person as Dr. So Andso until I am told "Just call me So" in person. To be honest, I've never run into someone who insists on being called Dr. So Andso,
posted by oreonax at 1:40 PM on February 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

And is it impolite to keep addressing as Professor or Doctor, when they have referred to themselves as Steve? (for example).

Certainly not. It's perhaps cautious and formal, but certainly not impolite -- until he actually tells you, "Call me Steve."

Love the thread title, by the way.
posted by knave at 1:44 PM on February 7, 2008

Speaking only for myself as the addressee, my answers to your two questions are: 1) yes, absolutely; and 2) no.
posted by langedon at 1:50 PM on February 7, 2008

I always err on the side of formality, as a personal stylistic choice, regardless of the way any letter or e-mail is signed. I would much rather be told "Please, call me Jack," than worry whether I've been too casual. I probably worry about it more than it is actually warranted, but I want to avoid getting on the bad side of someone who *does* take this sort of thing seriously.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 1:56 PM on February 7, 2008

I am a professor, and I try to be careful to sign with my first name only if I intend the recipient to respond with my first name.
posted by escabeche at 2:00 PM on February 7, 2008

Remember in Altered States when the 'coed' he's just had sex with addresses the hero (William Hurt) as "professor Jessup' as they're lying in bed? (Just another data point for your survey.)
posted by jamjam at 2:05 PM on February 7, 2008

Depends on your country, I guess. The academics I work with prefer that students (well, everybody really) call them by their first name. They sign formal correspondence (references, position papers and such) with their initial and last name, with their title typed below, but all emails, class correspondence etc, with just their first name. This is Australia. Having worked in Universities for the last ten -ish years, I've never had occasion to speak to anyone as Dr/Professor so-and-so, which, in hindsight, must have freaked out the visiting international academics, when they were introduced to me (admin staff) as Bob, instead of Professor B Fotheringham.
posted by b33j at 2:10 PM on February 7, 2008

I'm a female professor and somewhat a stickler for etiquette, and I'd be ok with you using my first name since you seem to have graduated (although I'm not sure what you mean by transitioning). I used to sign my e-mails to students with my first name, not realizing that undergrads took this as an invitation to drop the "Professor" or "Doctor." When I was in school it had never occurred to me to address a professor informally, so I was not aware that I was sending mixed signals.

At the other extreme was a grad school advisers who, in a bid to get me to use his first name, declared-- somewhat cryptically-- "The only person called 'professor' is the pianist in a brothel." Everyone is different and practice varies by region and institution, so I would advise you to err on the side of caution and use "professor" until told to do otherwise.
posted by vincele at 2:12 PM on February 7, 2008

stay formal unless explicity told otherwise. many folks i work with will reply with an email saying "you can call me steve!". actually, that happens a lot after our first few emails.

posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:43 PM on February 7, 2008

Response by poster: Great feedback everyone, thanks. After further review, it seems best to stay formal until explicitly invited otherwise. I realized that if I were to use first name without knowing for sure that was the message being sent by signing the first name, I'd also be wondering if I read too much into it, and whether I was coming across too informally (and pretentiously), without the invitation. I'd rather feel a bit uncomfortable wondering if a professor didn't want me to call them Doctor.

I do think we make too much of titles socially by the way, but you know, when in Rome, don't offend the Romans who write you reference letters and such.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:52 PM on February 7, 2008

I would only sign with my first name alone if I intended you to feel free to use it. Otherwise I would sign with my full name, no title. (If someone's signing with their full name, no title, I would NOT take that as an invitation to go first-name-only.)

There's no danger in erring on the side of formality, though.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:03 PM on February 7, 2008

I'd say yes. I sign some emails with full name, title, department, and if external... university name. Internal department people just get a line of '-' and first name. If he signs his email as 'John', next email is 'John, I have a question', if he doesn't like it he'll sign as 'Dr. John XXX'.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:33 PM on February 7, 2008

My small college is casual so I call all those professors by their first names (even the dean), but in the university's other colleges I say Professor So-and-so unless otherwise requested. "Doctor" seems a little too formal to me in the usual class context, partly because I grew up as the daughter of a professor who feels silly when students say Doctor Gustafson and asks them to call him Tim instead, or Professor Gustafson if they're uncomfortable with being so informal.
posted by dreamyshade at 5:20 PM on February 7, 2008

I'm like b33j and in Australia, and we might be considered laid back (as b33j says, I always addressed all my lecturers/professors with their first name, right from the start!), but when I sign e-mails (now being a lecturer myself), what I sign with is definitely me giving you permission to use that in the future...

Sometimes when I'm communicating with colleagues, I'll even sign with Mike instead of Michael, and that is also an invitation to use the shorter version if they'd prefer! On the other hand, I agree with LobsterMitten above, if somebody signs their full name then you should continue to address them formally.

So, my answers to your questions are that you should consider it an invitation to be more informal, but if you're uncomfortable, feel free to keep using the more formal form, since they will tell you if they would rather you used their first name!

(As an aside, I teach at an international university, so I actually make a big deal of this in the first lecture of each of my classes, so that the students aren't confused... I actually have a little speech prepared where I say "Hi all, my name is Dr Michael xxxxx, Dr xxxxx if you want to be formal, but feel free to call me Michael, Mike or whatever else makes sense, as long as it's not rude!", which usually makes them laugh and breaks the first-class tension a little bit!)
posted by ranglin at 6:32 PM on February 7, 2008

I never mind when students call me by my first name, but some professors are very touchy about it. However, even the touchy ones would probably not be pretentious enough to sign their emails "Dr. Smith". Waiting until invited is the safe thing.
posted by Crotalus at 6:54 PM on February 7, 2008

I also don't mind when students call me by my first name, but I'm in an Art Department which means that generally none of us are "Doctors" anyway (MFAs). I tell students that they can call me "Professor Campbell" if they want, too. Generally my students do call me Bobby, but like I said Art Departments have historically been more of a first name sort of culture due to differing degrees and art's "liberal" culture. When I was an undergrad I referred to an Art professor as Dr. So-and-So and he quickly informed me that he was not a Doctor and that Art professors (generally) don't have doctoral degrees. I ended up feeling hyper-sensitive to never refer to an Art professor by a formal title!
posted by Slothrop at 7:06 PM on February 7, 2008

Yes. I use this tactic when I want a student or former student to start calling me by my first name.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:42 PM on February 7, 2008

Maybe I'm more formal, but I usually call Professors/Doctors with their formal title such as "Dr. X" even if I'm not a student and I'm just working with them. Unless they say otherwise, I use their title. Hell, I still call one of my old boss's Dr X whenever I run into him.

As for signing letters and emails with just their first name, maybe it's out of habit? Or maybe they feel weird referring to themselves as their title? I would feel strange signing my emails Dr. NakedSushi.
posted by nakedsushi at 6:59 PM on February 8, 2008

My advice (and personal practice) would be to use the formal mode of address until explicitly invited to do otherwise. At worst you seem a little overly formal, but at best you avoid an embarassing breach of protocol or having someone ask you not to be so informal. Always better to err on the side of caution.

I went to a very informal university as well, but I always waited until I was invited before using a first name with a professor. I'm not sure there was anyone I wasn't on a first-name basis with when I graduated, but I'm glad that each of them said "you can call me [firstname]" and it wasn't just an assumption on my part to call them that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:18 PM on February 10, 2008

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