A recent Opinion piece by Joseph Epstein questioned Dr. Jill Biden's use of her title. Dr. Biden has an Ed.D., a doctorate in Education. Incidentally, that is the same title I hold. Mr. Epstein asked: "Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small, but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name?"
Not surprisingly, Mr. Epstein's piece generated considerable controversy. First, he addressed Dr. Biden as "kiddo." Second, Mr. Epstein suggested that modern doctorates were not nearly as hard as they used to be when "water and glass were (near the examination rooms) for the candidates who fainted." Third, he suggested that Dr. Jill Biden's accomplishments paled in comparison to the "larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden."
I will ignore, for now, the absurdity of addressing a 69-year-old woman as "kiddo" or the suggestion that nothing Dr. Biden accomplished in her life is more important than being President-elect Joe Biden's wife. I will also set aside Mr. Epstein's disparaging remarks on how easy doctorates are these days because we no longer have examinations in Greek or Latin, a comment made even more absurd by the fact that Mr. Epstein holds a bachelor's degree and an honorary doctorate.
What I will comment, though, is the importance of titles. I will argue that titles matter.
Role Behavior Theory is defined as "the science concerned with the study of behaviors that are characteristic of persons within contexts" (Biddle, 1956, p. 4). Translation: Role theory explores how our roles, or the parts we play in society, affect the way we behave.
Human beings tend to conform to social expectations. For example, as a professor, I am expected to teach my students and grade their work fairly. My role expectations, however, go beyond the classroom. For example, if I post something on social media, I try to keep a certain level of decorum. I am still my students' professor, even outside of class, until they graduate. My students, on the other hand, know the social expectations for their roles. They know how far to push their point and when to accept a professor's decision. They also know how to appeal decisions that feel unfair.
Would my role as a professor disappear if my students called me "Cris"? No. In fact, that's how most students call me. However, a few caveats: First, my credentials and title appear on my syllabus and on the university communications. Second most of my students are older, as I primarily teach graduate school. My younger undergraduate students typically address me as Professor or Dr. Wildermuth. Third, none of my students or even my alumni would address me as "kiddo." I am still Professor or Dr. Wildermuth in their eyes, even if the "Professor"or "Dr." titles are omitted in informal conversations.
A key concept from Role Theory helps explain why titles matter: cue clarity. Clue clarity refers to the signals that identify a person as a role bearer. For example, I send a "signal" when I stand in front of the class and place my books on the professor's desk. Medical doctors send signals when they wear laboratory coats. CEOs send signals when they sit at the head of the table during a meeting. Professionals send signals by the clothes they wear, the place they work - and yes, by the titles they use.
Mr. Epstein's piece ignored the importance of cue clarity. He also ignored a basic rule of respect: Treat others the way they want to be treated. Dr. Jill Biden earned her degree, earned her title, and prefers to be called Dr. Biden. By disrespecting her wishes, Mr. Epstein is giving us a cue of his own - and it's not a good one.
For Human Resource professionals, I see two interesting points of discussion.
First, how have you chosen the titles used in your organization? Who is called a "Director"? Who is a "Manager"? How are non-managerial employees called? If you have never given a thought to this issue, you should. Position titles provide cues to other employees and to your clients.
Second, how do you encourage your employees to treat people respectfully? How do you promote the idea that people are the best judges of how they should be called or treated?
Dr. Cris Wildermuth
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is Linked:HR's Community Leader and an Associate Professor at Drake University, where she directs the Master of Science in Leadership Development. You may find out more about Dr. Wildermuth's leadership development, ethics, and intercultural development consulting practice at THIS PAGE.