One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is having the pleasure of speaking to professionals who are about to go on international assignment. One of the questions that often comes up with folks is the idea of respect. Seasoned international assignees almost always want to know what respect means in their host country because they know that respectful behaviors are not universal. Should I address my new colleagues by “Mr. or Ms.” or by their first names? Why are my Korean colleagues referring to our supervisor as Director Kim, and do I need to do this too?
The use of titles, just like the interpretation of respect, is deeply cultural. “In Western nations, they generally come when formal study or professional qualifications have been completed, and denote sustained work to acquire expertise in a particular field. In some cultures, they are applied more loosely” wrote Christine Ro in BBC. In Colombia, for example, the title “doctor” is generally used for a person in any authoritative position. And in Nigeria, titles that denote status and respect but not necessarily official qualification – like “engineer” or “marshal” – are frequently used. Australia is generally less formal, using titles more infrequently than the UK or US.
My sense of formality insists on addressing those with doctorates – even those I work with frequently – with their proper title of “Dr.” This is because I come from a culture that views someone in a position of power as having earned this position through experience or status, and therefore earned the respect of their title. Because some cultures view titles as part of someone’s very identity, forgetting them can be viewed as disrespectful or failing to acknowledge someone’s years of service and/or education that have earned them their respective roles. Globalization has perhaps made international business partners more forgiving of faux pas in honorifics, but the simple gesture of trying to be adaptable to the culture of respect can open opportunities and build relationships that might otherwise not have appeared.
What Does This Have to Do with Inclusion?
The overlap is nuanced, but job titles and honorifics relate to inclusion because our biases – in addition to our cultures – can determine who we deem worthy of mentioning their titles. Even cultures that are considered egalitarian and informal still have some bias to examine when it comes to who is and is not given title consideration.
According to one study, researchers found that during Internal Medicine Grand Rounds (a type of formal meeting held among US hospital workers), women introduced speakers by their formal titles 96% of the time. Men introducing female speakers only used their titles on 49% of occasions. By contrast, men applied the titles to male speakers 72% of the time.
Unsurprisingly, people of color face similar disparities when it comes to the use of their earned titles. “For the past three years I have had students who were ‘offended’ or ‘insulted’ because I have made it a point for them to call me Dr. Garcia,” wrote Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia in an article in Diverse Education. “I have had to establish myself in different ways from many of my colleagues. As a woman of color who is young, I am perceived by many (both White and people of color) as not being faculty.”
While it is true that certain cultures and industries have differing ranges of diversity in higher titles, this doesn’t change the fact that women and people of color are disproportionately less likely to be perceived as experts in their fields. As two US-based professors, Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. of University of Idaho, and Dr. Ty-ron Douglas, University of Missouri, stated in a peer-reviewed article for Open Journals in Education, “We understand that how professors choose to navigate names and interactions with students is an individual decision that is based on a number of cultural and institutional norms.” However, we must not take for granted that our native version of respect and by extension the use of titles are not universal, nor free of bias.
Do you notice who you refer to on a first name basis, and who do you introduce with their official title? Is it based on culture or could it be implicit bias?