When formality goes out the door
You’re my friend, end of conversation, sorry!
On Friday, being more discombobulated than usual because of the election, I unmuted in front of my entire class and said, “Hey, [insert professor’s first name]? Did you mean to share your screen?” I froze immediately after saying their first name and had to muster an unimaginable amount of willpower to finish the rest of my question. I felt like I had just committed one of the worst faux pas in my life — and it was recorded to be stored on Panopto video forever.
Some of my professors do walk in on the first day of class and say, “Call me by my first name,” but it’s definitely not a majority. I’ve had entire discussions about how to discern when it is allowed to call a professor by their first name. Is it when they sign an email to you with it? Or when they specifically say, “Please call me by my first name”? My other worry is that if I let it get to that point, have I been being too formal to the point of annoyance? On the other hand, why do we even try to pretend that we don’t talk about Daddy Dourmashkin and Jason Ku on Confessions all the time?
The dichotomy is present in every one of my interactions, and it never fails to be jarring. One of my closest friends interviewed me for a position in a club we both were part of. Even though I knew it was a formal interview, I assumed we would interact as friends, an impression that was quickly rectified in the first 30 seconds. It was Scary Interviewer, not Meme Exchanger, on the other side of the Zoom call.
Yet, game nights, bonding activities, and the like all serve to break down this border. A large goal for a lot of communities is to create friendships, and that means being less professional and more relatable. For me, it was especially helpful that my lab is super friendly and I could view my mentors as friends pretty early on. It helped me come out of my shell and ask questions I thought were a little too dumb, which ended up making me a better researcher.
As a first-year, I definitely thought things like “Oh, that upperclassman would never want to talk to me, a measly frosh,” although maybe that was just because I’m extraordinarily shy and non-confrontational. Regardless, there were upperclassmen who reached out to me, which led to some really great friendships. Now, as an associate advisor and general upperclassman, that’s the approach I try to take with younger students.
In one of my classes this semester, I was leading a discussion on a short story with a first-year classmate. For our preparation Zoom, the first sentence that came out of my mouth was “I have no idea what this story was about,” and it completely changed the dynamic of our conversation. My partner was really surprised that I would admit that but also grateful that they didn’t have to try to pretend to know what was going on with this really dense piece of French literature either. And then we actually talked about our interpretations, and I learned so many things that I didn’t know about that short story.
So with all the benefits of informality, what’s the point of being professional? I do think it gives a standard of quality, for example, at conferences and such (and it’s extremely fun to watch people you’ve cry-laughed with giving an important formal talk about their cool discoveries). I also think it has to do with respect for people who you haven’t gotten to know on a personal level, although I’m not really sure if younger generations care about that as much. People have worked hard for their titles, like Dr. and Prof., so it makes sense to me to address them as such.
It seemed like all bets were off since we’re all showing each other our bedrooms and home offices on Zoom anyways, but this internalized need for professionalism is deeply embedded within my soul. I have not yet shown my face in my class since Friday due to self-inflicted embarrassment, and it may just continue this way until the end of the semester. In any case, I advise everyone to reach out to a friend or someone who you want to become friends with this week — it’s a really fun exercise, and we could all use a new friend this far into the pandemic.