Please don’t call me “Sir”!

Yesterday, on the way out of the lecture theatre after finishing a class, I was chatting with some of the students therein and the subject came up of how they should address me (and their lecturers in general).

One thing I’ve noticed since moving to Ireland is that, more so in England or Wales, first-year students often call me “Sir” if they want to attract my attention to something such as – to give a purely hypothetical example – a missing minus sign in a calculation. I suppose that me something to do with more of the schools perhaps being run on more traditional lines than in the UK.

For completeness I should point out that I went to an old-fashioned grammar school at which all the teachers were called “Sir” as they were all male. Some teachers were unbearably pompous in their insistence on that form of address, which is probably why I dislike it so much although I do appreciate the attempt to be polite.

I can understand why students – at least initially – carry on at university with behaviours that were deemed appropriate at school, but to my mind universities are really different because everyone is an adult. Of course I’m supposed to know more about the stuff that I’m teaching than the student, but the aim of the education is to eradicate that difference as effectively as possible. I think an important step on that journey is for the students to feel part of a joint venture than being talked at by some sort of authority figure. Formal titles do not encourage students to ask questions, which is an essential part of the teaching process.

Anyway, when a student asked me if he should call me “Sir” I said “No. Please don’t!”

“What should I call you then?”, he asked. “Professor?”

“My name is Peter, so that’s what you should call me” I replied. The student seemed quite shocked at the level of informality implied, but as far as I know I think all the teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics are all comfortable with first-name terms.

I’ve never really thought about this before so I wonder what other university teachers think. Do any of you out there insist on using formal titles or is informality the norm?

12 Responses to “Please don’t call me “Sir”!”

  1. I’ve never encountered this in Cork – it’s always either “Professor” or “Steve”, either of which I’m happy with. When colleagues are unhappy about how they’re addressed, it’s usually over e-mails – some prefer their formal titles and aren’t happy with informality – they prefer “Dear Dr xxx, …” and loath “Hi xxx, …”

    • When I was called ‘Sir’ I would reply that I hadn’t been knighted yet, which unfortunately went over their heads…. I also loathed the emails which often just started with ‘Hi there’ or something like that. I would always reply to those and say that they were not texting their friends and need to be more formal in their communications when warranted. I know, I’m just an old fogey…

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t really mind emails either, I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend that an email is equivalent to a formal letter. I generally treat them the same way as messages through Teams or Moodle. If someone sends me an email with “Dear Professor Coles” I always sign the reply “Peter”.

      • I say they need to be more formal when warranted, e.g. a formal request for something such as changing modules, exam issues. I do this because at some stage they may be contacting e.g. other universities about graduate courses, or prospective employers, and starting a message with ‘Hi there’ is not a good start….

      • telescoper Says:

        Quite. A formal notification that plays the role of a written letter that is correct but most communications I get from students are not like that.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      When sending emails before midday (and within the same time zone) I like opening with

      ‘Morning Peter [or whoever]

      The apostrophe is crucial.

  2. I’ve frequently come across this here in post-92 England. I think it’s because the schools insist on it; it also means that the students don’t feel they have to learn the names of the staff. It’s even worse I think when a female professor is addressed as ‘Miss’… I always tell them that since we are all adults, and I will be calling them by their first names, they should do the same for me, although if they’re not comfortable with that then ‘Professor’ is available. Staff members who want to be called Dr X presumably address their students as Ms Y and Mr Z?

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes there’s something deeply weird about the implication that a female teacher must be unmarried. There were no female teachers at my grammar school but at Junior school we did and were at least told very clearly who was “Miss” and who was “Mrs”…

  3. In the US, of course, “Sir/Ma’am” isn’t so formal – it’s absolutely normal to be addressed as such by waiters, shop assistants, bus drivers – and, I assume, by students … it doesn’t have the grovelling implications it does in the UK (and Ireland?) – just a convenient tag.

    What causes total confusion in schools is teachers with doctorates.

    When I started in the Scientific Civil Service it was a very formal organisation, and everybody up the hierarchy was referred to as Mr X or Dr Y – first names were only used at the lowest levels among equal grades.

  4. Paul Stevenson Says:

    I get “sir” sometimes and find it a bit weird, assuming too that it is a hangover from school. I prefer my first name, though I don’t find “Dr Stevenson” weird either.

    I had a conversation with an Indian student today who uses very formal address in emails which is sort of endearing, but also unnecessary. He asked me how he should ideally address me and also how to address an email to another member of staff. I said “Paul” in the first case and “Dear Dr. [surname]” in the second.

  5. Well, for me, coming for further studies in the UK, after a first degree in Greece, when in one of the first lectures I heard a student asking a question: “Hey Jack, could you please increase the lighting there?”, referring to the lecturer – it was quite a big shock!

    I personally like this kind of informality, after you’ve spoken to each other at least once. But the adjustment, even now (5 years in the UK), is not that easy.

    In Greece, we always refer to the professors as “Mr/Ms Surname” and talk at second plurar person (in case you know spanish, it’s similar to the usted/ustedes). Even today, when I go and see them, I talk in plural, despite the good relation – To understand the “power of tradition”(?) I know new lecturers, who have done their PhD with some of the older professors at the physics department, and they still always refer to them as “Mr/Ms Surname” and talk in plural.

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