Who Are You Outside the Workplace?

We were riding the morning train recently, when we witnessed the following exchange:

(Older White man walks into subway car and stands near a seated younger White woman, who soon recognizes him.)

Woman: Hello, Mr. Baxter. Er, good morning.

Man: You can call me John when we’re not in the office.


Where are you headed?

Woman: I’m going to Queens today.

(They remain silent for the next 10 minutes.)

Man: (Exiting the train) Good-bye.

For what we’re about to say, it’s true we could benefit from having more context, like where these two work and their formal roles there. Still, we have enough data to form an impression that feels plausible.

The two commuters were clearly American in dress, accent, and non-verbal behavior, such as making direct eye-contact when communicating. So why didn’t their conversation correspond with the American cultural value of informality when greeting someone by name?

Sure, using a salutation and last name–Mr. Gomez, Ms. Park–to refer to someone is a gesture of respect. Yet when its usage is mandated in an American organization, by definition, it’s forced. Isn’t respect supposed to be earned?

Another persistent question: What purpose does the alluded-to formality in the office serve?

Requiring the use of formal names for executives may be an attempt to outline the organization’s hierarchy. Which would be a terribly misdirected endeavor. Hierarchies work best when they’re established more organically, like when members are granted varying amounts of responsibility and resources. This way, people with seniority necessarily have more authority than junior folks, in effect yielding a hierarchical structure.

The forced formality poses three (3) further problems. It:

  1. Creates a 2-class system. Everyone in the organization must fall into one of two categories: 1.  Your colleagues use your last name when referencing you, or 2.  They use only your first name. This divisiveness makes building relationships more difficult, evidenced by the prolonged silence between the two coworkers riding the train, right?
  2. Displaces other workplace practices. Developing staff and fostering teamwork–truly productive endeavors–get short shrift over the emphasis of showing respect. When an organization’s culture is contrary to the larger society’s, it requires maintenance, which can come at the cost of nurturing other worthwhile priorities.
  3. Wastes employees’ energy. Individuals dedicate themselves to adhering to this custom versus really engaging in work tasks, which often include demonstrating initiative and innovating, typical boons to the bottom line.

Ultimately, forcing the use of “Mr. Baxter” at work is akin to demanding the use of masks; people easily hide behind the disguise, relinquishing their full selves. As a result, individuals suffer, as does the organization as it plants the hurdles to collaboration and invention.

To be the same person inside and outside the office is to be an integrated, whole person.

So a word to John: forget the formalities, and strive to connect with your colleagues more authentically. As a bonus you’ll notice a marked improvement in your commute.

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