By Saveen Uthappa-Eck
On my daily commute to work, a job advert for a local clinic caught my eye. They were looking for someone passionate and driven to join their team as a “pain nurse” and a “wound manager”. My initial reaction was “what in the world?” quickly followed by a chuckle. I then visualized being a patient at this clinic (it’s a fairly long commute): “I’m sorry, if you’re in pain, you’ll have to wait for the pain nurse to attend to you. I’m just a ‘regular’ nurse” or: “That cut looks nasty. Our wound manager will be with you shortly.” This anecdote got me thinking about titles and their importance in our work lives.
What’s in a title?
Job titles have transformed over the years, lending an air of importance to even the most mainstream tasks. Today there are directors of first impressions (or receptionists) and bread experts (or bakers) as well as exotic-sounding cat behaviour consultants and happiness heroes. So, why all the fuss? Do bigger and more mysterious titles command more respect? Make you sound more efficient? Motivate you to do better?
If you’ve ever lived or worked in Germany like I have, you’ll know that Germans tend to take their titles quite seriously. I remember being chided by someone with a Prof. Dr. title for addressing him with a Mr. in my first job. Needless to say, I never made that mistake again. While I appreciate the fact that titles are hard earned and their bearers deserve to be addressed appropriately, I’ve learned that titles also have something to do with culture.
Cheers my dear!
My second job in Munich was at a large multinational company, where I managed their British clients. From making sure I always addressed people by their last name with the right title and used the formal “Sie” (you) in my previous job, I was now on a first-name basis with clients who were high up the corporate ladder and was signing off my emails to them with a breezy “Cheers”. Even our Canadian director of medical operations was simply “Doc” to me. This informal equation continued until my move to the Middle East; a true cultural melting pot. I went from working with a couple of nationalities to living and working with people from over 200 nationalities . This was a whole new ball game – a mishmash of formal and informal, surnames and first names, and even entirely new titles and forms of address.
I joined the marketing team of a renowned hotel chain, where I was addressed by my first name by some, but the majority insisted on calling me “Madam”, “Ma’am” or “Miss Saveen”, despite my fervent pleas to keep it informal. A phone call from a local journalist of Middle Eastern origin left me even more bemused. He was ringing to get some information on the hotel and his first words to me were “Hi dear”, and he continued to use the term “dear” several times in our conversation. I clearly remember feeling uncomfortable and even a little annoyed at this inappropriate title he had bestowed upon me without my consent. In time, I realized that this term of endearment was just a normal way of addressing people of both genders in this part of the world: my husband had a similar experience with a male customer of his, who continues to address him as “my dear” to this day. There is also the more intimate “Habibti” (Arabic for my darling) for women and “Habibi”, “Yakhi” (brother) or its Americanised version, “Bro” for men; all perfectly acceptable titles, especially once you’ve established a more familiar working relationship.
Job titles play an equally important role in the Middle East. Being a “Mudheer” (Arabic for manager) is a big deal, especially among the locals. A job title doesn’t just mean a higher salary and better perks but also helps open doors – some companies don’t have managers, they have vice presidents, so customers feel they are being taken care of by the very best. For expatriate workers, job titles can give you basic privileges, such as whether you can travel freely within the region (some jobs require you to have special permissions), if your family can live with you (employers sponsor employees, who in turn can sponsor their families if they meet a certain salary requirement) or if you can buy alcohol (again, only those earning a certain minimum salary are granted an alcohol license).
Having returned from the Middle East a little over two years ago, I now work at BVIW , where I enjoy a mix of easy-going English informality with a dash of German propriety. I now reserve the endearing Arabic titles I picked up during my time in the Middle East for family and friends.
When in Rome
My cultural experiences at work have taught me that titles mean different things to different people. For some, it’s tradition, the “right” thing to say, or an earned moniker. For others, it’s about prestige, better career and personal prospects, or simply about being respectful or friendly. If you ask me what works best, I’d say when in Rome, do as the Romans do: so, cheers my dear Prof. Dr. Mr….