Call Me Bob
Blurring the lines of power can be a dangerous thing; for you.
There was a charming movie called National Velvet. It came out in the 1940s and was about a girl who rides a horse to victory. Quite the feminist statement for its time, I have watched it when it comes up on my television.
Part of the charm of this movie was the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Brown. This was because that was how they addressed each other, “Good evening, Mr. Brown.” and “Good morning, Mrs. Brown.” A loving couple who used terms of mutual respect. I loved that about the movie.
We have always used and had to use titles of respect for our bosses or superiors. From teachers to senators to slave owners to lords of the manor, there has always been a clear hierarchy for those in power and those who serve.
That was until the early 1970s, or thereabouts. Mr. Smith, the English teacher in college, stepped around his desk and then sat on it and said, “Let’s rap”. He wanted to get past that barrier and wanted to connect better with his students. All in all, a good thing.
My speculation is that it was the transition out of the very up-tight McCarthy Era when our society was squeezed tight into conformity. The release from that grip, the defiance against our leaders for the Viet Nam War, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement (Don’t call me boy), the Women’s Rights Movement (Call me Ms.) and the way the media presented these things all led to our bosses telling us to use their first name, call me Bob. Let’s loosen up a little.
On the face of things, this was a good thing. If you could blur that hard line between teacher and student or boss and employee, you could get better work done; the two of you could have an understanding (whatever that meant). That soft blurred line still exists today.
This also can be a trap. When your boss said that we are all in this together, let us never forget who does the firing and hiring. When your teacher wanted to get friendly, all me Bob, the young student could be led to believe that the teacher thinks that they were special, maybe a job recommendation was, maybe I thought, it was hinted at, in sight.
When I was a college student, everyone knew which teacher was sleeping with students. And we also saw that student think that they had some extended power of some kind, maybe by association. I thought it was wrong, an abuse of power, even as I did see some go on to get married and be happy; that was a very rare thing.
When those in power can blur the line of hierarchy they can also blur the line of responsibility. In that Call me Bob situation, how often did I want to call my boss or teacher by a Mr. or Mrs. and use their last name to remind them that they have a job to do! You feel like you have to let your boss off the hook if you are buddies. Maybe, for an example, drinking on the job; do you go to the higher-ups and rat out your boss? That is a breach of friendship but also puts you in the position of being fired because your buddy is, and always has been, your boss.
“Principal Dinkins! How good to see you!”
“Oh please, call me Bob.”
“I’d be more comfortable calling my boss by his title”.
“No, I insist.”
I tell ya, every alarm bell warning ringing in my head is going off.