Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The American culture of calling each other on a first name basis

         <Can students call their professors by their first name?>

          In Korean culture, calling people by their first name is only acceptable between friends or from older people to younger people. When I came here in America to study for the first time about 10 years ago, I was shocked when I was exposed to the first name basis regardless of age, gender, position, and seniority. It seemed very casual and convenient to call each other by their first name. However, it sounded rather rude and uncomfortable for me to call people by their first name who looked much older than me or who were authoritative figures such as my children’s teachers, my children’s friends’ parents, my college instructors and so on.
     Whenever I asked American people around me whether they wanted to be called differently, most of them emphasized preferring to be called by their first name. They wanted to be friendlier to me and made me feel comfortable. I still remember one of the instructors in college was even uncomfortable when I called her “Professor, ~” and asked me, “Please, call me Lorie!” After that happening, I practiced calling people’s name by their first name because I realized that it was the way of making friends easily in the United States. Actually, it happened in Seattle in the western part of the United States. It’s true I called the professors in the university, “Dr.~” However, it wasn’t really formal and there wasn’t nothing really authoritarian between teachers and students. After spending about 2 years, I went back to Korea and had to experience reverse cultural shock and adjusted myself to a more formal way of addressing each other based on authority and power.
     I came back to America just two years ago. This time, I chose New Jersey, the eastern part of the United States, to stay and I’ve realized the atmosphere is a lot different from the western part of the United States. It seems like a different country in a certain aspect. When I was studying in a language institute, I called everybody by their first name because I wanted to show how friendly I was. However, it hadn’t been a long time until I figured out most of instructors preferred to be called “Teacher!” The majority of the students in the language program were Chinese people whose culture is a lot similar to Korean culture in terms of showing respect toward teachers by not calling them based on their first name, but rather their job title. Maybe, the instructors got used to being called “Teacher!”
    One day, I was about to take the elevator to get on the fourth floor where the institute was located. I ran into an American woman who I hadn’t seen before. And then one of my Korean friends got into the elevator and greeted her. So, I just introduced myself exuberantly, "Hi! Good morning! My name is Susan! What’s your name?" She just eyed me up and down without response and asked me, "Are you a student?" So, I replied, "Yes!" She frowned and answered, "Most students call me Teacher!" with a very firm voice and turned away. Shocked and frustrated, I couldn’t help but shrug to the Korean girl who observed that situation vividly. I know very well this case should not be over generalized and her behavioral pattern cannot be applied to an entire group; however, the people in the eastern part of America tend to be more authoritarian and treat each other based on their hierarchical position than the people from the western part of America.
    After that happening, I have had a chance to think deeply about what inter-cultural competence would be and have adjusted myself to a new environment again. Now I came to realize that I should acquire more flexible attitudes and try not to take any behavioral patterns based on cultural difference personally.

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