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Conversational ’black holes’ reveal uncertainty in offices


The tension created between the supposed egalitarianism and the hierarchical realities of the American workplace can often cause conversational "black holes" during which employees avoid calling their bosses by any name, according to a Penn State researcher.

"Uncertainty over whether it is appropriate to call your boss ’Bob’ or ’Mr. Smith’ can create tension for employees in today’s workplace," says Dr. David A. Morand, professor of management at Penn State Harrisburg. "In today’s organizations, subordinates often address superiors by their first name. Subordinates are at times, however, reluctant to use the first name toward more powerful others due to this form’s presumption of familiarity."

At the same time, employees shy away from the main alternative, which is calling their boss by title, then last name (e.g. Mr. Brown, Ms. Smith, Dr. Lynn). Such a practice may suggest formality, exaggerated deference and even obsequiousness. The result is a conversational "black hole" when it comes to addressing the supervisor.

Morand is author of the paper, "Black Holes in Social Space: The Occurrence and Effects of Name-Avoidance in Organizations," in the current issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. The survey group consisted of 74 students, with an average age of 30 years, enrolled part-time in an MBA program.

Survey participants were asked about the likelihood of using name avoidance if they were to encounter their boss or boss’ boss in a hall near their office. Morand measured naming patterns between employee and boss by having his subjects respond on a scale of one ("strongly disagree") to five ("strongly agree") to two statements: "I am able to be direct and to the point when speaking with this person" and "I can speak freely with this person."

"Respondents indicated that, compared to their boss or immediate supervisor, they were significantly more likely to employ name avoidance toward their bosses’ boss," the Penn State researcher notes. "In turn, they were more inclined to employ name avoidance toward their CEO in comparison to their bosses’ boss. We hypothesized that females – due to socialization patterns and their tendency to rank lower in the organizational chain of command – would be more apt than males to report using name avoidance toward their boss’ boss. This hypothesis was confirmed."

Even in organizational cultures that claim to be egalitarian, differences in status still affect personal interactions, creating the tension between power and equality.

The Penn State researcher says, "Subordinates who feel uncertainty in their relation with a superior, particularly one two or more levels removed, may hesitate to use that individual’s first name. And while title-last-name is theoretically available as an alternative, this option often tends to be perceived as overly formal or conversationally awkward. Employees thus resort to name avoidance as an escape valve of least resistance."

Communicative black holes involving employee and supervisor, especially supervisors on an upper level, can be corrected once both parties realize what is happening.

"When employees experience qualms about addressing a superior by his or her first name, they can either muster the courage to use the first name or call their superior by title and last name, thus verbally letting the superior know that they do not feel comfortable with first names," Morand notes. "Corporations can also resolve the problem of how to address superiors by having an explicit policy that spells out the appropriate situations for using first names."

Paul Blaum | EurekAlert!
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