Language as a Tool of Conflict Resolution: The problem of familiar address

As attorneys, mediators or negotiators we are in the communication business.  Our success or failure is directly related to what we say and how we say it.  How we communicate determines in large part whether people see us as “civil,” “competent,” “credible,” “professional’ and “ethical.”  This is true of both the spoken and written word, but it is especially true of our oral communication.  When we write, we have time to deliberate and make fine distinctions.  When we speak, we are in a linguistic sense flying by the seat of our pants.  No word or phrase means the same thing every time or in every circumstance, and speech on a subconscious level can be irreversible.  When the choice of language results in the creation or aggravation of conflict, there is something linguistically amiss with the speaker, the listener, or both.
In this and future blogs, we are going to talk about the way we talk.  Using the science of discourse analysis, we are going to work toward an increased sensitivity to language as a tool of conflict resolution.  We begin with problems inherent with familiar forms of address.  In our zeal to develop a friendly atmosphere with others, can we get too familiar too fast and under the wrong circumstances and thereby end up being counter-productive?
Most Indo-European languages have both formal and familiar forms of address.  German is a good example.  In German there are two words for “you.”  “Sie” is used when talking to adults you know only casually, in business situations, with colleagues, and any time you have doubts about the degree of intimacy.  “Du” is used when talking to family members, close friends and children under the age of twelve. German speakers can become very uncomfortable or insulted if the sie/du rules are broken.
A problem in English is that our familiar forms for addressing another person (“thou,” “thee”, “thine” and “thy”) has died out.  To distinguish between formal and familiar situations English speakers resort to titles and first names (“Mr.” Brown versus “Bob”).   We still retain, however, a very real, subconscious aversion to violation of the formal/familiar rules of address.  Generally speaking, older persons are more apt to be offended by the use of their first name in non-intimate settings than younger persons – but some situations can render the use of a first name offensive to persons regardless of age.
A younger speaker talking to an elderly listener:  a great many elderly persons grew up in a society where the formal/familiar dichotomy was strictly observed in speaking with elders.
Members of racial minorities:  Historically, Afro-Americans were routinely called by their first names as a signal of subservient status.  The use of the first name was in and of itself a badge of disrespect.  Many Afro-Americans (and members of some other minorities) retain an aversion to the use of their first names in non-intimate settings.  The problem can be compounded when addressing elder members of minorities.
In settings of disparate economic or social status:  The use of first names across groups occupying divergent economic or social strata can prove offensive to persons in the lower strata.  It may be seen not as an egalitarian effort but as an assertion of superiority by the speaker.
In settings where the familiar form (first name) is applied to some individuals while titles (“Mr.”) are applied to others:  It is not uncommon in mediations or other group settings to have professionals or other persons who protocol requires to be referred by their title (“Dr.” “Professor,” Senator,” “Captain,” etc.).   Any speaker using a title for these persons but referring to others by their first names runs the risk of having the untitled persons resent the unequal treatment.
Launching into the use of first names too early:
  We have all heard some person, as soon as a group convenes, insist that we all call one another by our respective first names.  This misunderstands the formal/familiar dichotomy.  The right to call someone by their first name, linguistically speaking, derives from status determined over some period of time – even if it is a short period. It is not a right that can be established by decree.  In every discourse there will come a time when the parties feel comfortable switching from the formal to the familiar.  Skillful speakers begin with the formal and watch for an appropriate time for moving from the formal to the familiar:  “Do you mind if we use our first names?”  This usually occurs after a significant period of interaction – during which some degree of bonding or intimacy has been established.
In summary, the appropriateness of familiar address is highly situational. Any speaker who carelessly assumes that the automatic use of first names is an endearing or egalitarian exercise may impede conflict resolution.

Howard R. Marsee
UWWM Mediator/Arbitrator/Special Magistrate

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