Posted by: Catherine Weston | May 1, 2012

Respect for teachers and other matters

The other night the conversation around the table turned to the subject of how we address a teacher or university lecturer.  “I was so surprised the first time I heard people address the professor by his first name!” said our Vietnamese friend, who studies at our local university.  In the cultures of Asia, no one would dream of being so disrespectful to a teacher.  Even in France, as one of our other guests testified, it would be typical to address one’s teacher or professor as ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’.  Why is it that in Britain we have become so informal in the way we address one another?  Why do our lecturers insist ‘Please call me Martin/Mary’? Many international students find it surprising – even shocking – and hard to get used to.

Our friend from Central Asia chipped in: when filling in application forms in Britain, you are not asked for your age or marital status, unlike in my country, she pointed out.

So, two different examples of behaviour highlight a British cultural value – that of equality.  In the university classroom the lecturer wants to encourage students to challenge the teacher, ask questions and think for themselves – easier to do if you think of yourselves as equal peers on first name terms? When assessing applicants, the theory presumably is that you can treat them more equally if you don’t know their age or marital status.

Actually often the reverse is true.  When people are very different (from a different culture for example) and we treat them as if they weren’t, they experience inequality, because their individual needs haven’t been taken into account. And that’s a good thing to remember when befriending international students.



  1. It is interesting as well how respect is expressed differently in different cultures. I remember a conversation with a colleague from Korea, who just could not bring himself to address our Director by his first name. It just felt too disrespectful. Yet those of us from the West, who had no problem being on first name terms with the Director, actually had huge respect for him – it was just expressed in different ways.

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