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Mister, Doctor, or Does it Matter?

Mister, Doctor, or Does it Matter?

Mister, Doctor, or Does It Matter?

     

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    My mother was the secretary at Glennwood Baptist Church in Morris, Alabama for about eight or nine years. My parents attended Glennwood for a while, and the pastor (David Bays) is someone I respect and admire very greatly. Even when I moved to St. Louis, after I got married, and after Shannon and I moved to Memphis, we continued to get a newsletter from Glennwood, and I enjoyed staying abreast of what is going on there. The newsletters that came to our house changed shortly after I defended my dissertation in May, 2006. “Mr. and Mrs. William Arthur Carden” became “Dr. and Mrs. William Arthur Carden.” In trademark display of motherly pride, I’m sure Mom really enjoyed changing “Mr.” to “Dr.” in the church’s mail-merge.

    Getting a PhD is an accomplishment and it is rightly something to be proud of; however, it also provides, for many, an occasion for conceit bordering on arrogance and tactlessness. A few days before Christmas in 2007, I was flipping through my in-laws’ copy of the Birmingham News when I came across a letter to “Miss Manners” from someone who had sent a Christmas card to a cousin with a PhD. The card had been addressed to “Mr. So-and-so” rather than “Dr. So-and-so.” Instead of responding with grace, as one might have hoped that someone of Dr. So-and-so’s high stature would, apparently he wrote back with a self-addressed envelope to “Dr. So-and-so,” a copy of his diploma, and a note saying that it is customary to refer to someone of his stature as “Dr. So-and-so” or “Firstname So-and-so, PhD.”

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    My thought: wow. That’s pretty insecure.

    This caught my eye in part because I’ll admit, I sometimes chafe–with tongue planted firmly in cheek–at getting stuff addressed to “Mr. Carden” when I have earned the right to be addressed as “Dr. Carden,” presumably. When I get arrogant about it, I remember Michael Myers in one of the Austin Powers movies as “Dr. Evil,” reminding people that he “didn’t spend five years in Evil medical school to be called mister, thank you very much.” What a joke.

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    Economist Tyler Cowen has blogged about how, apparently, people who conspicuously refer to themselves as “Dr.” or “Firstname Lastname, PhD” are often those with arguments or claims that are somewhat weak and that need to be bolstered with an air of authority. While I will admit that qualifications and affiliations are important signals—I’m much more likely to listen to a PhD economist at Harvard in a discussion of the minimum wage than I am to listen to someone who has never taken an economics class but nonetheless maintains a very strong opinion about the subject—reliance on authority is the weakest form of argument or evidence. There are a lot of smart people saying a lot of very off-base things. Nonetheless, they have the credentials to back themselves up. As people stay in school longer and as life expectancies increase, the letters “PhD” will come to have far less signaling value.

    Dr. F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize address was entitled “the pretence of knowledge,” and while it sought to upbraid those who thought that central planning (or coherent macroeconomic policy) were possible, it speaks today to those who think they are something when they are not. Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean that you have automatically earned glory, respect, and approbation. While it is customary (and wise) for people to address you properly or defer to you in areas where you have expertise, it is grotesquely immature to insist upon it.

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    So what’s the message, then, to the newly-minted PhD and to those around people who have doctorates? For the friend or relative, it is customary to refer to someone as “Doctor” in formal communication. This doesn’t give someone the right to get his or her underwear bunched up if someone forgets to say “Doctor” or “PhD” or “Grand Poo-bah” or what have you. If you have something important to say, let that stand on its own merits. If you want to be respected and loved, be respectable and loveable. Don’t rely on the fact that you spent five, six, seven, or however many years grinding away at a graduate degree to earn your favor in another’s eyes.

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    Art Carden

    Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2020

    Why Assuming Positive Intent Is an Amazing Productivity Driver

    Why Assuming Positive Intent Is an Amazing Productivity Driver

    Assuming positive intent is an important contributor to quality of life.

    Most people appreciate the dividends such a mindset produces in the realm of relationships. How can relationships flourish when you don’t assume intentions that may or may not be there? And how their partner can become an easier person to be around as a result of such a shift? Less appreciated in the GTD world, however, is the productivity aspect of this “assume positive intent” perspective.

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    Most of us are guilty of letting our minds get distracted, our energy sapped, or our harmony compromised by thinking about what others woulda, coulda, shoulda.  How we got wronged by someone else.  How a friend could have been more respectful.  How a family member could have been less selfish.

    However, once we evolve to understanding the folly of this mindset, we feel freer and we become more productive professionally due to the minimization of unhelpful, distracting thoughts.

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    The leap happens when we realize two things:

    1. The self serving benefit from giving others the benefit of the doubt.
    2. The logic inherent in the assumption that others either have many things going on in their lives paving the way for misunderstandings.

    Needless to say, this mindset does not mean that we ought to not confront people that are creating havoc in our world.  There are times when we need to call someone out for inflicting harm in our personal lives or the lives of others.

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    Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsi, says it best in an interview with Fortune magazine:

    My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From ecent emailhim I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’ So ‘assume positive intent’ has been a huge piece of advice for me.

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    In business, sometimes in the heat of the moment, people say things. You can either misconstrue what they’re saying and assume they are trying to put you down, or you can say, ‘Wait a minute. Let me really get behind what they are saying to understand whether they’re reacting because they’re hurt, upset, confused, or they don’t understand what it is I’ve asked them to do.’ If you react from a negative perspective – because you didn’t like the way they reacted – then it just becomes two negatives fighting each other. But when you assume positive intent, I think often what happens is the other person says, ‘Hey, wait a minute, maybe I’m wrong in reacting the way I do because this person is really making an effort.

    “Assume positive intent” is definitely a top quality of life’s best practice among the people I have met so far. The reasons are obvious. It will make you feel better, your relationships will thrive and it’s an approach more greatly aligned with reality.  But less understood is how such a shift in mindset brings your professional game to a different level.

    Not only does such a shift make you more likable to your colleagues, but it also unleashes your talents further through a more focused, less distracted mind.

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    Featured photo credit: Christina @ wocintechchat.com via unsplash.com

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