Familiarity: Breeding Contempt or Just Contextually Sensitive?

One of the strangest homilies I know is “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Supposedly, in one reading, the more we know someone, the easier it is to find fault. In another, very English, reading of it, allowing someone to be too familiar with you reduces the barriers between you and allows for contempt. (It’s worth noting that being over-familiar with someone and using their first name or a diminutive ahead of an often unstated social timeframe was a major gaffe in society. Please, call me Nick. 🙂 )

What a strange thought that is – that we must maintain an artificial distance lest we be found to be human. There’s a world of behaviour between maintaining professionalism and being stand-offish – one allows you to maintain integrity and do things like provide an objective mark, the other drives a wedge between you and your students. This is a very hard line to handle when you’re teaching K-12, because the winnowing hasn’t occurred yet. In the Higher Ed sector, as I’ve noted before, everyone who couldn’t concentrate or acted up is probably already gone. I have the polite ones, the ones who passed, the ones who didn’t sit there and cut pieces off people’s hair or be generally anti-social.

I have to walk a careful line on this one when I teach in Singapore, because it is a more formal society. Business cards are presented formally, business relationships have more structure and my students prefer to call me Sir or Dr Nick (Hi, everybody!). Now, I’m happy for them to call me Nick but, here’s the tricky thing, not if that means that they have moved me into the box of people that they don’t respect. That’s a cultural thing and, by being aware of it, I manage the relationship better. Down in Australia, I expect my students to call me Nick, because we don’t have as heavily formalised a society and I feel that I can manage my objectivity and relationships without the strictures of being Dr Falkner. But I have a lot of international students and sometimes it just makes them happier to call me Dr Falkner or Sir.

Ultimately, as part of this juggling act, it’s not my view of what is and what is not formal that matters – it’s how the student wants to address me that they feel that I am their teacher, and that they are getting the right kind of education. This then allows us both to work together, happily. If someone calling me Nick is going to put fingernails down the blackboard of their soul, then me insisting upon informality is inappropriate.

When I’m in the US, I take the trouble to explain that I have a PhD and am a tenured Assistant Professor in US parlance, a Lecturer Level B in Australian jargon, because it helps people to put me into the right mental box. This is the other trick of familiarity – you have to make sure that your level of being familiar is contextually correct. It bugs me slightly that I have given talks where people’s attitudes towards me and my material change when they find out I’m tenured and a Doctor, but it’s always my job to work out how to communicate with my audience. If I presume that every audience is the same then I risk being over and under-familiar – and, because I haven’t done my research as to how to deliver my message to that audience , that’s when I risk breeding contempt.