Conversational Black Holes Found in Workplace

It's common in many American offices nowadays to be on a first-name basis with colleagues and even superiors. In most newsrooms, for example, reporters traditionally call the highest-ranking editors by their first names.

But when the seldom-seen, dour publisher walks in, things can get awkward. How much deference is owed the top dog?

A new study confirms what many workers have known, at least subconsciously: Indecision over whether to be formal or informal can cause subordinates to clam up entirely. The result is a "conversational black hole" in which nothing is said, according to David Morand, a professor of management at Penn State.

"Uncertainty over whether it is appropriate to call your boss 'Bob' or 'Mr. Smith' can create tension for employees in today's workplace," Morand says. "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."

Using the formal approach might suggest exaggerated deference and even obsequiousness, Morand says.

The findings are the result of a survey of 74 students -- 30 years old on average -- enrolled in an MBA program. The participants were asked whether they might avoid using a name when running into their boss, or their boss' boss, in a hallway near their office.

"Respondents indicated that, compared to their boss or immediate supervisor, they were significantly more likely to employ name avoidance toward their bosses' boss," Morand said. "In turn, they were more inclined to employ name avoidance toward their CEO in comparison to their bosses' boss."

Women were more likely than men to wallow in the black hole. Morand figures it is do to "their tendency to rank lower in the organizational chain of command," thereby having a longer chain of bosses above.

The work is detailed in Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Black holes in outer space are notoriously difficult to spot, but detecting the office variety is the first step toward getting rid of it.

"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 said. "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."