Call the doctor - it's titular overdose

By John Kelly
Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:55 AM

A man - let's call him Steve Jones - called me at work the other day. He introduced himself as "Dr. Jones." I can't remember what we talked about, but it wasn't medicine.

This got me thinking: Why did he make a point of saying he was Dr. Jones? Why not Mr. Jones? Or "Jones"? Or, come to think of it, "Steve"?

It's because he wanted me to be impressed, wasn't it?

Should I have been? I mean, I know doctors go to a lot of trouble to become doctors - all those classes, all those cadavers, all that memorizing the difference between a ventricle and a clavicle - but does that mean they're entitled to remind everyone that they're doctors, even in non-medical contexts? Are they expecting special treatment?

A friend once told me that when his father made restaurant reservations, he always did it under the name "Dr. Smith" on the off chance that it might get him a better table.

His father was a veterinarian.

Was that an abuse of his title?

It isn't just doctors who do this sort of thing. I still remember a phone call I got not long after I started working at The Post, 22 years ago. I was an editor in the Weekend section at the time, and it was a Thursday. I mention the day because then, as now, Weekend was printed on Thursday mornings but didn't get into readers' hands until Friday. At the time, there was no fancy electronic way to know about upcoming events, but Weekend was a humming hive of knowledge, and anyone who worked there knew which street festivals were coming up, which plays and movies were opening, which concert tickets were going on sale, etc.

The phone rang: "This is Bethany from Congressman So-and-So's office," a woman said. "He has some constituents coming in and he wants to suggest some things for them to do while they're here. Can you tell me what things are happening this weekend?"

A simple enough request. All it required of me was to flip through the next day's Weekend, still warm and inky from the press, and read off a few events. And that's what I did.

But I did it grudgingly. Something grated at me: Why did she have to say she was calling from a congressman's office? Couldn't she have just said she was calling for her boss? Or said that she had some friends coming into town and they needed some sightseeing ideas?

No, she said "Congressman" because she assumed it would grease the transaction. She wanted me to be impressed. She was fearful I wouldn't have done it for a mere mortal, but once I heard that a congressman needed the information, I'd drop to my knees, tug at my forelock and blurt out the details of Glen Echo's Puppetfest.

We Americans aren't as obsessed with titles as some cultures. And maybe it's just a Washington thing, where we like to highlight the little gradations of difference that separate us. Oh hello, General. Nice to meet you, Ambassador. How do you do, Cardinal?

I'm not denigrating people's achievements. When I have to call academics - whether they be historians, biologists or physicists - if their Web bio says they have a PhD, I address them as "Doctor." Same with medical doctors - if I'm talking to them about graft vs. host disease or psoriasis.

But if they've called to talk about their parking ticket or the Redskins, isn't it kind of weird for them to introduce themselves as "Doctor"?

When they use a McDonald's drive-through, do they lean into the speaker and say, "This is Dr. Johnson. I'd like a Big Mac and a strawberry shake - stat!"

Maybe physicians are taught to do this. Maybe they take a class their last semester in medical school called, "You've Got It, Flaunt It," in which they're taught how to act like a doctor: Keep your fingernails short and clean; learn to play golf; always refer to yourself as "Doctor."

Can any doctors out there shine some light on this? Or, to put it in medical terms: Can any doctors insert a flexible endoscope and diagnose this condition?

And can any non-doctors, non-congressmen and non-generals give any examples of times they've seen this sort of titular overload in action?

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