The Doctor Is In


There are some things I still have not been able to figure out, after all this time. One of them is this fascination with titles in front of or behind a name. In particular, I’m referring to the letters “Dr” or “PhD”.

Many who legitimately have the qualifications seem ever so eager to flaunt them. Many who don’t, seem just as willing to buy then, so that they can.

I know of eminently qualified people who will insist that you know that they are. They routinely place the ‘Dr’ in front of, or ‘PhD” after their names. Then there are others who might have spent a substantial amount of money so that they can do the same. I suspect that there might even be more than a few who have neither earned nor paid for the honour, who blatantly embellish their status.

Many of them want to make sure that you are aware of their titles, real or bogus. They put it on their calling cards, official listings (e.g phone, office and country club membership directories, social media profiles such, as in Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.) Many sign off their letters or emails with it. Some even answer their phones with a “Doctor So and So here.”

I have seen them in obituaries. Not just for the recently deceaseds. Frequently for the survivors and mourners. I can understand perhaps that for the deceased, it might be a form of eulogy. But for the mourners? Does it add to the status of the deceased that he or she has left behind so many well-lettered relatives and descendents?

I have seen them in wedding invitations. Does it add anything to the union if one or both of the newly bethrotheds are “doctors”? Or indeed, even one or more of the parents or siblings of either the bride or the groom? Should I feel more honoured about being invited to such an occasion, instead of one hosted by plain ordinary untitled folks, or people who choose not to flaunt their titles.

I can understand that in professional circles, the displaying of such qualifications might make some sense. But in informal settings, between friends and families? What is the message to be conveyed? What is being implied? That the people with letters attached to their names are superior, more learned, higher in social standing than those without? I’m particularly amused by humour writer, Dave Barry’s observation about people he distinctly disliked (in his book “I’ll Mature When I Grow Up’) – “People who insist on being addressed as “doctor” because they have PhDs, as if these degrees represent an important achievement, rather than a reluctance to leave college.”

From my friends in the medical profession, I learn that medical doctors like to be addressed as “doctors” and surgeons as “misters’, and woe to you if you do not observe the protocol, for the one will be miffed if you call him a “mister” and the other if you don’t. What does it matter? I wonder. Does an engineer get upset if you call him a “mister’ instead of an “engineer”? (or maybe an “engine”?). Or an architect, an “archit” or an “arch”? What’s so special about doctors and surgeons?

Some may suggest that the publicising of the professional status of the medical doctor may be helpful in the event of a medical emergency. I presume that this claim is intended for emergencies not in a hospital or clinic environment. And I assume this envisages a scenario where someone not in a hospital or clinic is in urgent need of medical attention and someone who is qualified to provide such attention needs to be urgently identified and located. I wonder, if there was such a person in the vicinity, would he not quickly identify himself anyway, and get down to the task at hand ? After all, isn’t he professionally sworn to attend to the sick and the injured? And as for the non-medically trained “Doctor”, wouldn’t it better for all if he doesn’t get confused for one in the event of such an emergency?

I have often mused about the scenario, say in a plane, where an appeal is made over the intercom, “Is there a doctor on board?” How many or who with Doctor’s designations would actually identify themselves? Prodded by a fellow passenger who had just been made aware of his good fortune to be seated beside a well-lettered person, the PhD owner might demure with “But… but I’m not that kind of doctor!” Yeah? Exactly what kind are you?

Perhaps this is a cultural thing, I thought.

Is this more an Asian thing? I wonder. Or even a Singaporean thing? Are we the only people in the world who are so obsessed with this title thing? Especially compared to the West? I know the Westerners also hang their titles on their names from time to time. But not compulsively, mandatorily. There are lots of eminently qualified and accomplished personalities in the US and Europe who don’t use their titles to boost their standings. I think of Larry Summers of the US and Angela Merkel of Germany, both of whom hold PhDs in their own rights. Or my own sister-in-law who lives in the US and refers to herself simply by her name, without the letters. I understand many people in other parts of the world go about without ever flaunting their titles. Why can’t we be more like them?

I wish I know the answer to that one. But the truth is, I don’t. I think I’ll leave that question to be answered by those more eminently qualified than I am to do so. By this, I mean the real sociologist or psychologist, who are well studied in this human phenomenon. And they don’t even have to be PhDs. I’ll take their word for it, if they display real expertise in their fields.