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I have just come out of yet another meeting where nobody seemed very sure about what to call the chairman. Some called him "vice-chancellor", a few called him "chairman", though nobody said "chair", which appears to be reserved for women only. One called him "Sir Brian", and the remainder either called him nothing at all or referred to him matily as "Brian".

Now, you may think this is a trivial matter, but I don't think it is. Even the Prime Minister has urged his Cabinet to use first names and is trying, if the tabloids are to be believed, to persuade the Prince of Wales to call him Tony. First names are in these days, we are told, and it is bad to use titles in these touchy-feely times because they could be mistaken for unfriendliness. It is only a matter of time, clearly, before everyone starts referring to the vice-chancellor in meetings not only as "Brian", but even more intimately, as "Bri". The idea that titles might help communication seems to have disappeared. I keep meeting strangers who call me Sue, a name I loathe, and which I forbid everyone to use.

First names are all around us: go into any supermarket, and the names of the check-out girls are pinned to their lapels. Even the banks have started doing it. Soon, I fear, some body such as the QAA will instruct university lecturers to show their student-centred approach by wearing a pin saying "Hi. I am Sue, your friendly pro-vice-chancellor" or some such phrase. So why, in the midst of all this first-name frenzy of friendship- markers, did I feel so much more comfortable last week when I spent a few days in Italy, a country where titles are de rigueur, and where the language itself enables you to use a neutral term of greeting when you meet somebody, that signals politeness and nothing more?

Just think about all the occasions when you don't know what to call people - the parents of your children's friends, for example. I have spent years talking to people whose names I don't know, but who I know are Julian's parents or Charlotte's parents or Ben's parents. If I were in Italy, I would unhesitatingly use either title and surname or call the other mums simply "signora". Over here, it is hard to know what balance to strike. I never feel quite comfortable telling people I don't know and probably never will know to call me by my first name, but surnames these days may appear unfriendly. One way forward is not to use any names at all, though this can have other repercussions. A friend wept on my shoulder recently and told me that she knew her daughter's friends hated her because they never called her anything. "I'm just an anonymous taxi-driver to them," she cried. I consoled her by suggesting that maybe they were so embarrassed by not knowing what to call her that they called her nothing.

This wise advice was triggered by several conversations over the years with students about what they feel most comfortable with when they address me. I always used to go for the first name approach - "Just call me Susan" - until I realised that this did not suit many of them at all. Some would avoid calling me anything, some would call me "professor" or Dr Bassnett, and fewer than ever would call me Susan. I began to think that far from first-naming becoming more widespread, there appeared to be a reaction against it. When asked, the students were insistent that they did not, on the whole, like using my first name. Some of them felt able to do so after they had known me for a while, others did not. We agreed, and this has been my strategy ever since, to let everyone call me whatever they feel most at ease with. The result is an increase in the use of formal titles.

Titles do not have to signal distance and unfriendliness. My eldest daughter's boyfriend hit upon a solution that I love. He calls me "Mrs B", which is special, while maintaining a degree of formality. As he pointed out, the use of first names does not always signify intimacy. The fact that shop assistants wear their names for all to see does not make for a more caring relationship with anyone; it just makes it much easier for a dissatisfied customer to complain. You can go along and tell the superintendent that Tracy in aisle three was rude to you, but poor Tracy can only report that some wild-eyed git in too much of a hurry was offensive to her. She doesn't have the privilege of knowing the customers' names. Pretending that we are all buddies together doesn't hide the realities of the inequitable power relations within which we move. Students are wisely cautious: they know that the people who ask to be called Bill and Ted and Angie are eventually going to sit in judgement on their work and determine their class of degree.

Let's recognise that all situations are not the same. Formality does not have to signify distance between people, rather it offers a frame of reference within which people know how to move. Sadly, the English language is less versatile than French or Italian when it comes to forms of address, but that is no reason for us to go for a fake friendship option. Let's act now, before some body with an acronym suggests the lapel pin option.

The writer is pro-vice-chancellor of the

University of Warwick.