The commuter newspapers are full of news about the European Football Championship. Dutch football players are addressed by their surnames: Robben, Van Persie, Sneijder. Or sometimes by their full names: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder. But not by their first names alone.
In the Dutch media, reporters also refer to people by their surnames unless permission is granted to do otherwise. One might think this a very formal society, but that is not the case.
Yet, it remains difficult to understand why university students address professors or lecturers by their first name. During my university studies, I heard a classmate say to a professor: "Hi Jan, do you have time to discuss my thesis topic?" Imagine that!
In a way, this decreases the social distance between student and professor; teaching becomes a two-way process instead of a top-down transfer of knowledge. But the reality is more complicated, and it is quite confusing for foreign students.
In Kenya, professors and lecturers find it rude to be addressed by their first names. It's unheard of! Some of the lecturers are not even qualified professors, but they still enjoy the title. A Kenyan student will always address his teacher as 'Professor so-and-so'. Otherwise, he can count on being ignored.
Once I was with a group of exchange students from the Netherlands at a public university in Kenya. Most of the Dutch students continued using just first names, including with the local professors. I found the practice intriguing and decided to try it myself.
But when I addressed one of the Kenyan professors by his first name, he did not acknowledge me - and we were only standing half a metre apart. I immediately called him Professor Tukae, instead. He turned, looked at me and listened to what I had to say. Boy, was I ashamed for having tried!
In a way, the Dutch system is rather confusing. On the one hand, you have to respect your professors and learn from them. But on the other, you are free to address them as if they were your equals. You can easily make mistakes, behaving either too formally or too informally.
In Kenya, your success depends very much on the relationship with your professors or lecturers. You must use the formal form of address to show respect and maintain a sense of distance. For me, the system in Kenya is easier to understand.
I must admit that I found it difficult to address my Dutch professors by their first names. I made it a habit to approach them individually and explain my predicament. To this day, I still call them 'Professor so-and-so'.