More Title Ruminations

So we received a lot of responses from Friday’s post about CUNY doing away with gendered salutations. Some people rightly pointed out that in certain professions, such as the law, are more formal and people use formal titles frequently. It was also mentioned that in some cultures, using titles as a form of respect is more expected for everyone. We ended up talking about it even further:

Jaya: Titles are something you do because you think it connotes respect, but if lots of people aren’t feeling respected, don’t do it!

Victoria: When we speak about it in the business world, I think company culture comes into play a lot. To purposefully go against what everyone else is doing out of some feeling of old fashionedness and having been raised to call someone Mr. or Ms., then it’s weird. And I think you risk not being taken seriously, especially as a young woman in the business world.

Jaya: I mean, I think it depends on what business you’re going into. As some lawyers pointed out, they’d probably be considered very unprofessional if they didn’t use them.

Victoria: Oh I just meant going against the norms of the work culture you are in. If you work in a law office where everyone is called Mr. and Ms., it’s fine. If you work at a tech startup and wear 3 piece suits and call everyone Mr. and Ms. when everyone else is in jeans and using first names, it’s an affectation that will probably stand out unfavorably. Until you earn the respect to be eccentric if being eccentric is what you want. But if you call someone Mr. Smith because as a child you were taught that children call grownups by their titles, then you are likely to be treated as a child.

Jaya: Yesss. Yeah I looked it up and Mr. was totally used for like, people of higher station than you.

Victoria: Um yeah. In Mad Men the secretaries always call Don “Mr. Draper” and he calls them Susan or whatever. Among the people who are equals, even then, they used first names. I believe Joan even switched to calling Peggy “Miss Olsen,” once she was promoted to a station above Joan’s. So I do find it pretty disturbing for professional women to continue to follow that type of outdated convention, especially if they are the only one’s doing it.

Jaya: Yesssssss. You’re so smart.

Victoria: Lol, well, my mom has some horror stories about working in finance in the aerospace industry in the 1970s/80s. I asked her why she didn’t watch Mad Men when it’s so good- “Darling, I lived it, I don’t want to watch it.”

Jaya: This is also a generational thing too, right?

Victoria: Yeah, probably. I have found that my parents preferred that my friends call them Mr. and Mrs. Pratt when I was in HS (but not now that my friends are adults!! Now they introduce themselves to my friends with their first names.) But my parents are slightly older than the parents of my friends and a lot of them preferred to be called by their first names even when we were kids. I would have a harder time making the switch from calling someone by their first name if I called them by their title as a kid than I would calling an adult by their first name if I met them now.

Jaya: But I think there’s value in being like “okay, this is what you grew up with, and this is how others may perceive it.”

Victoria: Definitely, especially if what you grew up with is becoming something that is not the norm in our overall American culture. Like I said, when I started working I felt a very strong need to call people Mr. and Ms. because I was used to calling teachers that, but I got over it suuuper quickly because it would have stood out SO MUCH and highlighted how young I was at the time.

Jaya: And if lots of people are saying using these types of titles are offensive or oppressive, then that takes precedent over tradition.

Victoria: Right, that’s the thing, etiquette is always evolving and as we learn more about the great variety of people we have around us and the less people fit into very rigid boxes, the more etiquette will have to change to take that into account. And I think we’ve seen from the feedback that we’ve gotten and the comments on the Jezebel article, that people have wildly different opinions about titles- some love them and feel respected and some hate them and feel oppressed, so there’s not really a solution that will make everyone happy.

Should We Do Away With Gendered Salutations?

Mr-PlowRecently, CUNY Graduate schools sent out a memo that asks staff to avoid using salutations like “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” and instead asks that staff call students by their full first and last names. We talked about it!

Jaya: I am for this, at least personally. I have no real use for honorifics in my life, and I think we’ve established before they they were sort of a random thing non-noble people came up with in the name of equality? By all means if you’re a doctor or a knight, use one, but all “Ms.” does for me is tell people I’m a woman, which you can usually get by my name/seeing me. I mean, I have a STRONG preference for being called “Ms.” over “Mrs.” (do not call me “Mrs.”), but if I woke up one day and we didn’t use any of them, I wouldn’t miss them.

Victoria: This does not bother me one bit. I kind of like it from a practical standpoint for official correspondence- if everyone is just first name last name, you don’t have to have a human being sitting there being like, okay, this is a male name so it’s Mr. and this is a female name so it’s Ms. Or wondering whether someone is married or what they prefer.

Jaya: That’s true. I guess the one issue is, as some have brought up, that lots of people have valid reasons for why they’d want to use them. In some cultures it’s really disrespectful not to use them. This might just cause more problems than it purports to solve.

Victoria: Someone brought up in the comments of Jezebel that probably when you enroll there is a box or dropdown to choose your honorific so maybe it doesn’t actually save any human time anyway.

Jaya: It says they’re doing this for gender inclusivity, and the Empire State Pride Agenda praised it, saying those titles are an “outdated formality” that risks misrepresentation. So I’m inclined to go with that, especially since I’m not particularly attached to gendered titles anyway. If they’re saying it’s oppressive, it’s my job to listen. I guess the one thing is, if you’re being misgendered, the person who’s doing it is just as likely to do it by calling you “Mr.” as by calling you “John.”

Victoria: Right, it’s minor, but I think it’s great as a general thing, maybe not even about gender. It’s good in terms of women not having to declare their marital status.

Jaya: What do you think of people who see not using those titles as sign of disrespect? One commenter mentioned that civil rights activists made a huge point of using those titles, because people wouldn’t give them that respect often.

Victoria: Yeah, but that was a time when everything was more formal and it was a serious dig to not be called by a title. Like literally you would call your boss Mr. Lastname, which doesn’t happen now as much. Also there are countries that already don’t use honorifics.  In Iceland apparently it is correct to address the prime minister by her first name. By HER first name. No titles= female prime ministers. Definitely correlation = causation, right?

Jaya: Absolutely.

Victoria: But I definitely do see the point where it must be difficult for someone who does not identify as either male or female to explain that to someone who wants to know if they are Mr. or Mrs.

Jaya: Yes, first names are much easier then. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that you shouldn’t need to know someone’s gender unless they want you to know.

Victoria: I can’t even remember the last time someone insisted on calling me Ms. All my professors called me “Victoria.” Like, by the time you are in college, you are an adult and should be treated as one. And adults generally call each other by their first names.

Jaya: Plus, I’d like to think if a student sent an email saying it made them really uncomfortable to be called by their first name, there could be an exception?

Victoria: Oh yeah, for sure.

Jaya: Mainly, I wish more places would just adopt a policy of “ask someone what they want to be called, then call them that.”

Victoria: I think we’re already getting there, hopefully. Most of my mail comes to “Victoria Pratt.” If “Ms.” disappeared I doubt I’d notice. Aside from this particular school- I think it would be great if we could drop titles for formal events without people being offended. It would make addressing, say, wedding invitations a lot easier if you didn’t have to remember what EVERY SINGLE PERSON preferred.

Jaya: God that was such a nightmare.