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to a station above Joan’s. So I do find it pretty disturbing for professional women to continue to follow that type of outdated convention, especially if they are the only one’s doing it.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.

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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.

Let’s Talk About Ms.

You do not know if Ms. Marvel is married from her title

You do not know if Ms. Marvel is married from her title

We’ve already addressed honorifics, but for some reason I keep seeing people confused about Ms.! So now you all get a primer.

To understand Ms., let’s think about Mr. If someone is introduced to you as “Mr. Gary Noodlebaker,” what do you know about them? You know they identify as male, and…that’s pretty much it. You don’t know if he’s married or single, if that’s his birth name, or anything about his profession. You just know he’s male. Ms. operates similarly, and can be used by any woman. As “Ms. Jaya Saxena,” you know I identify as a woman, and that’s it. I could be married, I could be single, but that’s not revealed by my title. This is great.

However, there are a few other options for women, since marital status is something that’s been treated as more important for women than for men. Miss is the honorific generally used for young, unmarried women. (Master is sometimes used for young boys in the UK, but it’s not as common as Miss.) Mrs. is used when a woman is married and has taken her husband’s last name, but even then she can still use Ms., it just becomes a matter of preference. Some people think it’s a generational thing, but I’ve met many younger married women who have taken their husbands last names and prefer Mrs. However, you do not have to use Mrs. once you are married., so I do believe that when in doubt you should use Ms.

Also, if a woman has married and hasn’t taken her husband’s last name, you use Ms. This seems to confuse a lot of people, who think that something has to change about the way you address a woman when she gets married. But considering nothing has to change about a man’s name, the same goes for women!

So what’s so confusing? According to Wikipedia, “Mrs originated as a contraction of the honorific Mistress, the feminine of Mister, or Master, which was originally applied to both married and unmarried women. The split into Mrs for married women from Ms and Miss began during the 17th century.”  Ms. fell out of use as an honorific, but in 1901 an article in The Sunday Republican suggested reviving the title to avoid the etiquette faux-pas of calling a woman by the wrong title. By having a “more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” we avoid calling a 16-year-old girl Mrs., or a married lady Miss. Ms. didn’t really get going until the mid 20th-century, but clearly it fills a void. The usages of Miss, Mrs. and Ms. have been the norm for quite some time, and if you insist on going by archaic, 16th-century usages of everything then you have other issues you need to deal with.

On a different note, I’m curious to see if and how this will change as same-sex marriage becomes more common. For instance, if two men get married and want to change their titles to something that indicates it, or if two women marry and don’t want to use Mrs. but still want to show they’re married. Or if gender-nonconforming people come up with titles that are completely different (performance artist Justin Vivian Bond uses “Mx” and I love it). Traditions and usage are fluid, and our job as polite people is to make the best effort we can to use everyone’s preferred titles without driving ourselves crazy. And remember, if you’re not sure JUST ASK. It’s always polite to ask.

How To Address Just About Anyone

Obama approves of using Ms. [Flickr user QueenofSpainErin]

Forms of address are complicated and fraught with peril because incorrect use can be seen as disrespectful. It’s a good thing that we have evolved from just Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Smith, but without one standard form, it gets a bit tricky. Women are insisting on not being defined by their marital status. Men are taking women’s names. There are same-sex couples to think about. Utter madness. Won’t someone please think of the great-grandmas stuck in their ways?

The rule of thumb is that if you know what someone prefers to be called, then call them that! (Shortcut: If they sent you a letter, see how they put their name on the return address. Boom. Easy.)  If you don’t know, then you can follow the basics:

A single person:

  • Professional titles like Dr. trump any of these (noble titles too, but c’mon you don’t know Sir Paul McCartney or Prince Harry anyway)

  • Mr. Horace Banks

  • Miss Flora Norwood (only for the VERY young- under 18)

  • Ms. Maude Fredericks (married or unmarried)

  • Mrs. Myrtle Hotchkiss (only if you are pretty sure they prefer Mrs.)

  • Mrs. Clarence Jacobs (only if you are CERTAIN they prefer it or if they are very old)

Interestingly in the case of a divorce, a woman shouldn’t use Mrs. Clarence Jacobs at all, though she can still use Mrs. Patricia Jacobs if she retains her married name. If she returns to her maiden name, then she shouldn’t use Mrs. Patricia Rogers, she should go back to Ms. Patricia Rogers. A widow is traditionally addressed with the same title she used when she was married, unless you know she prefers something else.

Juniors, Seconds, and Thirds:

If a man is named after his father, he uses the suffix junior, which is written out as: Edmund Jones, Jr. Ansel Whittleby II is a man that is named after an uncle or a grandfather. Thirds and fourths come after that. FUN FACT: the nicknames Trip and Trey are traditionally used for someone who is a third and Skip is used for someone named after a grandfather because the name “skips” a generation.

Couples and Groups:

A lot of this comes down to formality and preference. The more formal your correspondence, the more formal you should go. Note that in a heterosexual couple, the male title and name traditionally comes first, but either way is correct.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Seamus Finnegan (the most formal address for a heterosexual married couple. Many modern women object to the use of just the man’s name and so this is best used if you are sure that it is the preference. You should not use Ms. with this form- Mr. and Ms. Seamus Finnegan because the old fashioned use of the man’s name doesn’t really jive with the more modern Ms.)

  • Mr. and Mrs. Blanc (an alternate with no first names)

  • Mr. Taran Edwards and Ms. Beatrice Edwards (this is used if you wish to use both first names. Many people will write Mr. Taran and Ms. Beatrice Edwards, but this is less preferable because then it looks like you are addressing the first person as just Mr. Taran, which just looks a bit weird)

  • Mr. Patrick O’Malley and Ms. Bridget Sullivan/ Ms. Jennifer Cooper and Ms. Becky James (for an unmarried couple, a married couple where the woman kept her own name, gay/lesbian couples, roommates, etc. You should try to get both names on the same line, but it’s okay if it doesn’t fit and you have to put them on separate lines. For more formal events, roommates should get separate invitations, though most people aren’t too put off by being included together.)

  • Dr. Camilla Banks and Mr. Peter Partridge (a title like Dr. always outranks the Mr./Ms./Mrs. and the names should be separate, though if you are using the very old fashioned form: Dr. and Mrs. Peter Partridge is correct but Mr. and Dr. Peter Partridge isn’t. Two doctors with the same last name are addressed as The Doctors Partridge.)

  • Henry and Henrietta Henderson/ Jasmine Sultan and Rebecca Bainbridge (the same as above but more casual)

  • The Jones/The Jones Family (this is pretty casual but still useful if you don’t know the preferred title or want to invite the whole family)

Things We Don’t Have To Do Anymore:

Unwed mothers having to go by Mrs. Maidenname to avoid scrutiny. Because heavens to Betsy, what would the neighbors think?