The Case For Formal Titles?

44099I just started reading a fantastic book called No Nice Girl Swears. It was written in 1933 as a modern etiquette guide for young ladies, by a fabulous debutante Alice-Leone Moats, who managed to trick George Putnam into having her ghostwrite her own book. It’s a crazy story, and you should pick it up, but in the 1983 reprint, Moats walks through a few of the changes that had taken place over the last fifty years. She recognizes some parts sound “positively archaic,” but that others stand as good guidelines.

One thing she does stand by, though, are formal modes of address, “principally because the instant use of Christian names does away with the shadings so important in relationships. It is a leap into intimacy which I would often prefer not to make: I don’t lead a sheltered life and I meet many characters with whom I don’t care to be on terms of intimacy.”

We have spoken before about the issues surrounding formal modes of address, specifically gendered salutations. But it’s true, most people introduce themselves by their first or full names, and do not insist on being called Ms. Lastname by all but close friends and family. I would probably feel incredibly uncomfortable if I introduced myself as Jaya and someone continued to call me Ms. Saxena. However, I’m starting to see what Moats is getting at here.

Have you ever had an experience where someone thought they were closer friends with you than they were? Or you thought someone was a close friend and they weren’t? It’s a really easy thing to happen. For me, it usually is because we have lots of mutual friends, and we see each other at parties and are friendly and chatty with each other, and then suddenly one of us is calling the other to make plans when the other really didn’t see the relationship that way. Of course, meeting through mutual friends and slowly hanging out otherwise is how lots of great friendships happen, but only when both people are into that friendship.

Anyway, there are lots of reasons why this happens, but what Moats argues here is that the form of address helps reflect the level of intimacy. If I’m at a party and someone I’m very fond of asks “may I call you Jaya?” or if I ask her to call me Jaya and she agrees, there is the mutual understanding that this is a closer relationship. However, if I ask her to call me Jaya and she continues with “Ms. Saxena,” I understand that she prefers to keep our relationship cordial but at a distance.

I spoke to my husband about this the other night, and how I think the concept of having these removed relationships is a great idea, and he disagreed, saying that it just comes off as passive aggressive. I wouldn’t call it that, but yes, it is an indirect way to make your point clear. And really, that’s what a lot of etiquette is: a way to make things explicit without the awkwardness that it could entail. Most people do not want to have long, protracted conversations about the state of all of their relationships. Maybe we should, but we don’t. I don’t want to tell every friendly acquaintance exactly where in my hierarchy of friends they stand, I just want it to be understood that not everyone is the closest person to me.

This is making me sound like an unfriendly hag. I love friends! I love turning new friends into better friends into the best friends. But I do think there is a cultural assumption now that everyone has to be friends, and I wish we’d get away from that. There are people I see in larger social circles that I absolutely get along with, with whom I have engaging and fun conversations, who I don’t consider friends. That’s okay! That’s a fine sort of relationship to have. There are many other ways to put up boundaries in a relationship without having an explicit “I see you’re trying to be friends with me so let me stop you and just make this awkward for everyone” conversation. You can decline invitations, or not extend them. You can not initiate conversation, or not seek them out at any social gathering.

At this point, formal address conventions are not coming back. Even my bosses insist I call them by their first names. Plus, I’m sure this worked much better in theory than in practice even when it was more common–it’s not like awkward interactions only started when we dropped honorifics. But what are your thoughts? Is there something else we could do to make this clear? Should we just have really weird, direct conversations about this?

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.

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.

Special Royal Baby Edition: British Titles

By Duke_and_Duchess_of_Cambridge_and_Prince_Harry.JPG: Carfax2derivative work: Surtsicna [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A special royal baby post on British titles!

Firstly, the new baby’s title is His Highness Prince [NAME] of Cambridge. William and Kate’s official titles are Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and are properly referred to as such (or as just the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge). This title was given to them upon their marriage, previously William was HRH Prince William of Wales. As William was born a prince, he remains a prince and she is a princess, but the Queen has chosen to style them the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and what she says goes. Becoming a Duke made William a Peer of the Realm, which is better than being just a plain prince (and a commoner). If they had been styled as Prince and Princess, Kate would have been referred to as HRH Princess William of Wales because she was not already a princess in her own right. Prince/Princess is their rank, Duke/Duchess is their title. “Princess Diana” was made up by the press and was never her official title. Princess FirstName is only used in the UK when they are a princess by birth.

The ranking of the British nobility:






In modern times, there isn’t that much meaning behind the titles except in rank. Dukes were first created (in England- the concept is older) by Edward III in the 1300s for his close family members and for a long time Dukes were only members of the royal family. Marquesses held pieces of land on the borders (marches) and because of their defensive position they were ranked higher than earls who held counties (earls are equal to counts in other countries, but the British use the Anglo-Saxon derivative of the Scandinavian word jarl) which were interior pieces of land. The title viscount doesn’t seem to have as much history or meaning as the others and is even now mostly only used as a courtesy title. Barons were originally the men who managed the land for a greater lord. Titles were often awarded to people for service to the Crown, so the greater the service, the greater the title.

Within each rank, age of the title indicates seniority. Life peers are titles given to people for the duration of their own life but which are not passed down to their heirs.

The word peer refers only to those who hold one of these titles fully (or their spouses) and traditionally would be eligible for the House of Lords. Everyone who is not a peer is a commoner (and that includes people like Prince Harry as prince and princess are courtesy titles for the children and grandchildren of the soverign). Children of peers may hold courtesy titles (we will get to those in a minute) but they are not accorded the full honors of that title and they are still commoners. So yes, even though they were rich, and Diana was aristocratic, before their marriages both Kate Middleton AND Princess Diana were commoners.

Courtesy Titles

Children of peers are commoners but they get to use courtesy titles to show their relationship to a peer. Peers often have multiple titles, so they give their eldest sons one of the lesser titles to use as a courtesy, as they will one day inherit the greater title. So the oldest son of a duke might be referred to as the Earl of ____. (This only goes for the eldest son of dukes, marquesses, and earls). Though the son may be styled a Marquess or Earl, they do not hold the full courtesy of that title. For example, a Marquess is properly known as The Most Honourable [first name] Marquess of _______, but a courtesy marquess is not The Most Honourable, they are just the Marquess of ______ (and the “the” is dropped for correspondence)

Younger sons of dukes and marquesses are styled Lord [first name][surname]. Younger sons of earls and all sons of viscounts and barons are styled The Honourable (often shortened to The Hon) [first name][last name]. This is only used descriptively and in addresses, Honourables should be called Mr. ________.

Daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls are styled Lady [first name][last name].

Sons and daughters of viscounts and barons also use the courtesy title The Honourable in the same way as noted above.


The widowed wife of a duke, marquess, earl, or viscount is the Dowager of that title. For example: widows of dukes are referred to as the Dowager Duchess of ______ or [first name], Duchess of ______. If there is already a Dowager Duchess when the duchess in question is widowed, she is always referred to as [first name], Duchess of ______. If a duchess’s son is unmarried when she becomes widowed, she remains the Duchess of ______ until he marries. (This applies to widows of marquesses and earls also, with Marchioness, Countess, or Viscountess filling in for Duchess.)

Widows of barons are known as Dowager Lady _______ or [first name], Lady _______.


Princes of the Royal Blood are usually created dukes when they marry, as Prince William became the Duke of Cambridge when he married Kate Middleton. There are also non-royal dukes who can trace their lines back to someone who was created a duke by a monarch. All the children and some of the grandchildren of the monarch are addressed as His/Her Royal Highness followed by their other title (the Duke/Duchess, Earl/Countess, Prince/Princess, etc).

In conversation/print Dukes/Duchesses are referred to as The Duke or Duchess of ________ or His/Her Grace. They are addressed directly as Duke or Duchess or Your Grace.

Marquess/Marchioness, Earl/Countess, Viscount/Viscountess, Baron/Baroness

In conversation/print and when addressed directly, these ranks are called Lord or Lady______ (where the blank is their holding, not their first name).


Many earldoms/barons can be inherited by women, so these women are properly called the Countess of/Baroness ______, but her husband gains no title or style from being married to a Countess/Baroness.

A baroness in her own right has the choice of being called Baroness_______ or Lady ________ (where the blank is their last name). Most choose to go by Lady as Margaret Thatcher, a Life Baroness, went by Lady Thatcher.


The Princess Royal refers to the eldest daughter of a monarch. Though as she retains the title for life and there can only be one at a time, if a monarch has a daughter and there is already a Princess Royal, she won’t be called that. Queen Elizabeth’s daughter Anne is the current Princess Royal.

His/Her Royal Highness (HRH) is a style given to members of the royal family.

I have been asked before why Prince Philip isn’t King Philip. The reason is that a King outranks a Queen and the ruler must be the highest ranked person, so when a woman is Regnant, her husband is Prince Consort instead of King. When there is a King, his wife is the Queen Consort as opposed to the Queen Regnant when a woman rules, though generally Queen Consort is just shortened to Queen.

This is an extremely simplified (but hardly simple!) explanation of a very complicated topic. For everything you could possibly want to know about British titles up to how to address the Queen, see The British Monarchy also has an excellent site specifically about the Royal Family And please see this excellent post by a royalty scholar