There’s a line in “You’ve Got Mail,” where Meg Ryan’s character protests,
“Joe? Just call me Joe? As though you were one of those stupid 22 year old girls with no last name? Hi, I’m Kimberly. Hi, I’m Janice. Don’t they know you’re supposed to have a last name? It’s like they’re an entire generation of cocktail waitresses.”
Once you get past the mental image of all those cocktail waitresses (and waiters, let’s not forget the boys), it becomes an interesting point. In this ever-increasingly casual world of ours, how do you address people?
For people in positions of high authority–statesmen, kings, queens, religious leaders–it’s simple. You address them as formally as possible. Your Majesty. Sir. Mr. President. For most of us, though, the nitty-gritty of these titles is unlikely to come up. The President of the United States is unlikely to drop by my house for a beer, and I’m not really expecting him to invite me up to the White House any time soon. (And, really, I’d have more to talk about with the First Lady, anyway. She’s a book-lover, you know.)
For people in more accessible positions of eminence–your boss, friends of your grandfather, the the local selectman–chances are you’re going to call them by name. As in, Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, not “John” or “Sally.” This is reasonably formal and respectful, without being too kow-towing. Formal address is not the same as brown-nosing, after all. It’s meant to be a way to show respect for a person’s age or position. Being called “Mr. Smith” instead of “Bobby” is–or used to be–a sign that little Bobby was growing up. Once he was out in the world and had a job, it was an acknowledgment that he was a contributing member of society.
It’s trickier for women, of course. The available titles differentiate between singled and married, Miss. or Mrs., which immediately makes everyone you meet take a desperate gamble at the correct terminology. Is she wearing a wedding ring? Try Mrs. Is she somewhere around 18? Miss. is probably safe. Elderly? Again, Mrs. is probably a good guess. But anywhere in between? An adult woman with no jewelry … um … Ms? That doesn’t really work, either. I appreciate what my feminist foremothers intended by it–a strong, neutral title for an adult woman, regardless of her marital status. Except … that’s exactly the problem. It was created by and for feminists, and so is colored by people’s perceptions of those man-eating, independent women. And, anyway, it never caught on the way they’d hoped–which just makes it messier. You might try Ms. as a “safe” option, only to be told indignantly that, “I’m proud to be the married mother of seven children.”
And, don’t even get me started on Ma’am, which should be useful as a respectful term for all women, but comes with nasty, getting-old connotations these days. I’m 41 years old and still cringe when someone calls me ma’am because I don’t feel old enough to be one.
Really, men? On this topic, you’ve got it soooo much easier than we women do.
I sometimes wonder if this confusion is part of the reason that so many of us these days just refer to ourselves by our first name. We might introduce ourselves by our full name (“Hi, pleased to meet you. I’m Dorothy Gale.”), but when someone then calls us “Miss. Gale,” we immediately protest, “Oh, just call me Dorothy.” It seems friendlier. Simpler. And much more casual for the days when we’re wearing jeans instead of our ruby slippers.
All of which begs the question … How do you address people? When is the last time you called someone by Mr. or Mrs? Do you feel flattered or offended when the clerk at the grocery store gives you a “Ma’am” with your change. (Male readers, feel free to ignore that last question.) Is the title respectful? Or does it make you feel old? Do you want that respectful distance, or do you just want to be one of the guys? How would you refer to the CEO of a major company who shows up unexpectedly in the lunch room and sits at your table and starts chatting about his kids?
As for me, though, you can just call me Deb. Or Miss. Puncuality Rules. Or, well, Queen of Civility, if you must, but that’s so formal, I’ll need to run to get my tiara.