whose manners?

Here’s a question that might get an interesting discussion going. While most middle-class Whites prefer to shift to first names even when there is a hierarchical relation or the person has a title (e.g. Dr., Professor) and these days teach children to call adults by first name, many Blacks prefer to honor titles and seniority and think it is rude to use first names for elders or people with titles.  I have seen this pattern often in mixed-race public meetings, with Whites using first names for everyone and Blacks using titles, and watched people (of both races) bounce back and forth awkwardly, not sure which to use.  I’ve had conversations with some Black people about this, including one Black graduate student who insisted on calling me “Dr. Olderwoman” even when I asked her to use my first name, telling me that respect for titles was a part of her culture that she was not willing to give up.  I assume there are lots of other examples of cultural difference in what is polite.  So here’s the question: What is the best way to resolve this kind of cultural difference?  Whose norms should prevail?  Are there ways of acknowledging these differences that heighten cross-group respect and consideration? Does this vary by context? Let’s assume in the discussion that our goal is to treat everyone with respect and politeness.  How do we do it in culturally mixed settings? Given our audience, we might especially focus on academic settings, although some of us do venture out into the larger world.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

20 thoughts on “whose manners?”

  1. This doesn’t get at exactly your questions. But being raised in rural white family I was always taught to start with the titles (Dr, then Mr. & Mrs.) and if they ask you to use their first name, then honor that request. And while that typically gives my spouse equal ability to use their first name, my children still use the titles until they are told by the person to use the first name. It seems difficult, but fairly quickly I get the face memorized as one of the following: Pat, Mrs. Pat, Mrs. Johnson, Dr. Johnson.


  2. Interesting question, there seem to be so many different points of etiquette, especially in the USA. Are titles commonly used in Latino cultural contexts, too?
    In French-speaking Quebec, I have to deal with the tu/vous dilemma (informal, singular ‘you’ versus formal OR plural you), where many but not all profs and students will call each other ‘tu’ (in the style of [white] North American informality), and that’s all the more likely if they are close in age or regular contact (but would never happen in France). Confusing to those who didn’t grow up with that particular bit of grammar! So as TA to my supervisor, I call her ‘tu’ out of habit if I speak to her in class, but then feel odd because most of the students call her ‘vous’ (for her seniority), and then notice that they all call me ‘tu’ (for my ‘juniority’), although at first I called them each ‘vous’ out of politeness… My current general rule is similar to Bandeiras’s title rule: call everyone I meet in the university (including students) ‘vous’ until a request is made for ‘tu’. It’s just as well first name terms seems fine by everyone here.


  3. I continue to call all my parents friends and older people connected to my parents, Ms, Mr, etc. I call my in-laws using Dr. and Ms., but my husband calls my parents by their first names, at their request. I had a hard time calling professors by the first name, but have pretty much come around for the faculty in my department, but still refer to those I don’t REALLY know as Dr/Professor, unless told otherwise. But if someone asks me to refer to them by the first name, I try very hard to do so, even though it takes a few reminders.

    Among my friends and our children, however, we’ve had a hard time enforcing the Mr/Ms thing. It is mostly because I don’t feel old enough for anyone to call me Ms. Gradmommy. It just sounds weird after I’ve been calling people Ms. So-and-so for so long.

    Older black mothers that I am around do have their children call me Ms. Gradmommy, and I likewise try to enforce the same when my children address them. In general, I think we should refer to people as they wish to be referred to, and err on the side of formality until told otherwise. One exception that I cannot get away from is addressing my friend’s mother Ms., even though she asks me to call her by her first name. She reminds me too much of my mother’s friends, and I just cannot do it.

    Somewhat related, I always loved it when professors in undergrad addressed students by Ms/Mr So-and-So. I like the idea of reciprocal respect.


  4. Even though my parents hated it when my little friends called them “sir” or “ma’am” when we were living in the south, I’m inclined to err on the side of formality. When I was a young teen, my history teacher insisted on calling us by our last names (usually sans the Mr. or Miss but sometimes with) and it was a sign of respect that amused us but which was also appropriate.

    I always think of the example of going to the (medical) doctor. Some doctors will introduce themselves by their first names, but when they don’t, I want to say, “I’m Dr. Barab!” In that situation, you need every bit of respect you can get.

    That said, I had an African-American prof who I worked for in grad school and I always called him by his first name. It did make me uncomfortable in some meetings when his cleric assistant would call him Dr. (If it matters, she was white, as am I.) He never once corrected me. I guess he was comfortable with both modes.


  5. I had a job interview at a HBCU and told explicitly that all students refer to professors as either “Doctor” or “Professor”. Professors were likewise expected to refer to students as “Mr.” or “Ms.”

    I later had an interview at a Quaker college and was told that all people go by first names only and they discourage the use of titles by anyone.

    I tend to use a formal title until cued to do otherwise. No one ever calls me Dr., but I haven’t had the title for very long! I did tell my kids to call me Dr. Mom for the first 24 hours after I became a doctor…


  6. I think you’re underselling the logic of titles.

    Titles are a way of saying that we have social roles and we expect people to behave according to their social role. Titles are about preventing a false sense of familial. Titles are important for cultures that recognize class and castes. Addressing people by first name (despite there being hierarchical relationship) is a way of denying the existence of caste/class. It’s bigger than just an issue of manners.

    I was raised in majority black city, went to white junior high school and white college, then went on to work with youth in a black neighborhood. I couldn’t stand being asked to call teachers/professors by their first name in junior high and college. “You are neither my friend nor my colleague, you are in a hierarchical relationship with me. You have certain responsibilities in that relationship, I have certain responsibilities, don’t pretend that we are in some sort of familial relationship that allows you to abdicate those responsibilities.” When I in turn worked with kids the same logic held. When I work laying tile, even when white boss insists on being called by first name you call him Mr. First Name. He’s not your friend, when you fuck up he isn’t going to forgive you the way a friend would. When he fucks up, I’m not going to say “ah it’s ok you don’t need to pay me this week, we’ve been friends for awhile, I know you’re good for it”. When the boss wants to be known as John and you call him Mr. John, it’s not being polite, it’s being rude and defiant. But use of titles is not about manners first, it’s about importance of acknowledging roles and relationships.


  7. It’s not a racial issue. It’s a sociocultural issue. In Europe, particularly countries like Germany under the Gymnasium system, titles are very much still respected. In fact, due to the way the academic system works, the official title is “Dr. Professor, PhD”, which many Americans would regard as “redundant” and arguably, pretentious. But in Europe, it is very much conventional to call holders of doctorates as “doctors”, because they have great respect and authority.

    In America, this is not the case, and the title of “doctor” is not protected by law. Neither is the word “university” in many states, that give out these “doctorates”. Thus, the lack of legal protection has eroded the culture (or vice versa), and the only people that are called doctor are those men in white suits that do check up on our bodies.


  8. tkg1: You raise very good points, and I think that phenomenon in the United States where it’s common to call everybody by their first name is uniquely American. It seems to signify that there is no hierarchy – because everybody is supposedly “equal” under the law – and that titles and formalities are thus, unnecessary and archaically traditional.

    This may also have to do with the rise of “business” as a profession. The three original “professions” of doctor, lawyer, and clergy had titles. Father, Reverend, Doctor, Honourable, Esquire, etc. going all the way back to the monarchical title of “Excellency”.

    Where did businessmen fit in all of this, besides hold accounting designations? Nowhere. So this is probably another factor in the rejection of titles in American culture.


  9. I’m willing to believe there’s a racial component, but I think there’s more generally a degree-of-privilege component. My sense is that most of the undergrads who just assume they can call me Andrew (which, by the way, nobody who actually knows me calls me, since I go by Andy!) are precisely the ones who are unlikely ever to reach the point at which I respect them enough to invite me to do so. Conversely, in several cases the very best undergrads, whom I’ve worked closely with and so invited to call me Andy, find it very disconcerting precisely because it seems to undermine the respect they feel is appropriate.

    There’s a great old article, “The Tyranny of Democratic Manners,” by Morton Cronin, The New Republic 1958, that addresses this nicely.


  10. I think the “not racial” comments miss the point: of course your pigmentation or ancestry does not create customs. But there are obviously cultural subgroups with different customs and standards of what is good manners, the US “racial” groups somewhat coincide with such subcultural differences. I agree there are also class and regional differences. The point of my question was how to negotiate the reality of these differences in public spaces, how to decide whose “rules” will dominate in a given context.

    I agree with the people who critique the US custom of using first names even in hierarchical situations, although I’m part of that culture and do it. It requires a great deal of subtle cultural work to simultaneously respect hierarchy and pretend it isn’t there, and that is one of the deep elements of our culture. I do resent undergraduates who claim first name with me; I prefer to offer it to students I’ve gotten to know. But I am comfortable with our department culture of immediate first names between profs and grad students, even though a lot of the students are not. In some departments, the switch comes later, say when you’ve become ABD.

    I grew up being required to call older people Mr/Mrs and to give older relatives their titles like Aunt/Uncle, and still give them their titles even now. In fact, in one case where a young cousin was younger than her sister’s oldest child, I even heard the mother say, “Clifford, stop hitting your Aunt Sharon.” But my husband’s family used first names among relatives across generations, so he’d say “Stu” not “Uncle Stu.” These were families of the same basic ethnic group in the same community.

    The specific example I had in mind was different. In a community meeting like a task force or advisory board, we are all supposed to be equals, bringing our different kinds of expertise to the tables. So here the issue is more formal/informal (more like tu vous, tu usted) than hierarchy, and also whether we use our different titles or not (and which ones to use). So it is “Chief Brown” and “Judge Smith” and “Dr or Professor Olderwoman” but not “District Attorney Perez” or “Social Services Director Chen” or “Community Organizer Smith.” Using first names (in my culture) signals that we are all equals working on a common task. Using titles (for those who prefer them) signals our respect for the formality and seriousness of the task.

    As I said, the point of my question was to explore how we work through these different and even equally valid cultures of how to treat each other politely. When you travel overseas, the rule is to go by the home turf customs, i.e. bow in Japan but shake hands in the US. But in my example, everyone is “home.” Europeans have these same issues, too, they just don’t know they do, and still generally just think the cultural minorities are deficient.


  11. I have a student (a senior undergraduate) who is writing a thesis with me. We meet every week. We talk about both life and his work (which is astonishing!). He always calls me “Professor.” For a while I kept asking him to just call me “Shamus.” I did this in person and in emails. He refuses to. I’ve never asked him why. But after reading this post and comments I realized that perhaps I had it a bit wrong. I thought, “he’s reached that point where he can (and should) call me by my first name. And by not doing so it creates distance.” I wasn’t upset by it, but I definitely thought that perhaps he didn’t feel quite comfortable with me to move to first names. Now I think of it a little differently. I think it’s probably cultural (thought not Black, he is a working class kid from the midwest). While I think it’s more appropriate for him to call me by my first name and that is more comfortable, he feels otherwise. Next semester I’m going to ask why.


  12. A variant of this issue came up at my book group yesterday. One member is a young looking female prof and another member is also a young looking female asst. dean. Both were saying that they really dislike it when undergraduates write to them using their first names or with too informal prose. Do any of you have thoughts on how to prevent these situations? For example, is it appropriate to tell students in class or on the syllabus how you would like to be addressed?


  13. The easiest way to prevent an unauthorized person from using your first name is not to reveal it. Use a first initial instead of a name on your syllabus, when you sign emails, and (if necessary) on your office door. To nail it down, address all the students as Mr./Ms. Students who call you by first name after that can be stared at blankly until they wither. Informal prose, on the other hand, probably cannot be cured without a fight because they probably do not know any better.

    In normal life, it is hard to ask somebody to call you by title without sounding pompous or priggish, or making yourself sound insecure. I think you probably could pull it off in a classroom setting with a cheerful, calm statement. Something like, “I know some students are not certain how professors should be addressed, so I’ll just tell you that I prefer to be addressed as Professor X.” And leave it at that. You don’t want to sound whiny or angry. I don’t think I’d write it on a syllabus.

    Local customs differ. My daughter went to a college where all profs were called by first name, it was an integral part of their culture. My son went to a college where all profs were called by title, and that, too, was part of their culture. It’s where professors differ in their practices that everyone gets confused and annoyed.

    When I was first teaching (back in the 1970s) I would tell students to call me by first name, saying “If using first names confuses you about who is in charge here or that I will be grading you, then by all means call me Dr. X.” But I gave that up because all the other profs (older men) were going by Dr. and I came to resent the asymmetry.


  14. I strongly prefer to have everyone address me by my first name. I grew up in a Quaker family, and my brother and I even call our parents by their first names. I don’t insist that students call me by my first name, but I tell them on the first day of class that they are free to do so. The informality of the form of address does not, however, extend to the way I interact with students. There is no pretense that I am their friend, and, like others, I can’t stand the informality of the emails I get some some students (esp. those I have never met, inquiring about a course, etc.). I think those emails demonstrate that respect is conveyed not through the form of address (most start “Hi Professor” – ugh!) but through appropriate deference and just plain good manners.

    But to get more to olderwoman’s point, I do find it difficult to negotiate situations where people who are equals have different expectations about how they should be addressed. Although of course I learned to call my teachers Mr. and Ms. in school, my parents did not bring me up to use those titles with other adults. So while it makes sense to err on the side of formality, it does not come naturally to me and I do so very awkwardly. In the situation olderwoman described, where some participants have formal job titles and others do not, my preference would be for everyone to use first names. My thinking is that it is better for some people to “lower” themselves to others than to create artificial-sounding titles for everyone (which would only make it more obvious that some people are supposed to be (en)titled while others are not). However, there’s no reason why my cultural preference should override others’. Someone always ends up feeling uncomfortable.


  15. I have a whole conversation with students about this on the first day of class by way of getting into an analytical frame of mind where what we take for granted can be bracketed and investigated.

    I tell them they can call me Carl, which is how I think of myself, or Dr. Dyke, which is preposterous but my ‘correct’ title. I’m amused by Dr. Carl, perhaps a good compromise. I mention that Mr. Dyke is preposterous too but also incorrect, because if one must use titles as a sign of respect it’s disrespectful to use a lesser title. I also point out that Mr. is a title every dumbass boy stumbles into when his testicles drop, so it’s really not much of one.

    A while back I had a batch of students who nicknamed me C-Diddy. I tell my new ones that the race is on for a more current handle.

    I tell them about that middle European tradition of stacking titles, so if they really really want to show me some respect they can call me Mr. Professor Dr. (Herr Professor Doktor) Dyke. And then we talk about what, or whom, is being respected. Since I personally feel most comfortable with Carl, I tell them that if they’d like to respect me personally they should call me that. But if it’s more important to them to respect my title (I imagine a little weberian charisma halo like that Arby’s hat in the commercial), and/or the rules their parents taught them, I understand and they can call me Mr. or Dr. Dyke.

    I have colleagues who insist on their titles because they ‘worked hard’ for them. Following Bourdieu I don’t think emphasizing hard work is a good way to signal social distinction, but I also don’t observe that hard work is any guarantee of intelligence, judgment, taste or whatnot respectable other than work itself and I think there are plenty of people without degrees or titles on our campus who work much harder.

    I’ll play along with anyone’s narrow cultural habits if that’s the only game they know how to play. When possible I like to be around folks who are more mindful and flexible.


  16. Carl: A quick response, as I liked mos of what you said, especially explaining titles to students. However, your last line — “narrow cultural habits” — suggests that you have not thought about the issue of hierarchies and your own status with respect to others.

    My thinking was affected by Bridges and Hartmann’s “Pedagogy By the Oppressed” (1975) [ http://rrp.sagepub.com/content/vol6/issue4/ ] and I see that there are now a number of subsequent publications with the same title. White men, particularly those from higher class backgrounds, carry privilege, a presumption of competence and authority with them into the classroom. People whose status is unquestioned can afford to be Mr. Cool with students. Depending on the mix of students, some professors, such as younger women, people from stigmatized racial/ethnic groups, or people with identifiable working class speech patterns or mannerisms, will not be granted this presumption of competence and authority. Some students do play gender games and race games in the classroom, often unconsciously. I’ve known quite a few young women and minority instructors for whom the use of first names subverted their authority. Many woman instructors prefer titles to head off certain kinds of flirtation from male students.

    In the US, the preference in many Black communities for using professional titles originates as a form of resistance to a larger culture that stereotypes Blacks as uneducated and incompetent. The Black student who refused to call me by first name made exactly this point: respect for titles and professional achievement was an important part of her culture that she was unwilling to give up.


  17. Olderwoman, you’re right. I have those privileges and I try to wear them responsibly and inclusively.

    I have two complications to offer. First, the effect of hierarchies on social interaction is precisely to narrow options and therefore habits. From the standpoint of the underdog it makes sense to sharpen this narrowing into a weapon, but that’s not a strategy to be celebrated or clung to if there’s any alternative.

    Second, in relation to the dynamics of privilege I am aware of the Freireian tradition but also find the Goffman of Stigma good to think with. In a sort of Foucault-Lite move he points out that rarely is anyone without exploitable stigma and social interactions are quite regularly shaped by attempts to deploy/negate strengths and hide/discover weaknesses. So without getting into the stigma-ranking game I’d just say that gender, race, disability and so on make some of that easier for students, but they’ll generally find something no matter what.

    In my experience we’ve got far more authority in the classroom than we need or deserve. But it’s the negative authority of passive or rebellious deference. My objective is to get rid of formal authority and start earning substantive authority as soon as possible. And you’re right that the success of this is largely about presuming competence. I’ve seen many a white guy who didn’t do that struggle too.


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