title etiquette

I’m feeling awkward about names & titles today and thought I’d see what the scatterbrains think. In my department we train grad students to call us by first names, a custom I am very comfortable with, and I am part of a cultural group* in which children call adults by first names (although, of course, they call their teachers Mr/Ms X). When I was first teaching in the 1970s, I told my students to call me by my first name, but I stopped because the students would say things to me of the form “Hey Susie, can you tell me where Dr. X is?” All the men were Dr. X and I was the only first name. The disparity has died down, but you can still find formal documents like minutes of meetings in which women professors are referred to by first name and men professors by surnames. So I tend avoid telling undergrads what to call me and let them default to professor or doctor. As I get to know a student in a more personal way, I tend to encourage the switch to first name. Unfortunately, more and more young people have been raised like mine to assume first names, and I’ve heard that some orientation groups are actually telling incoming freshmen to call professors by first names. I realize this actually offends me. I’d rather offer the first name than have it assumed. Hmmm. Quite a bit of inconsistency there. I got caught off guard in the honors class the other day when a student asked me what he should call me, and I kind of mumbled and stumbled and ended up choosing professor. Although then I wondered later whether I should have picked first name, since this is a small class and I’ve invited students to my home for dinner.

So scatterbrains of various generations and cultural backgrounds: what do you think about all this name stuff? As you answer, it would be helpful to disclose your gender, approximate age and status as student or prof.

* I am very aware that people are reared differently on this point, that some parents rear their children to address all older people by title no matter what. That was actually how I was raised long ago – not allowed to call older people by first name, even if they suggested it, and I have met young people who are extremely uncomfortable using first names for older people. This is very much a class thing, I believe.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it 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.

41 thoughts on “title etiquette”

  1. On the *, I don’t know that it’s a class thing. At least, in my case, there’s a confounding variable: immigrant household.

    I am still a graduate student and this is a question I also am interested to learn more about. The department in which I will begin teaching next year has grad students that refer to professors as “Dr. X” (and I noted the gender bias in its use, but am unsure if that’s because women have instructed to students to use first names whereas their male counterparts haven’t or if it’s a strong holdover of blatant gender discrimination).

    I am teaching a seminar of undergraduates as I finish up the PhD and I asked that students refer to me by my first name. In my case, I’m not a “professor” or even a “doctor” yet, but on top of that, I just feel more comfortable if they’re comfortable. I don’t find my students to be too casual with me because of this.

    As for my almost-three-year-old daughter, she is not going to call people by first name unless it’s preceded by a title (like Grandpa Timmy or Tia Noelia), and for our friends with kids, I’ve instituted the Swahili adult names: “Mama Anaiya” is the name my daughter calls a woman I call “Luba.” I haven’t yet met a woman or man who is annoyed by this (though I’m preparing myself for someone to tell me that she is more than just so-and-so’s mother).

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  2. I struggle with this all the time. I find that I often avoid calling people anything. I will simply say “excuse me” and wait for eye-contact rather than use either a formal title or a first name because neither feels very comfortable.

    This is true for professors as well as the parents of my friends and significant others.

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  3. I think about this all of the time…I tell my undergraduate majors (we do not have graduate students in my department) that they may call me by my first name or use Dr. – whatever they are comfortable with. I also tell them that if they are not sure what to do with other faculty, always error on the side of formality.

    For my large lecture classes of non-majors I ask that they address me as Dr. I would be ok with my first name, however in that setting the need to be in control is essential.

    Interestingly enough, the gender division I see is that I often get called Mrs. and none of my male colleagues say that they have ever been called Mr.

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  4. Funny you bring this up as it’s been bugging me lately… You know my stats but I am 32, female, and an assistant professor. I was raised upper-middle class partially in the South and Mr./Mrs. was required.

    While a graduate student on the market, I interviewed at a place where even the grad students called the faculty Dr. Whatever — it made me highly uncomfortable and suspicious. As a student, I always went with the title (Professor X) but typically went to first name quickly when asked (and I was always asked).

    As a new faculty member, I was uncomfortable with the title. Now I don’t much care but what bugs me is students calling me Ms. or Mrs. when my PhD is very clear to them. Most *young* female faculty I know get this a lot and interpret it as a sign of disrespect. Male faculty then say they get this too and don’t interpret it as such (though when pressed there is an obvious gender difference in how often this happens).

    The immigrant comment is interested given my current setting, which is populated by a high proportion of immigrant and asian students — I am told by colleagues (though have no data to support this and don’t know whether it is true or a blatant racial stereotype) that the title is highly prized by this group of students. First, I wonder if this is true. If true, I guess I’m more bugged by being called Ms. so often (don’t even get me started on ‘Mrs’) and never sure how to respond. I also suspect an age effect; I’m young and look even younger — this, coupled with a decidedly casual teaching style, means I get this a lot.

    Not sure what to do and no plans to change my teaching style as it works for me, but I would argue that, in any setting, the rate at which female faculty are defaulted out of the title is higher than for male faculty. I see it as related to the same processes that mean we play (or are asked to play) nurturer/counselor roles more often than male faculty. I’m interested to see if this changes as my crow’s feet start expanding…

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  5. Here in Australia everyone including elderly and famous professors are addressed by their first name, even by first year undergraduates.

    I find the American situation confusing because almost everyone is a professor of some sort. Elsewhere that is not the case as their job title might be lecturer or reader or whatever. So they are Dr unless they are on of the minority who actually are professors. In the US system almost everyone is a variant of professor (assistant/ associate/ full/ emeritus). So I don’t know at which point they stop being called Dr and become Professor.

    I have also noticed that in the American press (say the NYT) academics are often referred to as Mr (it has been a male every time I have noticed it). The story might say Joe X has a PhD in whatever and is currently Professor at the University of YZ. Then go on to refer to him as ‘Mr X’ in the rest of the article. Why is that? It seems very odd.

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  6. When teaching classes as a graduate student in a large department at a large university I told my students to call me whatever they were comfortable with but signed e-mails with my first name, which led to a number of them to call me by my first name. I saw this as a way to make things feel a bit closer on a large campus. Besides, I didn’t want to reinforce the idea that I wasn’t a “real” professor.

    Now that I am a real (well, assistant) professor at a small liberal arts school I do less to encourage students to use my first name and most of them call me “Dr.” or “Professor.” Since the campus is smaller and I am much more likely to see students outside of class I don’t mind reminding them that there is some social distance between us. Like newsocprof I get slightly irked when students call me “Mr.” but I think it has more to do with feeling that the use of “Mr.” diminishes all of those years I spent in grad school than a feeling of disrespect.

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  7. One of my colleagues in my first job had only his initials on his door and syllabi because he did not want people to call him by first name. You had to actually be his friend to know what his first name was and call him by it. If you want to be called Dr. or Professor the trick is to use only “Dr. O. Woman” or “Prof. O. Woman” anywhere public. Email has made this trickier because the proper signature on a note has a name, not a title. My signature line says Older I. Woman, PhD. I can’t bring myself to sign notes Dr. Woman or Dr. O. Woman (because I know these are incorrect), but if I wanted to shut off first names, I could use O. I. Woman, PhD. My problem is that I’m ambivalent about it. But I thought the advice could be useful to others.

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  8. I don’t mind what I’m called as long as my students are afraid of me.

    No, wait. I’ll try again.

    While “Dr” was standard for people with doctorates where I was an undergraduate (Ireland), it’s always seemed out of place to me in the U.S. for some reason, and I’d never ask anyone to call me that. Perhaps again based on my origins, I dislike the American practice of using Ph.D as a suffix in signatures. I think this feeling is irrational and probably originates with where I saw this style first — on the cover of self-help and pop psychology books by dubious Americans — so it always strikes me as a bit off key.

    I think the main thing people want to retain is the right to decide what people call them, even if they aren’t sure about what that should be. I’ve seen convoluted Goffmanian situations where faculty insist that some student address them on first-name terms, while the student wants to refuse (perhaps genuinely desiring to show some respect, or at least maintain some official distance) but is ultimately unable to resist the awful force of the faculty member’s fake egalitarianism. It reminds me of when Daimler executives came to Chrysler HQ after the firms merged, and found that while the Americans insisted on first names and rolled-up shirtsleeves, they also had separate parking garages and canteens for regular workers and executives.

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  9. I avoid “doctor” — on my syllabi and anything else that goes to students, I list myself as “Mr.” but students will still call me “doctor.” I think the age difference is to great for them to feel comfortable calling my by first name.

    But to a great extent today, first name is the default. I get e-mails from strangers, from companies, that address me by first name only. No wonder that I regularly get student papers that say things like, “Emile felt that mechanical solidarity . . . .”

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  10. I’ve been thinking about this and other issues of formality/social distance lately, so thanks for the post, OW.

    I’m finishing up a postdoc and will be an assistant prof next year. Unless I learn that the local norm is different, I intend to have undergrads call me Prof. Lastname or Dr. Lastname but have grad students call me by my first name. I’m hoping to ward off confusion by explicitly telling my students what to call me, both in class and on the syllabus.

    Outside of work, I prefer using my first name in all situations. I’m an unmarried woman in my early 30s and hate it when people call me “Mrs.,” which happens quite often. I almost never correct salespeople or customer service folks who use the wrong title for me (Mrs. instead of Ms. or Dr.), but I’m really hoping to avoid having students calling me “Mrs.”

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  11. I’m old school in that I believe in some distance between students and faculty, but “Dr” or “professor” seems stuffy. I’ve settled on “Mr. Rojas,” because my father was a teacher. If it was good enough for him, then it’s certainly good enough for me.

    In practice, many students revert to “Dr. Rojas” if they are from the South. Indiana has many students from Kentucky. I also found that the rest prefer my first name, but only after they get to know me.

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  12. I am a 32 year old female, in my final months of finishing my Ph.D., and have just accepted a job as an assistant professor at a different university.

    In my grad school, as grad students, the faculty introduce themselves to us a “Dr. So and So”. Some people think this is ridiculous, but it is the culture of the school, so that is what I go with.

    When I meet a new person at a conference, or I email someone new, I always call them “Dr. X” at first, and let them tell me “Oh no, call me So and So”.

    As for what I’ll do? I’m going to see what the faculty at my new university do. If they ask their students to address them as Doctor, then that’s what I’ll do too. I would prefer my undergrads address me a doctor, but I would be fine with my grad students calling me “Lauren”.

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  13. This first became an issue for me when I was teaching a small, 20-person, freshman seminar at the University of Wisconsin. The students were young, brand new to college and many where first generation college students. In one of our first meetings a student asked me what she should call me. I had never cared that much personally (as long as I was not being called “Mrs” ) but the question made me realize that many students may simply not know what the norm is. I also wondered if students used different labels for different professors, being more likely to confer status via the use of “professor” for those who are more senior, men, and white.

    The advice I gave them was that they should call their professors “Professor X” unless the professor told them differently. I explained that label shows respect for the training and expertise that their professors have and I described my worry that using “professor” for some faculty and first names for others signals that some faculty are more worthy of respect. The students got it. One said that she had been calling her math professor “Professor X” because he was older and she thought he must be very distinguished.

    Since that time, I try to remember to be explicit about this issue by bringing it up on Day 1 when I am going over the syllabus by saying “Students often ask what they should call me.” I give them my general advice first about calling professors “Professor” unless they have been told otherwise. I then go on to tell them that I am personally okay with being called by my first name if they feel comfortable with that, but that I would recommend not assuming other faculty feel this way. I also ask them to reflect on whether they use different labels for different professor and, if so, why they think that is.

    I personally do not care what they call me, especially at this point in my career, but my point is to get them to think about their assumptions about status and also to hopefully affect how they treat the women and minority faculty they encounter on campus. I usually also use this as a chance to point out that on our campus, only 25% of their faculty are female and only 20% are non-white.

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  14. I am an assistant professor, female, 33. At my university the students usually call their professors “Professor x” or just “Professor.” I don’t really care what they call me (unless it’s Mrs., which is just plain incorrect – and no one has ever done that), but I really am more comfortable with first names. On the first day of class I always say something like, “I encourage students to call me by my first name, but I know a lot of students prefer using titles, so you can call me Professor if you like.” And usually it splits about down the middle. Today I got my first email addressed to Prof. [first name], which I thought was kind of funny. I currently have one student, a freshman, who joined the class late and missed my first day discussion about names. She addresses me with Ms. (which is very uncommon among our students, and must be a holdover from high school). The only thing I can’t stand is when students who have never met me send an email addressing me with my first name only. I figure anyone you haven’t met yet should be addressed with a title.

    I was very confused as an undergrad, since I transferred from one college that was primarily first-names to one that was more formal. At the second college I think I used Ms./Mr. a lot which was probably wrong, but maybe it was okay? I don’t know! I was one of those students who never really talked to professors so it wasn’t much of an issue (I now realize, with regret).

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  15. Usually I get first names from grads, Prof or Doc from undergrads, without trying hard either way. The only time I care is with email, and then only because I hope the honorific encourages undergrads to pause before sending petty or demanding messages – which seems easier with a first name or, “Hi,”.

    (Also, first names in email tend to become “Phil,” I suspect because people don’t know how many L’s I use – a common dilemma, resulting in the unauthorized name-truncated nickname, which is much worse than unapproved first name usage.)

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  16. I’m 43, male, third-year assistant, raised working-class on the border of the south & midwest. I came from a graduate program where we called profs by their first names, and we expect our graduate students to do the same, although many still revert to “Dr.”

    I expect my undergrads to call me “Dr.” or “Prof” because of the distance issue that a few others have noted (and I prefer the former only because it rings better with my last name). Students know that I am friendly and approachable, but I learned quickly in my first year that they would see me as the cool buddy prof if I didn’t work to put some distance between us. I can’t exactly say why, but I don’t like “Mr.” at all.

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  17. I don’t think it matters much whether students address me as “Mr. the Uninteresting,” or “Drek” in class and I generally give them permission to use my first name. I don’t really push the issue if they choose to be more formal, but I do offer the informal option more often than not.

    I will admit, however, to a great deal of annoyance when strangers use my first name uninvited. I was raised in the South and had it drilled into me that you DO NOT use someone’s first name without their invitation. To do so seems to me to be immensely disrespectful.

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  18. I taught at West Point for a year, and titles were more of a problem for colleagues. I had no rank as a civilian, hadn’t finished the PhD so wasn’t Dr. Everyone called me Mrs. husband’s-last-name, or Major husband’s-last-name’s wife even though we weren’t married when they met me and I didn’t take his name once we were.

    For students, everyone was either Sir or Ma’am. It was so much easier.

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  19. In my ideal world, no adults would use asymmetric honorifics with anyone. I do my small part by not expecting anybody to call me anything. I don’t tell undergrads specifically to call me Jeremy, but sign all my e-mails Jeremy and such. I do think it would be cool if it was a convention that professors and students all addressed one another as “Mr./Ms. [surname]”

    To be honest: if we were doing sociology confessions, I would admit to being a little judgmental of anybody in sociology who has a critical perspective on inequality and yet is vested in having students refer to them with titles suggesting a difference in social worth between those with Ph.D’s and those without.

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  20. I’m a white woman in my thirties, and although it says “Ph.D.” on my syllabi, I encourage students to use my first name.

    I mainly agree with Jeremy @20, although I also figure it’s easier to embrace first names when one has gender/race/class/age privileges. Getting student respect has been less of an uphill battle for those people. (No direspect meant, Jeremy.)

    To join the comment thread drift: I plead guilty to using first names in emails to people I’ve never met before. Didn’t do it before my Ph.D., but I guess I figure I’ve earned it now. To those whom it bothers: is it OK from some people (e.g. fellow sociologists) and not others?

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  21. I think I’m going to summarize this discussion for my students tomorrow. Still don’t know what to tell them to call me, I’ll probably just explain why it is a confusing issue. The tricky thing about US culture is that we have hierarchies but like to pretend that we don’t, so part of understanding the system is learning that your boss is still your boss even if you call your boss by first name. Ditto the prof. The other tricky part is that we are, in fact, multi-cultural, even when we don’t know it, and lots of times we are following different “rules” when we interact, but don’t know we are because the cues are too subtle.

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      1. Yes, this is one example. African Americans, along with other cultural groups, generally prefer to use titles, as well as to have age-related standards of politeness. One Black grad student refused outright to use my first name, saying that it was part of her culture and who she was to use titles. Just as it makes us uncomfortable when we notice that the men get titles and the women get first names, it makes me very uncomfortable to notice that the more affluent White students are calling me by first name, while the working class and minority students are giving me a title. That’s another kind of implicit hierarchy.

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  22. Coming from the UK to the US, I am also surprised by the bizarre faux-egalitarianism. If you are going to do it, like the Australians really do, everyone should be on firstnames. Either that or actually do titles and reserve first names for actual personal friends (not just colleagues). As a graduate student in the US, in my department there is a crazy anarchy where there is no convention and you are just supposed to guess, get it wrong, end up being inappropriate or mildly offensive through no fault of your own.

    Also, my theory about the dislike of “Dr” in the US is that the wider anti-intellectual culture stigmatizes the use of Dr by anyone who isn’t a “real” (medical) doctor.

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  23. For people who prefer titles, I respectfully suggest “professor” rather than “doctor,” even though doctor historically belonged first to the academy and only later to medicine. Professor is an ancient and honorable title that correctly reflects the teacher-student relationship. I also think it is not a good idea to force a public distinction between those with and without doctorates who are doing the same job in college classrooms because it makes it harder on lecturers/instructors who don’t have the doctorate.

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  24. Phil Cohen asks (@20) “at those places where senior faculty have all the power, why shouldn’t junior faculty refer to the fulls as “Prof.”? Right. When I come in to the office, I say, “Good morning, Associate Professor Smith.” and “How’s your class going Full Professor Davis.” I think I’ll go Italian and insist on being called Commendatore.

    Actually, I dislike “doctor,” and not just because for idiosyncratic reasons I have been hearing people call me that ever since I was old enough to understand what they were saying (usually they add a little “heh heh”). And not just because Henry Kissinger insists on being called doctor when he’s on TV.

    If first names seem too palsy-walsy, I’d go for Mr and Ms. They’re status neutral — they could apply to anyone.

    Anyway, I think it’s interesting that this thread is getting so many responses it may be rivaling the chimp cartoon.

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  25. I must confess that I think far less about this than I do email etiquette. I don’t mind what students call me (though I suspect that position is easier to maintain for a guy with a beard and deep voice — in short, for someone whose authority is rarely questioned). But I get annoyed when students send me emails that are, “could you send me the syllabus? i lost mine”

    No, “Dear X…” No capitalization, no greeting, so signature, nothing.

    I actually give a little speech to students at the beginning of the year about email etiquette when dealing with people you don’t know, don’t talk to frequently, or who are effectively your “boss.” The basic take-home message: write to them the way you would your grandmother.

    It rarely gets through. And it particularly irks me when the email question is something that could be found on the syllabus. But now I’m getting off topic and irrationally angry. So I will stop.

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  26. This has been a great thread. I summarized it for my students, pointing to the complex sociological issues it raised. We had fun. I told the students I’d figure out by next class what they should call me and to give their opinions in their comments. Several prefer Professor Woman. Others say they prefer first names but would go with the majority. One suggested I be Dr. Oldie, combining respect with more intimacy, and another more wittily voted for Queen Oldie.

    I pointed out to them that white kids reared to call older people by first names are in great danger of offending older Black or immigrant people by just assuming the first name. I know most older Black people would take offense at a White kid making that assumption, and advised them to err on the side of formality “the older, the darker, and the more female” the person being addressed is. I told them that I am aware of cultural differences and address Black people and immigrants more formally. I did not tell them that part of this is because of the older Southern custom in which Blacks of all ages were addressed by first name by Whites as part of racial hierarchy.

    The one thing I note in this thread is a tendency to “let the student choose.” I repeat my concern (which I told the class) that this sets up a hierarchy among the students, between those who feel enough sense of entitlement or ease to choose the first name and those who prefer distance and respect or who lack the sense of ease. This is very class-related and as our reading so far has been a lot of Lareau and Khan’s new book, we are very conscious of this.

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  27. FWIW, I found this as I was Googling around:

    “Using a scenario-based study amongst MBA students in 22 countries, we find that students in Northern Europe have a tendency to be more informal and address their lecturers with their given name. Academic titles such as Dr. or Professor are more common in other countries, including the USA.

    “Gender-based options such as Madam/Sir and Mrs/Mr followed by the family name are especially popular in France, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey. Some gender differences in preferred ways of address are also apparent: students are rather more likely to see a male teacher as a professor and are more inclined to use the given name for female teachers. Male students in particular appear to make some level of distinction in the way they address male and female teachers.”

    JSTOR had an anthro article from 1972. And Eszter had a post at CT four years ago, mostly about gender and terms of address among colleagues, not student/teacher.

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  28. Re race and gender and titles … Having worked on faculty issues on several campuses, I commonly find that faculty of color and women feel less respected by their colleagues and their students that white male faculty do. Perhaps this is because students treat them with less respect by not using titles with them. It is for this reason that think it is important to advise students to call faculty Professor X unless invited to do otherwise. A lot of us, including me, have commented that we don’t really care what students call us or that we even prefer first names. Fine. But I still think it is worth having students think about how an uninvited use of first names might feel to a person who already feels like they are in a chilly environment. And frankly, if Jay Livingston is right that male students do address male and female faculty differently that is a problem.

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  29. I have also recently arrived from the UK to go to grad school over here and can’t understand why anyone would go through all those years of grad school just to want to be referred to as “Mr.” or by their first name. The whole reason I came to America for a PhD and (I hope) a job in an American uni is so that I would immediately then be Professor X whilst my friends back in Britain would merely be Dr. And if I was ever back in Britain for a conference and was introduced as “this is Dr. X” I could politely inform them that actually it’s [i]Professor[/i] X. Then provided I kept quiet about being at an American uni, they would all be dazzled by how brilliant I must be to be so young and yet already a Professor.

    (I also am pursuing a PhD in part so that if ever I am in a public place and catastrophe strikes so that someone must shout out “is there a doctor here?” I can confidently put my hand up and answer their call.)

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  30. I make my students (besides grad and the undergrads that work closely with me — who aren’t also in class with me) call me Prof. I think, for me, this is an issue of student age. My Intro students (large sections or small) have at times been inappropriate in their address of me. I’ve gotten “hey girl” or “lady.” I don’t make a fuss over Mrs (I am married — though prefer Ms.) or other nicknames (like “Teach” which I get a lot). But the “girl” does bug me.

    On the other hand, my older students (300 or 400 level) don’t present any issues like this. When I taught as a grad student, I went by my first name and never had respect issues. I would like to go by my first name with older students, but I follow the norm of the department. I already buck the norm a bit by letting grads call me by my first name.

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  31. I’m sorry to have missed this great thread because I was away last week. Interesting discussion indeed! I think the class, race, age, and gender issues raised are all apt. I find that some undergraduates just assume they can call me “Andrew,” while others assume “Dr Perrin” or “Prof Perrin”. Almost invariably, those who don’t assume “Andrew” are the ones I will likely end up inviting to call me “Andy.”

    @20.jeremy: I do not think it’s about differential “worth” but about acknowledging differential status and achievement. Calling everybody by their first names doesn’t eliminate hierarchy, it just represses it.

    One of my favorite items on this subject: http://perrin.socsci.unc.edu/stuff/cronin-tyranny-democratic-manners.pdf

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  32. 35 male was once a student.
    Gifts create obligations. It’s not etiquette.
    If I give someone the gift of referring to them by title, they have different obligations to me than if I present someone with the gift of familiarity (lack of title).

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  33. This has been very interesting and I’d like to add a twist to this discussion. For those who have Ph.D’s and children – what do you have other children call you? What do you have your children’s teachers and scout leaders, coaches, etc. call you? I help out in my daughters’ classrooms and I always call the teacher by her appropriate and preferred title, Mrs. X. Also their girl scout leaders require the girls to call them “Mrs. Y” and “Mrs. Z”. I strongly prefer Dr. to Mrs. but I do not know if etiquette allows me to insist on this title outside of my work. What do you think? Can I ask to be referred to as “Dr. G” or do I need to learn to accept “Mrs. G”. Beyond the “I worked x years to earn this title” argument, I am also compelled to go by my Dr title so that children can see that women are doctors too.

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