On Titles and Respect

Sierra’s recent post, “Oh, ‘Brother,’” made me think about just what I was taught to call adults growing up. Sierra writes that in her church she was encouraged to call other church members “Brother This” or “Sister That.” We, in contrast, did not do that. I don’t think my parents would have seen that as respectful, actually.

My parents required us to always address adults with the titles “Mr.” or Mrs.” followed by a last name. If it was a fairly young adult, we might be allowed to use the titles “Mr.” or “Miss” followed by a first name. “Miss Sarah,” for instance. This usage actually included the teenage babysitters we had when we were young. Anyway, using these titles was a requirement; to not use them was considered disrespect.

This created some problems. In middle school I was briefly involved in our church’s youth group – a short lived experiment – and the youth minister insisted on being called by his first name. I was, however, specifically forbidden from calling adults by their first names. When I needed to ask him something I therefore used the title “Mr.” The result was that he completely ignored me as he apparently did anyone who refused to call him by his first name.

Similarly, one of my younger aunts was distinctly uncomfortable with us using the title “Aunt.” She just wanted to be called by her first name, at least by us older children, and she requested as much. We were not allowed to comply. We went right on calling her “Aunt Such-and-Such” regardless.

I think part of the reason these sort of titles were considered so important was that they created a strong boundary between “adults” and “children.” It segregated the two into two distinct groups, with children in need of training and adults deserving of respect and obedience. It made sure that the lines between children and adults could not be forgotten.

And I think that in some way adults like that youth minister or my aunt actually want to blur that line in some way by rejecting the use of such titles. The youth minister wanted to be approachable and available to the young people he ministered to, wanted to be seen as a friend and confidant rather than a distant or authoritative adult. My aunt wanted a relationship with her nieces and nephews that was built on companionship rather than authority or hierarchy.

I think the divide between adults and children is often too distinct and artificial, especially as children approach adulthood. After all, dividing the world strictly into “children” and “adults” ignores the fact that there is a great deal of difference between a two-year-old and a sixteen-year-old, and a great deal of difference between a twenty-tw0-year-old and a fifty-year-old.

One area where I try to break down that strict divide is in my own mothering. I see myself as my daughter’s guide, not her commander. I want a relationship with my daughter based on love and trust, not authority or hierarchy. And, as my daughter grows older, I plan to give her more and more freedom, autonomy, and say in her life. I don’t want her to see the world in terms of “us” verses “them,” but rather in terms of people of all sorts of different shapes, sizes, ages, talents, and abilities.

And yet I do ask Sally to call me “mommy.” Sometimes she calls me by my given name, because she knows it, and I don’t make a big deal out of it when she does. What I encourage her to call me, though, is “mommy.” Why? Because, I tell her, anybody can call me “Libby” but only she can call me “mommy.”

What do I have Sally call other adults? Well, in many ways it depends on what those other adults want or are comfortable with. I don’t have a problem with her calling our friends by their first names, but if they prefer otherwise, I let her know what they want to be called. And Sally is still young, so this is something I haven’t completely worked out yet. I do know, however, that I definitely won’t be requiring her to use “Mr.” or Mrs.” with every adult she comes in contact with.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://phoenixandolivebranch.wordpress.com Sierra

    Interesting! My church used to argue that people who went to church together and used their last names were cold, formal and distant. But just you try to address the pastor’s wife once without using “Sister” and you’ll see how totally bogus the effort was in practice.

  • kagekiri

    I went to a Chinese Christian church, so we basically translated the normal way to greet elders in Chinese (susu and aiyi, meaning uncle and aunt) into English. Most adults were “Uncle (first name)” or “Aunty (first name)” to any kid, regardless of their lack of actual blood relationship. Only pastors were called by something else, which was “Pastor (first name)”.

    That made it really awkward to transition to addressing non-Chinese adults, because my instinct was to stick an Uncle or Aunty in front of their names. Even now, as an adult, it’s weird to just call people of my parent’s generation by their first names.

  • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

    I taught my kids that it’s polite to call adults what they want to be called. That’s why they call adults (variously) Miss Jenny, Ben, Mr. Tom, Aunt Amy, and Mrs. Smith.

    • Conuly

      Exactly this. The default our family uses is Mr. or Ms. Firstname, but if they specifically request something else then we defer to their wishes. It’s impolite to call people something they don’t like.

      Ignoring young children who call you a more respectful term than you like (or a less formal term, but do so politely) is ALSO rude, though. Young children are bound by many often conflicting rules and aren’t good at switching registers like adults are.

      • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

        I’ve just always asked the person their name and whatever they tell me is what I call them. So if they tell me “ms blah”, I call them ms blah. …etc.

  • Timid Atheist (@TimidAtheist)

    While growing up my parents always told us to be polite to our teachers and to adults, but that respect was not something that was to be automatically given.

    My ex and his family force my child to respond with ‘yes, sir or ma’am’ to everyone. I dislike it intensely because it’s forcing hir to do verbal bowing and scraping. I find it demeaning and rather sickening when ze’s reminded by them. I’ve told hir that that ze only has to say sir and ma’am if ze’ll otherwise get into trouble for not saying it. I absolutely prefer mom, mother, mommy and remind hir often, but don’t berate hir if ze forgets. Ze gets enough of that at home.

    • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

      I said “yes ma’am” to someone only once in my life, and it was because it was a crazy person who I thought might come and beat the crap out of me if I didn’t placate them.

      Also i appreciate you not assigning a gender to your child. I wish my parents would have done that for me.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Rilian, are you the same RIlian who just posted on Khaos Komix last page? I love finding out people who I know form one place in another web space.

      • Timid Atheist (@TimidAtheist)

        Ack, Rilian, I hope you weren’t harmed in that interaction.

        My child is actually cis, at least I think ze is. I’m using the neutral pronouns for a more selfish reason. Hir father doesn’t know I’m an atheist and he would use it against me to take hir away from me. But now that I’ve seen your comment, I’m going to continue to use neutral pronouns no matter what.

      • http://riliansrlog.blogspot.com Rilian

        Paula, yes, I posted on khaoskomix : )

        Timid atheist, I’ve heard of that happening, if the judge is religious. I hope it doesn’t happen to you.

  • Gordon

    I strongly dislike being called Mr or Uncle. I have a name.

  • Kat

    I don’t ever recall my church addressing this growing up (I mean, we called the priest “Father” and the nuns “Sister,” obviously, but with CCD teachers they just all kind of had their own preference, some were “Ms./Mr. ____” and others just went by their first names. My parent’s, however, always taught us that we should first address adults as “Mr./Ms. ______” unless they gave us permission to call them by their first name (which most did), and same with our Aunts and Uncles (the ones I’m closest too, I’ve always just called by their first names). It wasn’t anything that phased me too much growing up, but when I was older and started attending a liberal Quaker meeting, anything that would signify any sort of hierarchy was intentionally not used for the sake of promoting and emphasizing equality (which is a practice that I, for the most part, understand and agree with). I know I would never except a child to call me “Ms.” anything, and while my niece sometimes chooses to call me “Auntie Kat,” I’ve always presented myself to my nieces and nephews as just “Kat.”
    I don’t have children yet, but when I do, I won’t require or encourage them to call me “Mom” or any of it’s variations, but I won’t discourage it either.

  • Froborr

    There is a fundamental right–possibly *the* most fundamental right, because without it it’s hard to exercise any of the others–to define your own identity for yourself. That in turn creates a responsibility to address people however they wish to be addressed.

    To be honest, I think that should be the only factor in addressing people. If Bob wants to be called Bob, Ms. Guiterrez wants to be called Ms. Guiterrez, and His Royal Majesty the Grand High Poobah of Funk wants to be called HRMGHPF, then that is what I will call them. What difference does it make to me?

    • Conuly

      I refuse to habitually call anybody by a name greater than 7 syllables. I’ll run out of breath! That *does* make a difference to me.

      Fortunately, there are so many ways of speaking to somebody without ever using their name.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I really appreciate that because I’m very bad with names. In fact I spent a month abroad when I was a teenager with a mother and her two daughter and I didn’t learn their names until the last two days…

    • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

      I think there are some exceptions. Some things that someone could ask to be called could be offensive. Like, I’m not going to call someone “master”. That’s gross. …. unless that’s actually the name their parents gave them… in which case it’s a totally different meaning, I guess?

  • machintelligence

    I think the whole title thing is best solved by using what I call the rule for seating dignitaries: you can seat them anyway you damn well please, because the ones that matter don’t care and the ones that care don’t matter. That being said, I really preferred to be called by my first name (or coach) rather than Mr. L—. Now that I have grey hair and bifocals, it doesn’t make me feel so old ( I am old), so it bothers me less than it used to.

  • http://polyskeptic.com Ginny

    I love your reason for encouraging Sally to call you mommy! It makes sense without making a big deal about it.

    As a child I was told to call adults Mr. and Mrs. unless they explicitly asked me not to. It felt really weird to me if an adult wanted to be called by their first name.

    Your youth pastor’s non-responsiveness reminds me of problems I and other homeschooled friends experienced, with youth pastors snubbing us in their effort to be “cool” and appealing to the majority of the teens. Being older, I realize that a lot of those youth pastors were practically kids themselves, and probably had no idea how to handle us, but it still stung at the time.

  • Caitlin

    I completely agree. In our area, the default is for kids to call adults Miss or Mr Firstname, but I prefer just my first name. I have my kids call other adults what they want–Mr. Joe, Aunt Miyoung, Mrs. Everett, or whatever, and I find it irritating when other parents consider it “disrespectful” for their children to call me what I want to be called! After I got my PhD, one of my daughter’s frends began calling me Dr. Emily’s Mom, which at least was funny.

  • Saraquill

    I’ve never done it, but I find it weird when married or otherwise committed couples are called “Brother” or “Sister.” It’s been explained to me that it’s not meant to be literal, but I still think that romantic pairs should not be referred to as siblings.

    • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

      I’ve heard of some language where the words for siblings and spouses are the same. And it makes sense because they are on the same level. Like, when you get married, you acquire more cousins and parents and nieces/nephews, and your spouse’s siblings are now your siblings, and your spouse is their siblings’s sibling, so it’s the same kind of relation, it would make everything fit together nicely if you were called sibling. I mean because it makes the relation of “sibling” be a class, except for being reflexive I guess. But normally your sibling’s sibling is your sibling also, unless it’s yourself. So my sister is married now, so her husband is my brother, so her brother’s brother should also be her brother! Does this make sense!?

  • JenL

    There is a fundamental right–possibly *the* most fundamental right, because without it it’s hard to exercise any of the others–to define your own identity for yourself. That in turn creates a responsibility to address people however they wish to be addressed.

    But when the person doing the addressing is a kid – yeah, sure, the 20-something youth pastor has a right to be called “Ben” if he wants it. Except that when a child knows that he or she will be punished, no exception, for actually addressing him as “Ben”, well… His identity and preferences need to give enough for him to actually *BE* a pastor to the child that’s been put in a bind. Refusing to acknowledge the child certainly doesn’t help.

  • machintelligence

    One interesting result of having your child call you “mommy” is that since lots of other moms do the same, when a preschooler yells mommy! in the grocery store, half of the mothers in the store look up.

    • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

      I think they can tell it’s not one of their kids, and they just look up out of concern or curiosity.

  • AshtaraSilunar

    The main reason for titles is to remind children to be respectful, I always thought. I was always horribly uncomfortable when an adult told me to call them by their first name. My parents never enforced “sir and ma’am”-ing, just told me that it was a nice gesture with older relatives, if I wanted to use it. They did insist that I refer to adults as either Mr. Smith / Ms. Smith or Aunt Jane and Uncle John. The latter only happened with close family friends, and the parents of my closest friends.

    It’s important to be called what you want to be called. But it’s also important to make the kids in question comfortable with being around you. Artificial familiarity isn’t relaxing; if the adult/child relationship is an important/ongoing one, I think it’s a good idea to sit down and come up with an option that everyone is happy with.

    With one of my German relatives, I used Tanta (Aunt) instead of the English version. For the family friend who disliked titles, we sat down and came up with “AnJane”. She was okay with the extra syllable tacked on, and it made me happier. There are plenty of forms of address that everyone can be comfortable with, but it requires listening to the child as well as the adult.

    • Elise

      Funny that you talk about Germany without talking about the informal and formal addresses. Basically, in many languages, there is a ‘you’ that you use for your buddies/kids/dogs/friends, and a formal address for work colleagues/elders/professional relationships. I always liked it because unlike America, where you treat people who wear uniforms as non-people, in Germany, you would still address the grocery cashier by the English equivalent of “ma’am.”

      I guess what I liked best about it is that it ignored class and favored respect for practical position. Even work colleagues whom you address formally at work would be informal at the bar after 5pm.

      • AshtaraSilunar

        Unfortunately, I can’t venture an opinion the German. My dad was born and raised there, but he never taught me to speak it. I never learned enough the formal forms of address. It’s an excellent point that a lot of languages are better suited to easy formality than English, though.

      • AshtaraSilunar

        GAH TYPOS. Sorry.
        Unfortunately, I can’t venture an opinion on the German. My dad was born and raised there, but he never taught me to speak it. I never learned the formal forms of address. It’s an excellent point that a lot of languages are better suited to easy formality than English, though.

  • Jeremy

    I called my parents by their first names until my sister came along when I was 12, and I decided SHE should hear me call them “Mama” and “Daddy.” There were emotional incest problems with that in my case, but in general I think if the kids want to call their parents by their first names, it’s perfectly fine. Kids and parents aren’t equals, but they are equals in their personhood. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have a problem being called “Daddy” by my child; it’s really up to them as far as I see it.

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      My step cousin calls his parents by their given names and his maternal grandparents Mama and Papa because when he was little he spent more time with them and he has a great relationship with his mother.

  • http://very-important-blog.blogspot.com Rilian

    So did you actually ask your parents about these adults who wanted to be called something else, and your parents said you weren’t allowed to call them what they wanted to be called?

  • http://thisbitchwontshutup.blogspot.com EEB

    Hmmm…I actually like to use honorifics and titles with older people or people in authority. I think it shows respect. No, you don’t have to obey every adult you come into contact with, but I try to show respect for their lived years and experience. It bugs me when people my age (I’m 26) and younger have a forced familiarity…I think we’ve lost something by not teaching kids to hold off on addressing people informally until you have that relationship. It’s not about upholding authority, I think, just good manners. I always refer to my professors as “Dr.” or “Professor” unless specifically asked not to, and I usually use “sir” and “ma’am” (or Mr. and Ms.) with older people I meet, again until they ask to be called by their first name. Frankly, I hate it when people push their way into first name usage…this new thing where store clerks try to call you by your first name (“Thanks for shopping, Erin!”) bugs me to no end, or when a doctor or other professional goes straight to using my first name. No, I’ll call you “Dr.” and you can call me “Ms. B–” until we’ve established that relationship, okay? Respect. Manners.

    Of course, manners also means that you listen to what someone asks to be called. It would be rude to keep using a title with somone who asks to be known by their first name. Guess your parents ignored that bit. :)

    And everyone knows that one of the most *disrespectful* things you can do is call a woman “Ma’am” when she *clearly* wants to be “Miss So-and-So” or “First Name”.

  • Sarah

    I absolutely hate it when I’m at work ( I work in retail) and a complete stranger calls me Sweetheart (especiallyif it’s a guy). To me it’s like they’re saying that they see me as someone who is child-like because I am young and female, and therefore do not think of me as someone to take seriously.

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    I find the post interesting coming from a culture which a very different view on titles. Titles or using Mr/Mrs is uncommon in Sweden nowadays but it was common up until the 1960. Interestingly the switch is linked to one man and one event. A man leading a government agency called Bror Rexhed wrote a memo to his staff asking them to not use titles and instead call him by his first name and use the familiar pronoun ‘du’ (equal to old fashioned English ‘thou’). This became national news and many people and workplaces saw this as a good idea and it spread very fast. Me being born in the 1980s have never really used Mr/Mrs other than as a joke to address people.

    One reason I think this spread so fast is that unlike German Swedish used familiar ‘du’ and avoided pronouns for more distinguished people and did not a formal pronoun like in German and speaking to someone you didn’t know could be challenging. You had to repeat Mr/Mrs/title X everytime you would use you or rephrase yourself so that the sentence did not contain a pronoun.

    I work as a teacher in adult education and sometimes I have foreign students who feel deeply uncomfortable calling me by my first name and I will allow them to call me Ms H* but I feel weird when they do and I expect people in general to use my first name and the politeness comes from other ways of showing respect.

  • ArachneS

    When I was growing up we were told to use Mr and Mrs/Miss with all adults, yet there was one adult, my godmother actually, who was my moms friend and insisted openly and front of my parents that we call her by her first name. I remember bringing it up to my mom and she told us aside that its okay to call her by her first name in order to be polite and honor her wishes. So I guess my parents weren’t as hard line on that, although it never would have occurred to us to call mom and dad by their given names.

    By the time I went away to college however, the habit of calling all adults in authority positions by titles (Mr, Mrs, Miss) was really hard to break. When the professors requested we call them by their first name, I would stress about it. Not only that, I would constantly wonder whether to title female professors Miss or Mrs(I dont know why I didn’t just default on prof… ) , in my family using Ms was condoning the feminist movement, and feminist was a dirty word. Eventually I did end up using Ms, it was just too confusing.

    • Elise

      Hahahahahaha–I am a young prof, and I hate hierarchies. Students (especially first-generation college students) have such a hard time in college anyway that I saw it as my responsibility to help them navigate it, and to be approachable.

      I actually have a different last name than my husband. I prefer to go my Ms. T*, but it doesn’t bother me to be Mrs. W*. Attempting to teach the concept of ‘Ms’, however, to ESL students can be hard.

  • Eclectic

    My first French teacher liked to be called by her first name, so we used “tu” everywhere in class. My second French teacher, at a different school, was most offended by this habit, and it was rough for a few days until I learned to use “vous” consistently.

    I always called my parents by their first names, on the grounds that “if I get lost and call for “mommy!, every woman in the supermarket is going to turn around.” Later in life, I made the argument that it makes them seem one-dimensional, like calling “waiter!” or “taxi!”. My parents have other aspects than being my parents.

  • Karen

    In the department where I completed my M.S. degree last year, all faculty stressed that they wanted to be called by their first names. I don’t know if this is common or was just an artifact of this small department; it was certainly unusual at this university. Graduate students could handle it just fine, but undergrads struggled. They’d been calling their teachers Mr./Ms. Lastname, and were having enough trouble just transitioning to Professor Lastname. Now they come into a department where everybody is just Bob, Jon, Ellen, etc…. and while these faculty are friendly and generally accommodating, they grade just as hard as those “Professor” people in other departments!

  • http://noadi.etsy.com Noadi

    The only time as a kid I was required to call an adult “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms” etc. was in school. My mom is a teacher so I knew some of my teachers outside of school but most I always called by title and last name. When later I started substitute teaching for a couple years I found it hard to shift my thinking to talking to my former teachers as fellow adults. I’m glad I didn’t have that problem with most of the other adults in my life that I knew as a kid.

    I don’t call my parents or grandparents by their first names, even now, but I don’t think they would mind except maybe Gram and all my aunts and uncles were pretty ambivalent to whether I tacked “Aunt” or “Uncle” onto their names (the only time I do now is when talking about them and I need to differentiate from someone else with the same first name). The only exceptions to that I can think of are my great-aunts and great-uncles who were still alive when I was a kid, it would have been disrespectful to not call them Aunt or Uncle because they were from my grandparent’s generation expected it, and in any case they were in their 70s and 80s so they deserved that level of consideration even if I didn’t understand why at the time.

  • Karen

    I also still get freaked when my 40-year-old step-niece, my 40-year-old nephew, and my nephew’s 40-year-old girlfriend call me “Aunt Karen”… but if they’re comfortable with it, who am I to disagree??? Still it makes me uncomfortable. I may have a chat with “Uncle Mike” (my spouse) and we may issue a proclamation that only the children of the second generation are authorized to call us “Aunt” and “Uncle”. The first generation are waaaay too close to us in age…

  • Jessica

    With only one exception that I can think of, my mom has always made my sisters and me call adults either Ms./Mr. Firstname or Mrs./Mr. Lastname, or Aunt/Uncle Firstname, if we’re particularly close. In high school, a few of my teachers were okay with students calling them by just their last names, but that was rare. I’m going to be eighteen in less than two months, and I’m still incredibly uncomfortable calling any adults I meet (in person, at least; I know a /lot/ of adults of various ages online) by just their first name, even if they’re relatively young or if they request it.


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