What Do People Call You?

Aaron W. California

Courtesy titles, like President, Doctor, Rev. or Mr., carry significant status. Have you ever noticed that students often call male professors by their title and last name, and female professors by their first name? In an individualistic society like the United States, the only way to truly know how people like to be addressed is to ask them. According to the article That’s “‘Doctor Instructor”’ to You, female professors often face challenges when it comes to being addressed by their proper title. In the article, it states that “recent studies show that college students tend to view women and minorities with less respect from the start, and that is often reflected in bestowing names, titles, or lack thereof.” Rebecca Schuman is one professor working to correct being addressed by the wrong title. For Schuman, the challenge is social pressure to “not to come off as uptight” when insisting on being called Dr. by students instead of by her first name. However, not all students are intentionally calling female professors by the wrong title. The article mentioned previously makes an important point that “the conventions for [titles]…are massively, overwhelmingly confusing.”

Did you ever stop to think that some of your instructors are not technically professors? According to Schuman, “at large research universities [in Australia], a lot of “professors” aren’t professors at all—they’re graduate TAs.” Although Schuman does in fact hold a doctorate degree, she states that “I myself feel rankled when someone who knows full well I have an earned doctorate refers to…me as Ms. Schuman.” However, not every female professor who holds a doctorate degree necessarily wants to be called Dr. or Professor. According to the article, at the University of Virginia, “there has been a tradition of professors with doctorates going by ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.'”Some female professors who hold a doctorate degree are apparently content with, and even prefer being referred to as “Ms.”

Not all students, according to Schuman, are being disrespectful when it comes to addressing female and male faculty. She states in her article two important points: 1) “most students…have no idea what to call us” and 2) “it’s up to us to let them know immediately” how to address us. In order to be addressed as Dr. Schuman, she has come up with a few ways to let students know what she prefers to be called. In her syllabus, she introduces herself by noting, “I’m Dr. Schuman.” Schuman understands that not every female or male instructor wants to be called Dr., like she does. She goes on to state that if males and females prefer to be called “Martika” or “Count von Count” that’s okay too, “whatever you want to be called.” Schuman hopes that society and students will one day catch up with regard to how to address professors. She goes on to state that students who intentionally are “willfully disrespectful will just carry on” and that “most students are truly, [and] understandably clueless as to what to call us.” Schuman empahsizes that for both male and female professors, when it comes to teaching students how to address them properly, they will simply have to “be patient while they [the students] figure it out.”

Karyn Hunts, a former reporter for a major newspaper, explains that formal titles for women can be sexist in nature. Hunts points out that formal titles for women come from a “time when a woman’s marital status cemented her place in society.” Take the title “Mrs.” as an example. The title Mrs. is used to signify that a woman is married and that she belongs to the man whose last name she holds, which some may view as diminishing her individuality. The Associated Press, Hunts explains, felt it appropriate that Lillian Disney, wife of Walt Disney, be referred to as “Mrs. [instead of Ms.] to show…deference to her late husband.” By referring to Lillian Disney as Mrs. Disney, the title Mrs. is sexist, in that it strips away her individuality and replaces it with a possessive title that means she belongs to her husband. The Associated Press, in response to the Lillian Disney title debate, went on to adopt a “courtesy title rule,” requiring that writers and reporters “ask all female sources if they preferred to be called Miss, Ms., or Mrs.” Hunts describes the “courtesy title rule” policy as “an outdated, sexist policy.” The decision to require women to identify their marital status merely helps to preserve the patriarchal tradition. Regardless of how women felt, if married, they must identify themselves as belonging to the man to whom they are married. Hunts explains further that “some women didn’t want to be identified as single for fear” of being accosted by someone because of their single status.

The phrase “ma’am” is, if used appropriately, a title of respect. However, women like Barbra Boxer prefer to be addressed like any other senator. Brigadier Gen. Michael Walsh, in an interview with Boxer, addressed her as “ma’am” out of respect. Boxer politely insisted instead on being addressed as “Senator” instead of ma’am. “I worked so hard to get that title. So I’d appreciate it.” Boxer is simply asking to be treated like any other senator, male or female, by being called Senator. In response to Boxer’s request, Brigadier General Walsh replied, “Yes, Senator.” Brigadier General Walsh graciously corrected his unintended error. The situation Boxer encountered with Brigadier General Walsh can be related to Schuman’s earlier statement that “most students…have no idea what to call us” and “it’s up to us to let them know immediately.”

Not all men and women in the same position, whether it’s in the academic world or not, wish to be addressed the same way. Schuman desires to be addressed as Dr. Schuman, and not by her first name. Yet for others, we have learned that calling them “Mr.” or “Ms.” is just fine with them. It’s good to be mindful of the sexist overtones that using certain courtesy titles can convey, but it’s really a personal decision what men and women want to be called. I think that the best way to show respect when it comes to addressing men and women is to honor their requests, just as Brigadier Gen. Walsh respected Senator Boxer’s request.



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