En(title)ment

Hi, all! Hope everyone is having an awesome holiday season. The new year is fast upon us, and I sure hope everyone finds some joy in the upcoming seasons and that you’re able to accomplish your goals.

I’m waxing a bit pensive on a Saturday.

I was having a conversation with some of my female academic colleagues last week and one of them (I’ll call her X) brought up something that I’m sure may resonate with some of you, though perhaps you hadn’t really considered it or unpacked it.

X does a lot of research in her fields, and she sometimes gets requests from grad students who are working in the same fields. That’s standard academic networking. It’s perfectly reasonable for grad students to contact professors and/or researchers with questions about their work, regardless of where in the world said professor/researcher is.

At any rate, X responded to this graduate student, who is male (let’s call him Y). He had said that he was a doctoral candidate, which means he’s not a full Ph.D. yet and in academese, that means he’s not yet earned the title of “Doctor of Philosophy,” which gets shortened to “Dr.” No, it doesn’t mean you’re an actual medical doctor. But in the hidebound halls of academia, it’s a title that carries weight, because it means you’ve completed the rigors of graduate school and written your dissertation and successfully defended it. A dissertation, for those not in the know, is a book-length manuscript based on your own research and hypothesis.

This is no small feat. It’s often a lot of years of hard work, often balanced with your other life or lives. Grad school is sort of like academic boot camp, and it tears you down in many different ways. It re-shapes you, it forces you to think in different ways, but it ironically also enforces certain stereotypes. For those of you who assume that academia is some bastion of liberal and progressive thought, sorry. It’s not. It is often inflexible, hierarchical, and full of the -isms that you assume don’t exist there. It’s hard work, especially if you’re LGBT, a woman, if you’re not white. But those, my friends, are conversations for another day.

Back to the story.

So, because Y is not yet a full doctorate with title rights, if you will, X responded to him in her professional way by calling him “Mr.” + [last name] since an M.A. degree doesn’t grant the title “Master.” Fortunately. Cuz that sounds creepy.

With me so far? Okay. Carry on.


As you navigate the world, some habits should not die. In many circles and contexts, those habits include referring to people to whom you have not been introduced by a title and surname. I learned that habit as a child. I never presume familiarity unless the other party to whom I’ve been introduced tells me to call him or her by a specific name sans title.

This habit demonstrates to the person I’m addressing that I am not one to make presumptions or assumptions about his or her “station in life” and that I am attempting to establish equal and hopefully mutually respectful footing between us in the use of formality. It demonstrates that I am providing to this person a measure of formality and respect to privacy and leaving the person a choice as to whether or not he or she will grant me further familiarity.

I have also established an early, professional boundary when I use a title with someone. And it demonstrates that I expect the same professionalism in response.

Some people obviously don’t grant you that level of familiarity, and that’s fine. That’s their prerogative, if they wish to maintain formality. But others violate that early boundary you set. Intentional or not, it’s a breach of etiquette and can say other things about how the other person perceives power and wishes to wield it.

So.

Y responded to X, but he called her by her first name only. Keep in mind these two people have never been formally introduced. X used the title “Mr.” in her response to him because she is recognizing a professional level of interaction and establishing that as a ground rule. Which Y broke.

Y is, after all, also fully aware that X is a full Ph.D. He has read her books and articles, after all, and she is currently a high-ranking academic-type official. In other words, there’s no way he doesn’t know what her title is.

Yet he did not use it, which is — at least in academia — unprofessional at the very least, and rude. But it also carries another meaning, and that’s something else my colleagues and I were talking about.

If X had been a man, Y most likely would have used his title, which is “Dr.” Y didn’t even deign to refer to X as “Ms.” No, he went straight for the first name only.

Now, perhaps there’s a generational thing going on here. X is in her late 40s and Y is probably in his late 20s. For older generations — ESPECIALLY those in the tightly wound hallowed halls of stodgy academia (and I say this with affection, since I, too, was an academic) — titles mean something and they indicate not only something about the person who bears the title, but also about the person who uses it or doesn’t.

Titles are not just a recognition of the work that you have done to achieve your position/status in academia. They are also indicators of manners and professionalism on the part of those who use them.

Y doesn’t know X. He’s never met her. But he’s read her work and he admires it. Yet he refused to call her by her title and instead presumed a familiarity with her that she certainly did not grant.

X was irritated by this breach of etiquette, but more importantly, she recognized it for what it could also be, because we all realized that chances were, had X been male, Y would most certainly have used her title and would never have considered taking such a liberty as a first-name basis with her. Because that’s what he did. He took a liberty that he most certainly was not granted. titles

Another colleague who was engaged in the discussion noted that this happens all the time to her (she’s a full professor and the head of a department), where male graduate students will contact her with questions about her work and they will address her by her first name only.

I recently addressed the gender of language in a post I did about cursing. There’s an assumption that women shouldn’t (and don’t) swear, and if they do, it’s because they’re somehow “bad” woman.

How language is used, as much as what is said, can denote power and/or attempts to take power and establish dominance. This is as old as language, friends. We all operate within social hierarchies, sadly. Using a title with someone you don’t know is a way to establish mutually respectful footing, as well as to maintain certain boundaries. But when someone breaches that boundary and appropriates an intimacy with you that you did not invite, it’s kind of creepy and, in some contexts, it’s a power-grab.

As we talked about this incident, X didn’t think that Y deliberately set out to undermine her authority by using her first name only. But somewhere along the line, he’d learned that it was okay to do that, and to presume a familiarity that she did not invite. Perhaps it’s the anonymity of the Internet, “democratizing” everyone. But we’ve seen how the internet is wielded against women and others who are traditionally marginalized.

And if you think about it, it’s also just plain bad manners to assume a familiarity that you have not been granted.

The point here is, whether you’re male or female, do not presume that you can just randomly call people by their first names in unfamiliar contexts. Especially if the person you’re meeting is maybe older and has certain expectations regarding social niceties and/or is someone whose expertise you are seeking. In terms of academia, as John Garger noted in 2013 at BrightHub, “The one rule you should always remember when addressing someone who has completed the study and research necessary to be called Dr is assume a formal address unless otherwise directed by the individual.” addressing

Neuroscientist and Lecturer Tom Harley over at his blog, Thermaltoy, did a survey about proper email etiquette to academics. He discovered that the majority agreed that using a title is a good professional approach. One commenter noted, “… an incorrect approach just reads as slapdash and lazy – not the kind of impression you want to make” while another said, “I’m not offended by over-familiar language, but it makes me think twice about the student/applicant — it suggests to me that they’re not taking the email exchange/position advertised seriously, and THAT is what concerns me.”

In other words, if you’re seeking someone’s expertise, maintain professionalism, and establish that boundary early. Most people will let you know whether they prefer a title or not. And many people who carry a title and prefer professional distance will also address you respectfully, as well, and use something like “Ms.” or “Mr.” if you’re, say, still a grad student and don’t have any other titles.

Etiquette, in other words, is about coming across in certain ways and also about respecting the other person’s autonomy in the world and not breaching boundaries over which you have not been invited.

Manners, friends. They’re not just for old people. Heh.

On titles, via Emily Post
Robert Hickey (who is, like, MR. Protocol) on titles
Good post on the inappropriateness of what Y did
Good tips for writing emails to academics (can be extrapolated to others)
More on that

On the less-than-liberal/progressive halls of academia:
Stories by women academics
In science
More on science and academia
Students more likely to give male online professors better reviews than female
Writing about sexism in academia
On language and power
Language and gender
Brief piece in The Guardian about how students of different backgrounds learn the language of bullying.
Racism in academia
Book review about women of color in academia (facing both sexism and racism)
On racism and sexism in academia

source

Heh. More than you needed to know, right? 😀

Happy Saturday!

13 thoughts on “En(title)ment

  1. Thanks for the great article. Manners do matter. And even if they don’t matter to you they may be very important to the person you’re addressing. Honestly, manners don’t hurt to use and you never know they just might help.

  2. We’ll said, Andi. I agree, Y referring to X with her first name was inappropriate and a power grab on Y’s part.

  3. Manners do most certainly matter, Andi! But what did X do?? Did she allow the transgression to go unaddressed? I hope not, because if she did, she becomes part of the problem. Whether it was gender-related or a generational thing, it was a teachable moment. As for your other colleague who is a full professor and head of department, I would not even bother to respond to those who couldn’t address me properly! In my field of physical therapy, we moved to an entry-level DPT degree several years ago, but it is an ENTRY-LEVEL degree!!! It does not come with the years of work and dissertation that a Ph.D. requires and I will not address anyone with a DPT as “Dr.”

    • Hi, Caren! No, X did not allow it to go unaddressed. She did a follow-up email with the info he requested and then told him that in the future when addressing people to whom he had not been formally introduced, it was best to use a title unless the party said otherwise, as not doing so seems unprofessional and lazy. She also supplied a couple of links about proper etiquette when addressing academics. You’re right. It’s a teachable moment. But it could go either way. In other words, he might just dismiss her again as some “harpie bitch.” We all know how THAT goes. But still. We can hope. 🙂

      As for addressing physical therapists, I still use “Mr.” and “Ms.” unless told otherwise. And speaking of medical professionals, it bugs me when a doctor I don’t even know comes to deal with my situation or health check-up or whatever and calls me by my first name without formal introduction. I mean, I do him or her the courtesy of using “Doctor” with them. The least they can do is call me “Ms.” back! HA! ::cranky old lady tone::

      • Hey, Andi, I am SO glad to hear that X took advantage of the opportunity to educate Y, even if he dismisses her advice. And I take a page from your book, never addressing my patients by their first names until I’m asked to. It feels patronizing and dismissive for medical professionals to presume to address patients by first names until some kind of relationship has been established. Thanks for an excellent blog!

  4. Great blog. It always feels to me like most of my peers (just turning 50ish) assume the relaxed first name familiarity, but that my mother would reach all the way from Kansas and slap me silly if I did. And she can read my mind (still, heh) so she might. Thanks for the thoughtful sharing of your pensive waxings!

  5. This is one of things that make Europeans consider, ‘in general’, Americans rude. Once upon a time – shortly after our ‘velvet revolution’, we had a couple of ‘Peace Corps’ people in our town. I was in charge of Douglas whom we had in our District Office. They went through six months of language and cultural course first, but it didn’t, in his case, helped at all. I had to take him to visit companies, factories, events, but I couldn’t teach him to be, at least, a little bit decent. Beginning with addressing. And people got outraged and I got repeatedly asked why I don’t teach him some good manners… Maybe because he was from South and I was a woman? I just hope he wasn’t a typical sample of an American, because those three months I spent with him in my office were the longest months of my life. You should see him – after I went through formal introductions with a head of a company, with all the titles, patting the director on the shoulder with ‘hi John’! And at official dinner eating half laying on the table and so on and so forth.

    • I’d argue that this is an exception, not a rule. And a lot of Southerners (I assume you mean this man was from the American South?) are actually very polite, using “sir” and “ma’am” quite a bit. I will say that in this gentleman’s case, clearly he needed much more than a 6-month course. I’m guessing he did feel quite a sense of entitlement that he could behave so informally and offensively. His behavior was clearly out of line and perhaps his personal work superiors should have been brought in to deal with the situation. If they were, and this behavior continued, well, clearly there’s not much to be done with someone like this whose company enabled his impolite and culturally offensive actions. Sadly, when things like that happen abroad, people assume that “all” Americans are a certain way when that’s not really the case. Painting any group of people with a broad brush doesn’t resolve the issue, either. I don’t want to speak for my fellow Americans who may or may not be incredibly rude and culturally insensitive; I myself have experienced the rudeness and cultural insensitivity of Americans but also of people from other parts of the world. So though there may be some cultural patterns at play, some people are just assholes, no matter where they’re from. :/

      Sorry you had that experience. What a bad way to spend 3 months.

  6. Yes, those patterns… For example Germans are considered noisy and obnoxious – tourists are close to shouting when speaking among themselves. kind of unpleasant toward others. I was really surprised when I first visited Germany, that they are normal people, speaking in normal strength of voice in streets.
    As for Americans, (yes, I meant he was from south of US), I’ve met others since then and while they seemed to me more gregarious, jovial, friendlier at first meet than my countrymen, they ask to use first names before doing so and can’t be compared to my first, unfortunately close and longerm experience.

  7. Interesting topic indeed. Could it be more cultural than sexist?

    These are just my observations. When I moved to Australia I was all about using titles all the time (having grown up in a culture or may be just house hold that enforced that), particularly in the work place. But then I started noticing people here didn’t do that. The rule seems to be as follows:
    – Initial business correspondence (without previous introductions) is always formal. Following correspondence depends on how the person addresses his/herself in their signature; i.e. If their signature is just Sam Smith, then they are addressed as Sam, but if they sign as Dr Sam Smith, then they are addressed as Dr Smith
    – Face to face addressing depended on how the introduction was made. If someone was introduced as Dr or Minister (or whatever title they chose) use of the title continued until permission was given to move to first names. Having said that, I can honestly say this happened a handful of times only. 99% of the time people are introduced or introduce themselves as just Sam Smith (both male and female)

    As for the medical field, as a patient I have always been addressed as Mrs/Ms unless I knew the person socially.

    In Australia, it seems that hierarchy is understood and respected (at least most of the time) but always with an air of title neutrality. Thankfully, schools still enforce the use of Mr/Mrs/Ms when addressing teachers and parents but that rule seems to be dropped as soon as the “kids” enter the workforce. I do come a lot of parents who do not enforce this rule though.

    I’m curious as to how was Dr X addressed in the first correspondence and how does she address herself in her signature?

    • Howdy. Thanks for stopping by. Sexism IS cultural. Heh. And academia is notoriously sexist, sadly.

      The initial correspondence from Y was addressed to a general info email at X’s current position. He stated he was looking for X (first name/last name). He explained that he had read her work and was seeking her expertise. The email was forwarded to her and she said she noticed that he had not included a title in the email. She thought perhaps he was uncertain what her title is, though any doctoral candidate writing to someone whose work they claim to have read will know what that person’s academic title is. She decided to set a professional boundary and address him in her response as “Mr. Y,” since he stated that he is a doctoral candidate (not a full Ph.D. yet). When he responded to that email from her, he referred to her by her first name only, even though she had clearly set a boundary by addressing him as “Mr.”

      Dr. X signed her initial email to him with her name and her position (she holds a directorship). When he responded to that “Mr. Y” email, he did not acknowledge her title (director) or the fact that she is a full Ph.D. (a fact he knows because he has read her work and her biographical information attached to her work and to her web information) and thus at least warrants a “Dr” if not “Director” in professional correspondence in which he is asking for her expertise with help in his own research.

      In my case, I always err on the side of caution and use titles when I am approaching someone professionally. ESPECIALLY online. Clearly, there are different contexts for interaction. Had X met Y at a professional organization cocktail party, for example, it’s doubtful either would have used titles and instead would have said first name/surname by way of introduction. This, however, was not a cocktail party nor was it a social gathering. As an aside, I never presume to use someone’s first name in a social gathering unless that person has stated for me to call him or her that name or introduces him/herself to me by first name only. It just seems safer, not to presume. I thus also err on the side of formal.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

  8. A very good article and the wide variety of responses below attest to the kind of sticky subject manners can be, especially when you throw suspected gender differences into the mix.

    I came across this problem myself quite recently. I have both a BA and MA degree, graduated with honours and was granted the title of College Scholar. Yes that does not grant me any official titles whatsoever but it should go toward even the shoots of mutual respect appearing in any relationship with a PhD graduate.

    I recently held a position in a research centre for a University, not my undergraduate or MA institution, and although not working toward a degree here I was representing the Arts amidst a monopoly of Engineering lecturers and PhD candidates.

    The head of the department was the point of contact for the research hub. Considering that I was working in close proximity to this woman, whose colleagues and students all addressed her informally, I felt as though we had broken down those walls of familiarity in the first weeks of my employment. We were making coffee together, having lunch together and even swearing in front of each other under the stress of launching the centre.

    As is most often the case with heads of departments she was frequently called to travel elsewhere and rely on e-mail to keep in touch. She addressed me by my first name, no ‘Ms’ or ‘Miss’ opening up the dialogue between us, regardless of the mail being particularly in-depth or a quick note.

    I noticed that even when under deadline to get something completed for her, with others dependent on my work coming through she would not respond. Another PhD candidate tipped me off that if you did not address her as ‘Dr.’ she simply does not respond.

    It seems to me that although there are indeed a lack of manners (mostly ignorance in my opinion) between undergraduates, independent scholars, PhD applicants and fully fledged warriors of academia, the prestige and entitlement can sometimes be taken too far.

    • Good point. Which seems to indicate that it’s important for a person to clearly establish boundaries and then to adhere to them. This professor you mention took a liberty with you by addressing you by your first name, which in many situations, leaves the addressee assuming that it’s okay to call the addresser by his or her first name.

      Having said that, there’s also an age thing here. That is, child versus adult. Going back to my high school days and elementary school days, I never referred to teachers by their first names though most referred to me by my first name. There was an implicit understanding of authority, and none of us thought twice about it. To this day (and I am many years out of high school), I still call those teachers I had who are still alive thus: “Mr. so-and-so.” “Mrs. so-and so.”

      Perhaps that’s the assumption the professor you mention here was operating under. “Surely,” she may have thought, “a student understands that I have the authority to call him or her by her first name and because I am a teacher/professor and thus vested with a certain authority, that student will understand to refer to me by my title.”

      Grad school, however, is a different animal. You’re not in high school anymore. You’re an adult, and thus have a certain authority your own self. Which makes it, I think, even harder and weirder to figure out boundaries between students and professors and whatever assumptions the professor had about titles, it wasn’t clear to you.

      And as a former academic, I can fully attest to the occasional steaming piles of foo-foo fa-fa (technical term) that litter the hallowed halls. And along with that comes the expectation to “respect mah au-thor-i-teh” at the expense of basic human interaction.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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