What’s in a Maiden Name?

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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108 Responses

  1. It seems to me that “maiden name” is one of those terms that we use without thinking of its etymology or literal meaning. But I guess you got a point. The challenge with wanting to change it is whether people will go along. If I had a CSR job that required me to verify people’s identity by asking for mother’s maiden name, I probably wouldn’t say “what is your mother’s original name?” because that would be confusing (even to those who now want to use “original name”). However, I suppose if enough people started a campaign, in 10 years time, “original name” might be a replacement. (As an aside, I’ll note that when one sets up a new credit card account, for example, one discloses the “mother’s maiden name,” so one can insert any word, and not necessarily the true original name. In many cases, one can change the “mother’s maiden name” field after the fact.)

    As for “Mrs.,” I imagine young people still call their elders “Mrs.” more as a sign of respect than as a presumption about their addressee’s marital status. It might be a class thing, where those less likely to be raised in middle class (by which I mean what others consider “upper middle class”) households and school districts. It’s not my place to tell you you should correct others or not, but I suggest you keep that in mind before correcting someone. It is possible, however, that it’s something they should know as a matter of professional development. Knowing the term that’s least likely to cause offense is a good thing to know.

    As for “Ms.” vs. “Miss,” those sound almost identical that it’s hard not to confuse one with the other. To me (a male), they both sound condescending, although “Ms.” less so. As someone who’s spent enough time in academe to hate calling people “Professor X” or “Dr. Y,” I would in an ideal world prefer “Mr.”/”Ms.,” but have found that “Ms. Y” strikes me as so cloying that I’m reduced to saying “Professor Y” when it’s a female, unless I’m on a first name basis. I still do “Mr. X” when it’s a male, unless I think the person’s ego can’t handle life without the honorific or unless, again, I’m on a first name basis.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      I don’t have a problem with people calling me “Ms. Woodhouse.”Report

      • I probably overthink these things, but one thing that bothers me about “Ms.” (besides how closely it sounds to “Miss”….the “s” in “Ms.,” as I know generally hear/use it, is only partially voiced) is the gender dynamic in the department in which I got my PHD, and perhaps in the Historical profession in general, although I don’t know the numbers for the profession as a whole.

        In my department, the men far outnumbered the women, and as a male, I sensed a certain male-chumminess with my male professors that didn’t seem to exist with the female professors. Simply positing an equality by insisting on a “Mr.”/”Ms.” distinction (when the situation wasn’t really all that equal in most other ways0 struck (and strikes) me somehow as a micro-aggression. But again, I’m probably overthinking this.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:


        I don’t think you’re overthinking it. While titles matter, we shouldn’t pretend that so long as we get them right, everything is hunky dory. It doesn’t matter if you* call her doctor to her face if you call her a bitch behind her back.

        * Proverbial youReport

    • P.S. (re: “Mrs.”): I’ll add that just because they might use “Mrs.” as a sign of respect doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right word to use. I just imagine that many younger people believe they are showing respect by saying “Mrs.”Report

  2. Caleb says:

    Off topic to the prompt questions, but I find it odd that college students address you by anything other than “Dr.” In my undergrad, I (and my classmates, to the degree I can recall) addressed every professor of both genders by “Dr.” In law school, every professor was “Professor,” unless he or she was a judge, then it was “Judge __” in class and “Your Honor” in moot court settings. Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss from student to teacher in a higher education setting seems a bit disrespectful to me.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to Caleb says:

      As an undergrad, I tried to call all my professors “Dr.,” except for the hippy dippy ones who insisted on being called by their first names and the professors in my French classes, b/c “Monsieur/Madame le docteur…..” was a bit too convoluted.

      As I wended my way through grad school, however, I came to realize they weren’t “doctors” at all, just a bunch of people who were trying to get a paycheck by minimizing their teaching duties and pushing the book project they’d been working on for years. They’re no worse than anyone else, but in my view they’re certainly no better, and in my opinion, now, not deserving of any more courtesy than that deserved by any human.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I never had any idea what credentials my undergrad professors had. I don’t know which were doctors and which were not. I’m sure I could have found out quite easily (they probably had all the appropriate letters after their names on the syllabus), but it just never occurred to me. Growing up, I don’t know that I ever called someone other than my medical doctor by anything other than Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss. That just didn’t seem to be the norm in my little social sphere. So it never occurred to me that it was important to do so elsewhere. This indicates that there are potentially different cultural values attached to these honorifics and titles and that what might often look like disrespect may simply be an expression of these different values/norms.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I don’t think medical doctors are any more or less entitled to a different honorific than PhDs (sorry, Russell). Both put in a good amount of time and study. Some more, some less. Some are devoted to mastering their field and their work, others are not.

        If anyone is to be selected for a special title (and it is arguable that no one should), I don’t see that medical doctors have a super special claim. I know a lot of academics do (and, as I suggest in the post, I note that it is most often prominent males who act most disdainful and do the “heh, heh, I’m not a real doctor, I’m just a simple academic).Report

      • Caleb in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        For me, it’s all about context. For example: I work with both active duty and retired military folks a fair bit. If there’s any group of people who are no better and no worse than the general population, and are merely working for a paycheck, it’s the military. (Most of them will admit as much.) But in a professional setting, I will always address the uniformed person by their rank, unless specifically told otherwise. It establishes formality and professionalism, and acknowledges their position within their institution. Outside work, I would not likely do so, and would find it odd if someone out of uniform insisted on being addressed by their rank.

        Same with educational institutions. Usage of formalities within the institution acknowledges position and professionalism, not deservededness. If I went around calling people what they deserved to be called, I likely wouldn’t have a job for much longer.Report

      • See? This is why we aren’t truly friends. Your patent disrespect for my academic superiority.

        In all seriousness (and perhaps, as I note elsewhere, this has to do with being raised around myriad college professors, all of whom I called “Dr.” and none of whom were in medicine), I would never dream of calling a PhD anything other than “Doctor.”Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        Although I must admit there is no name more infuriating to be called then when one of my kids’ doctors calls me “Mom.”Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        they probably had all the appropriate letters after their names on the syllabus

        Only if they were insufferably pretentious pricks. I know someone who puts “Dr. Smith, Ph.D” on shkler syllabus, I guess just to hammer home the point of shkler superiority.

        As I wended my way through grad school, however, I came to realize they weren’t “doctors” at all, just a bunch of people who were trying to get a paycheck… and in my opinion, now, not deserving of any more courtesy than that deserved by any human.

        One of the most important things I learned in grad school.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Pierre Corneille says:


        If it helps, my kids’ doctor calls me dad.Report

      • @caleb Outside of work, almost everyone calls me either by my first name or “Dr. [Real First Name.” Even though I was raised to call adults by their last names with title and am raising my own kids to do likewise (unless instructed otherwise), I would find it somehow silly to insist on “Dr. Saunders” outside of my office.

        @rose-woodhouse Yes… yes, I can see how that sounds bad. *quietly resolves to stop doing this himself*Report

      • @jm3z-aitch Every so often I’ve been listed on some document or another as “Dr. Russell Saunders, MD” and it makes me wince. (It is never at my behest.) It reads as both “pretentious douche” and “stupid person who doesn’t understand redundancy and is stupid.”Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        @russell-saunders I have been tempted to reply, “Okay, I’ll do that, James’s doctor.” But have refrained, largely because a) I’m too wimpy, and b) they’d probably have no idea what was bugging me and therefore why I’d call them that.

        @jm3z-aitch Not really much reassurance. I’ve heard them call my husband that, too. Female doctors do it as well. What is annoying about Mrs. v. Miss is that you are being referred to in virtue of your relationship to someone else, without an intrinsic identity . Same with being called “mom.” I have a name, and if it is too difficult for the doctor to remember, she can either ask me, or just not say anything.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Pierre Corneille says:


        “…you are being referred to in virtue of your relationship to someone else, without an intrinsic identity…”

        This seems to be the crux of the matter. While I am eternally grateful to Mayo for giving me the opportunity to be a father and now recognize being a father as part of my identity, I am more than “Mayo’s daddy”. It is a part of me, but not all of me.Report

      • @rose-woodhouse Perhaps the reason it seems natural to use the “Mom” thing (which I really will try to stop now, never having realized that it was irritating to unknown numbers of my patient’s parents) is that both of us are there vis-a-vis a relationship with someone else. I’m not her doctor, I’m her kid’s. “Mom” feels more like a title, on par with “Doctor” to me. I refer to the child by name, but “Mom” somehow feels more respectful since she’s (in my opinion) my equal and why should I call her by her first name but expect a title for myself?

        Anyhow, I’m still going to try stopping.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        @russell-saunders I have no idea if it bothers anyone else. My guess is it doesn’t, and some may like it. When I visit the all the peds folks, I know we are there playing certain roles, and I am only there in virtue of being, say, James’s mother. You have a job, and that job is a doctor, and we traditionally call doctors “Dr. X” when they are acting in a professional capacity. I don’t expect my hairdresser to call me “Professor.” I don’t care all that much if my students do, but they usually do, and that seems expected. Yes, it is part of a relation to other people, but a generic relation, if that makes sense. That’s why it feels to me as if I should reply, “Okay, James’s Doctor” when she calls me “mom.”

        Although some of it may be just the power differential, not the generic-ness. I would certainly take it amiss if a doctor were to say, “Patient, I will put you on a course of antibiotics…”

        No one else calls me “mom,” even if I see them in virtue of my kid. Not teachers, not coaches, not their friends’ parents. Just medical professionals. To me, “Mom” is something my kids call me. I know I am also a “mom” and call myself such, but there’s a difference between being a mom and Mom.Report

      • I resolve henceforth to address all parents in my office as “Doctor Woodhouse.” Unless they object, in which case “Professor” it is.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

        I don’t think medical doctors are any more or less entitled to a different honorific than PhDs (sorry, Russell). Both put in a good amount of time and study. Some more, some less. Some are devoted to mastering their field and their work, others are not.

        Which is also true of many people who have only an undergraduate degree or none at all. But nobody gets called “doctor” for seven years of excellent work in industry, even if he has a body of work more significant than a typical doctoral thesis.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Caleb says:

      In order of what I am called, most to least frequent:
      1) Professor [no last name]
      2) Professor Woodhouse
      3) Prof
      4) Mrs. Woodhouse
      5) Dr. WoodhouseReport

      • Caleb in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Fascinating. I wonder if the difference can be chalked up to institutional culture and structure. (In reference to @pierre corneille, my undergrad didn’t have “hippy dippy” professors. Every professor also had at least one PhD, so I didn’t have @kazzy’s issue with proper credentials.)Report

      • When I was teaching it was
        (1) Professor
        (2) Vikram (which I encouraged)

        I don’t think I ever go anything else. The real-world equivalent of “Bath” is a really intimidating string of characters for students, so “Dr. Bath” or “Professor Bath” was never on the menu. Perhaps in e-mail I might have gotten a Dr. Bath or Professor Bath.

        Does your school have a lot of non-PhD faculty? I can understand that the students might have trouble keeping track of who does and does not have a PhD. I don’t think that anyone who says “Mrs. Woodhouse” intends to be disrespectful. In fact, I bet they think they are being especially respectful.

        I might suggest that if you meet some of these students out of class you gently explain to them that some people might feel offended if you don’t use their honorific title and that they should be aware of this as they go through school and later in their careers. Make it about them, not about you.

        Then you can explain what you prefer to be called.

        Perhaps it might also help if on the first day you say what you prefer to be called along with the title of the course. If you feel comfortable with it, you might even explain why “Mrs. Woodhouse” is not appropriate along with a smile.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        For the record, I am fully aware they do not mean to be disrespectful. I do not correct them. And it does not bother me to be called “Ms.” Or “Prof,” which I often am.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I admit, I defaulted to “Professor” when dealing with any faculty at a college. I guess it’s the ingrained habits of childhood — doctors are the folks in white coats with the needles, professors are the highly educated folks teaching you at a college.

        I suspect if I’d stayed in academics longer, I’d have probably started using “Dr” more often. As it was, I know a lot of folks with doctorates in the industry I work with, and none of them really use the term — but then, I normally meet them in meetings where formality isn’t a big deal.Report

      • Morat,

        That was pretty much my view growing up. Dr.’s take your pulse and prescribe medication while professors just do whatever they do. Then there’s the phenomenon of the “Ed.D.”

        (I remember, by the way, growing up in the 1980s and hearing about MLK and thinking he was actually a medical doctor.)Report

      • @caleb

        The hippy dippy professors are strange creatures. They affect a certain laid-backness, but when push comes to shove, they’ll insist on their professorial privileges just as much as the stuffed shirts do.Report

    • Caleb in reply to Caleb says:


      Yes, it’s interesting how people will frequently refer to medical doctors as “Dr.” outside of a professional setting (usually without any prompting by the doctor). There are a few other examples I can think of where this happens, but those are usually very high-status, politically conferred positions (Congressman, Senator, General, Admiral, Judge, ect.) But medical doctor is the only profession I can think of where solely being a member of the profession confers societal recognition by the use of honorifics in informal settings. This probably reflects the high regard that society holds medical doctors, but I wonder if that is all.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to Caleb says:


      Good point about context, and in my sober second thought, I probably agree that we shouldn’t (necessarily) call people what they deserve to be called. Not least of which because someone might call me what I deserve to be called. Context can be a weird thing. Perhaps when I was an undergrad in the mid 1990s, the context at my particular school made calling professors “doctor” more de rigueur than it would be now at the school I just graduated from.


      I, too, have noticed the dynamic where it’s usually the males who say “heh, I’m not a real doctor.” In fact, I’ve been known to say that and although I probably don’t have many academic aspirations, there’s a certain degree to which my ability to say that can reflect a certain amount of privilege on my part, especially if my saying it implies a certain judgment upon people who feel the need to put their academic credentials front and center. (And for what it’s worth, even though I put on the devil-may-care appearance that no one must know of my degree….the fact of the matter is, that I usually find some way of letting them know. So I’m being a bit of a hypocrite.)Report

    • James K in reply to Caleb says:

      It’s funny how these things vary across cultures. I called every single one of my lecturers by their first name, that’s standard practice in New Zealand. In fact, I basically gave up calling anyone by an honorific when I left high school. To me, insisting than an adult use a title for you (outside of very formal occasions) is stuck up and pretentious.Report

  3. Kazzy says:

    I’ll cop to being woefully bad when it comes to properly using honorifics and titles. If you remember, when writing a post about Condoleezza Rice, I believe I got it wrong twice, if not three times. So, I am far from an expert on this.

    Interestingly enough, I am often called Mrs. Kazzy by my students. The reason is that the only people they ever really use Mr./Mrs. with is their teachers and I am usually their first male teacher. As such, they tend to generalize Mrs. and do not realize their is a sex/gender component. I am never offended and will correct if necessary/appropriate, but never shame the child for what is often an honest mistake.

    My general rule is to call people that which they wish to be called. In high school, I just went with whatever the teacher introduced him/herself as. As an undergrad, I vaguely remember defaulting to “Professor” (e.g., Professor Woodhouse) unless explicitly instructed to do otherwise. In my school, we have women who go by Miss, Ms., and Mrs. If I ever find myself writing their name, particularly for students (e.g., writing, “Mrs. Smith will visit”), I always try to ask them first.

    Where I find the most difficulty is referring to parents when in front of the children. In one-on-one conversations, I work on a first name basis. But in front of the children, the Miss/Ms./Mrs. thing coupled with the married name versus maiden/original name thing is tricky. I don’t always know what they prefer to be called. Sometimes their email addresses still contain their original name though they’ve formally adopted their husband’s name. Some use one name professionally and another personally. I should probably just make a point to ask them so I can properly address them when in front of the children. Of course, some parents don’t mind or even prefer children (not their own, but their children’s friends/classmates) using their first name. But I never assume this. Especially since our school norm/culture (I’m not sure that it is an actual rule) is that teachers go by Miss/Ms./Mrs./Mr.; it would seem improper to presume a different rule for parents unless they specifically ask.

    All this to say… A) names are tricky, B) especially when you consider the messages they send around gender, sex, and the like, and C) I’ve got some thinking to do about my current practices in the classroom.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

      Interestingly enough, I am often called Mrs. Kazzy by my students. The reason is that the only people they ever really use Mr./Mrs. with is their teachers and I am usually their first male teacher. As such, they tend to generalize Mrs. and do not realize their is a sex/gender component.

      That’s fascinating! Not something I would have expected.Report

      • It kind of came as a surprise when it happened to me, though I got used to it pretty quickly. Seemed to phase out around the second grade.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Female officers in the US military are addressed as “Sir”Report

      • Kazzy in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Young kids don’t always have a sense of what titles are. If we talk about what letters our names start with, they say mine starts with M, not K.

        I also get called “Dad” a good amount, probably because the only other adult male they regularly interact with is “Dad”. Some female teachers get “Mom”, but less often. Every once in a while, I get “Mom”.

        Kids are funny.Report

  4. Hmmmm… now I’m thinking of writing a post about why I abandoned letting patients/families call me by my first name.

    I never referred to any of my college professors as anything but “Dr. X,” regardless of gender. This may have something to do with being in a combined undergrad/medical program with a bunch of female colleagues who all expected to be called “Doctor” when they were done with their training. Or perhaps because my father is a college professor, so I was used to calling people “Dr.” outside of a medical setting. Who knows? But even though pretty much all of my female high school teachers went by “Mrs,” making the transition was seamless for me.

    And I would never in a million years call a woman “Miss.” In any setting, period. When I don’t know explicitly that she prefers “Mrs,” “Ms.” is always my default title.

    Finally, the pitfalls of using a mother’s maiden name (if you will) as a security word never occurred to me until I read this post. (I should be so lucky as to be as prominent in my field as your mother is in hers.) But yeah, those of us privileged to know you both are one step closer to draining your bank accounts. (Which, as you know, has been my goal for lo these many years of our supposed “friendship.”)Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      I know you’ve been but biding your time, carefully listening to woes, responding to texts, having phone conversations, waiting… waiting…Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      And Russell, I would like that post.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Russell Saunders says:


      So what the hell will your kids put down for mother’s maiden name?!Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      “And I would never in a million years call a woman “Miss.” In any setting, period. When I don’t know explicitly that she prefers “Mrs,” “Ms.” is always my default title.”
      If we are talking about speaking, isn’t Miss and Ms. pronounced the same?Report

      • Russell Saunders in reply to Kazzy says:

        “Miss” — pronounced with an “s” at the end

        “Ms.” — pronounced with a “z” at the end.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        As someone who is not as sharp or clear in his pronunciation as he should be, and who has a last name with screwy S and Z pronunciations, it is likely that I pronounce these far more similarly than most. Shit.Report

      • Darwy in reply to Kazzy says:

        After having a 7th grade English teacher named Ms. Hartz – I can assure you – the two (Miss and Ms.) are pronounced very, very differently.

        That was drilled into our heads the first week of class. Mizzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Hartzzzzzzzzzzzzz.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:


        I noted above that to most of the pronunciations I’ve heard, “Ms.” and “Miss” sound close to being the same. I do notice a slight vocalizing of the “s,” but it’s not a full “z,” at least in most of the English speakers I’ve come in contact with.Report

    • Reformed Republican in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      I think many of the security questions could be figured out by someone with enough determination. There are some facebook “name generators” that do just that: “First name is the name of your first pet, middle name is the name of the city where you were born, last name is your 1st grade teacher’s name.” A work around is just to choose a default answer to use for the security questions, but that could present a separate set of issues.Report

      • Lyle in reply to Reformed Republican says:

        Actually if your mother has died your her maiden name is likely in the obituary, likely lists both the children and the maiden name In some cases I used one of my grandmothers maiden names. Obits tend to say x grandchildren without naming them. Which raises an interesting question, with online obits is that a privacy issue ?
        If you know them grandmothers, or better yet great grandmothers maiden names work wellReport

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Reformed Republican says:

        I use my mom’s maiden name for lots of low-security passwords. It’s an unusual one so it seems relatively safe.Report

    • Darwy in reply to Russell Saunders says:

      All of my Professors in the US were “Dr X” or “Professor X” rather than first name.

      Then I moved abroad – and everyone here is on a first name basis – and sometimes it drives me nuts. Even the kids in primary school call their teachers by their first name(s) and not “Mr. X” or “Mrs. X”.

      Call me stodgy, but I think it’s rude for grammar school children to be calling their teachers by their first names. I believe there should be that distinction between teacher/pupil which the honorific Mr or Mrs. gives.Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Darwy says:

        Didn’t calling them ‘Professor X’ get confusing? Unless you actually went to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. 😉

        Hey, wait a second. Shouldn’t Professor X’s name actually be Doctor X? I’m pretty certain he has _several_ doctorates.Report

  5. Kim says:

    In high school, we were given schedules, with teachers’ names on them. One of my female teachers has an especially long name, so instead of it being Mrs., it got shortened to Ms.

    So, I started calling her that (figuring it was what she prefered). Oh, my, did she blow up about it, too (about three days later)! That teacher was prone to explosive anger, so it wasn’t an “oh, no she hates me now” sort of thing.Report

  6. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Students normally address me as Dr. or Professor, but I get Mr. sometimes, too. I couldn’t say how much, because I barely notice. Part of that is that I’m not that into titles and honorifics (outside of the classrom, I never introduce myself as “Doctor Aitch–the very thought if it is embarrassing–and even kn the classroom it feels like a crutch, a shortcut way to persuade students of my comoetence). But I don’t know that I’d be as comfortable with Mrs., were I female.

    One of my colleagues, a geologist, tells students to call her by her first name. But she’s so evidently competent and self-confident that it doesn’t raise any issues of disrespect or gendered treatment.

    One solution to the question, perhaps, is to require students to address you as Oh, Captain, My Captain.

    The maiden name issue is interesting, and something I’d not thought of before, “Original name” may not work well, either, because some surnames get changed at adoption. But surely we’d benefit from a change. I suspect Pierre is right that it would take time to become entrenched, so we might as well get started now.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      The presumption of competence is a real thing. I met two women, one black, one white, who were presenting together at a conference. They explained how during preparation for the presentation, they were far apart on how to introduce themselves. The white woman wanted a more personal intro… “Hi, I’m Kathy. I’m 45, a mother of three, and have lived in Virginia for 27 years.” The black woman wanted something more professional… “I’m Susie. I have a bachelors and masters on the topic we’ll be discussing today and am currently working on my PhD. I’ve worked in the field for 30 years.”

      The white woman couldn’t understand why the black woman wanted to be so formal. The black woman explained, “You don’t have to list your credentials because people aren’t going to question whether you have them. That’s not the case for me.”

      It was a really profound learning moment for me about the importance of signaling and the additional effort some people must put forth to be taken seriously.Report

      • Russell Saunders in reply to Kazzy says:

        This is a large part of why I insist on “Dr.” in the office.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Kazzy says:

        Yeah, I probably overthink this, but In my in-class professional I’m torn between the value of the signaling and the sense of pretension. And I wonder if my use of the title just reveals a certain insecurity. I have a friend who was a successful international buinessman before becoming a college prof, and who seems to have been born with boundless sekf-confidence. He also tells his students to call him by his first name. I’ve noticed that in both his case and the geologist’s (that I mentioned above) there is a real close rapport with students. Whether that’s a function of the first-name use or just of their personality, or both, I don’t know.

        I also saw a study once that suggested professors in fields where competence was easy to demonstrate tended to dress down, while those in fields where competence was harder to demonstrate tended to dress up. My geologist friend wears heans and t-shirts (and of course she deals with a lot of dirty material most days), while I tend to wear a dress shirt and tie.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        I definitely think it varies by the person and the context.

        I’ve worked in schools that have teachers on a first name basis and those that use Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. The primary argument for the latter is that it teaches the children respect. I really struggle with that. Beyond the fact that I think the ultimate sign of respect with regards to names/titles is to call someone that which they wish to be called, I think the presumption that if the kids are using titles, that means they are being respectful is just silly.

        I can command as much respect as Kazzy as I can by Mr. Kazzy, because true respect comes from much more than titles.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:

        “I also saw a study once that suggested professors in fields where competence was easy to demonstrate tended to dress down, while those in fields where competence was harder to demonstrate tended to dress up.”

        Interesting. When I TA’d and taught, I tried to wear a suit and tie, which I never normally do unless it’s a wedding, funeral, or some special event.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

      I also saw a study once that suggested professors in fields where competence was easy to demonstrate tended to dress down,

      That certainly applies in my profession, where people in management, sales, marketing, etc. wear coats and ties (or at least “business casual”) but engineers wear whatever the hell we want to.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        It’s also the reason engineers aren’t taken very seriously in the executive suite. At some point along the line, engineers thought they didn’t need to demonstrate any professionalism: their skills would carry them through. It never did.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Many in my field dress down. Including going barefoot around the department, at conferences, etc. I don’t wear business suits (which would be in its own way inappropriate), but never wear jeans or dress-down Ts. Dresses, skirts, non-denim pants.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        the engineers have the attitude that staying out of the exec suite is probably a good thing for both parties.

        In general, they’re right.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Engi-sneers are prone to making political mistakes. People are hired for their technical abilities and credentials. They are sacked for their personalities, a point you in particular might take to heart. Appearance matters, though you may not think so.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Engi-sneers are prone to making political mistakes.

        I’m with a tiny startup right now and we’re in the process of doing a lot of meetings with customers. The CEO is an engineer/manager with a lot of management and business experience, so he’s very smooth with the customers. He brings engineers to meetings with clients because both sides know that engineers are terrible liars, and having us tell the same story he’s telling with no contradictions is a mark of credibility.

        If there’s a scam being covered up, the engineer will blow the cover story sooner or later.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        It’s also the reason engineers aren’t taken very seriously in the executive suite.

        Speak for yourself.Report

      • dhex in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        “I don’t wear business suits (which would be in its own way inappropriate)”

        i thought this was interesting with my wife, as the same rule seemed to apply when she was seeking a tenure track job (in english lit). she couldn’t go to interviews at mla looking “too corporate”, so some weird middle ground, bastard child of business casual had to be engaged.

        that said she saw both men and women going to mla interviews last year in flip flops so…..yeah.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        If engineers are terrible liars, they are prodigious exaggerators. If I hear another engineer whining about a delivery date (he agreed to) again, I will choke him to death. Management thinks in exceptions, in milestones, in burn rate, in deliverables, in terms of customer satisfaction and efficiencies and return on investment in time and money.

        While it’s true, the folks in the executive suite aren’t always the easiest to work for, they do appreciate a proper outline of what needs doing before they start sinking money into these things. I remember one project where I came in, supposedly to implement a new solution. I sat down with the engineers, talked to them about what management had asked me to do — they were perfectly competent to manage the entire process. They had a complete plan ready, a good one, too.

        I went back to management and laid out what they’d assembled. Didn’t tell them it was their own employees’ work, until the very end of the presentation. The execs shot back immediately: “Why haven’t we seen this before now? I responded hotly, “Because you don’t trust your own people, that’s why. They’ve been trying to get your attention for months on this issue.” I told both sides they had a serious communications problem. Turned out to be a great project, came in under time and under budget. All these guys needed was to learn to effectively communicate with each other, in terms the other side could understand.Report

  7. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think this is a place where American title use is sadly lacking, and the lack of formal etiquette training also takes a toll on your society.

    Granted, I come from a gender-less title society. Everyone who is a teacher is simply called ?? while a professor is referred to as ?? regardless of their title.Report

  8. BlaiseP says:

    When in doubt, ask. Avoids both undue familiarity and any appearance of fussiness. I’ve known PhDs who don’t like the prepended “Dr.” Others prefer it.

    As a consultant, I’m always in a cleft stick. Though I know these people well enough, I’m not part of their society. There will always come a day when I’m done and I’ll leave. But all my mandate, if any, arises from these people: hence in my reporting, I always prepend the job title: “The shop foreman, Mr. Adams, observes …”, “the lead developer, Mr. Stevens recommends..” I never know who’s going to be reading the stuff I write and therefore can’t assume someone will know who Adams is: without mandate, nothing happens.

    I’ve never known a woman in any position of authority who likes “Mrs.” When I write the report, it’s “VP of Finance, Jayne DeVries” The title “Mrs.” observes a different structure, that of her family. It has no place at work, by my lights.

    Working around Japanese people, I always use the title, no name, unless there are multiple people with the same title, but that’s rare. Authority is decoupled entirely from identity. In such a case, I use the name, followed by the honourific -san. I like business Japanese. No reference to “me” or “I”. All written in third person.

    Simply ask. Demonstrates some insight.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Good advice.

      And on the flip side, especially when dealing with younger people, I would say that this is a good time to never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to ignorance.

      Were I in your class, I likely would have called you Professor, as I would my male teachers, because I would have assumed this was the right thing to do. If you gently corrected me, I would have called you by whatever you stated you prefer. My error would have be accidental, with no disrespect intended.

      Full grown adults are another story.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

        Sometimes rudeness arises from ignorance but often from callousness. This stuff does matter, for superiors and subordinates alike.

        More than once, I’ve taken people aside and said “I need a few minutes alone with you. You need to teach me to pronounce your name correctly.” Once people get to America, they want to change the pronunciation. Down in Louisiana, the old French pronunciations are no longer correct: Tony Chachere, whose cajun spice I use most every day of of my life, is no longer pronounced “Sha-share” but “Sha-sher-ee”. Freaked me out the first time I heard it pronounced.

        I get some rum old South Indian names coming along. Rather than play these idiotic American games of contraction or name substitution, which a good many Indians play, coming up with names like “Steve” or “Mike”, I’m usually the one guy in the room who will know South Indians form names from fathers, places and castes. Easy enough to get right: contract the father’s name and place name to initials, use the person’s name not all that tough to manage and proceed accordingly. “PG Fanish” — abandoning the caste designation, which I find very ugly, whatever others may say of it.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Kazzy says:


        If I were your student, I would have called you M. Pascal, and asked for your thoughts on the matter.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

        I couldn’t be a teacher. Lord knows I’ve taught a raft of people to code. Taught a bunch of people to do about the anatomy and use of weapons in a variety of languages. But not in a college, nossir.

        The first words from Drill Sergeant McFarlane’s lips to our assembled Basic Training platoon were these. “My name is Drill Sergeant McFarlane. When you get to know me better, you may call me by my first name. Drill Sergeant.”Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to BlaiseP says:

      What’s the appropriate title if you’re addressing a cover letter to a woman and don’t know her academic credentials?Report

  9. Will Truman says:

    I would cut freshman some slack. They’re used to calling their their instructors Mr. or Miss/Mrs./Ms. I know it was a bit of a transition for me. Made more complicated by the fact that some college instructors aren’t actually doctors. I eventually went with the Professor honorific. I can understand the frustration, though.

    The “Ms.” honorific didn’t take, at least not in large parts of the country. Not mine, anyway. I write Ms. under particular circumstances (I don’t know marital status, or they chose to keep their birth name), but haven’t gotten into the habit otherwise. I do understand the objection, though. It’s just that back home women refer to themselves with the delineator so it’s hard to do differently.

    That’s a good point about the phrase “maiden name”… I hadn’t really thought of that.

    Between my wife and I, the issue is that she is a Dr. and I am not. That, combined with our different last names, creates some odd wedding invitations. “Mr. and Dr. Will Truman” just seems more wrong. More wrong than referring to my wife as Mrs. Will Truman (which also makes me uncomfortable) because even though a careful reading knows otherwise, it can leave one with the impression that I have doctor status, which feels more awkward.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

      I’m trying to get my school to move away from the “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith” thing. It’s just archaic and, given how many families now deviate from that naming structure (if not the actual personnel involved), often wrong.

      Thing is, when we do mass mailings, we use a simple script pulling queries from a database. All we would have to do is change the script. Easy peasy. But we won’t. Not yet. For some reason…?Report

    • My wife kept her “maiden” name, and occasionally, she’ll be asked about “Mr. X,” when I’m Mr. Y.Report

  10. Tod Kelly says:

    Three things:

    1. I have to say, I can’t remember the last time I heard the phrase “maiden name.” It might be decades, actually. Everyone I know just uses the word “name.” As in, “My wife decided she wanted to keep her name.”

    2. When I first read this, I was thinking that your friend wanted her students to start actually referring to her as Dr. X. Which would have been really cool, if not a bit weird.

    3. The whole Mr./Ms. vs. Dr. thing always makes me think of this scene:


  11. Damon says:

    I always used “professor” and continued to use that unless advised they preferred something else.

    I had instructors who were phds and some who were not. My course info often didn’t contain that info so you never knew ahead of time. Frankly, no one really cared that much.Report

  12. Burt Likko says:

    When I do my adjunct teaching, I generally counsel my students to use my first name in class and my full name on papers, but they ignore me and insist on using a title of some kind. I understand; I was the same way about my own teachers, wanting to indicate respect and deference. So I’ll accept “Professor Likko,” since I am there in a teaching capacity, but I correct away from “Dr. Likko” as I do not hold a Ph.D. and I do not consider the juris doctorate to be a title-bestowing degree the way a Ph.D. or M.D. is. I suppose there is no principled reason for that distinction.

    Rose, however, has completed her Ph.D. so the title “Dr.” is appropriate for her — and it has the advantage of being neutral to both gender and marital status as well as a recognition for a significant body of academic accomplishment. Seems to me that “Dr. Woodhouse” would be the preferred social honorific accordingly. As to whether she took her husband’s name upon marriage or kept the name of her birth family, that strikes me as entirely a matter of personal preference and since she’s an adult, the rest of the entire goddam world ought to respect her preference in that regard.

    I use “Ms.” as a formal title for women with whom I interact professionally until they correct me otherwise, but a surprising number do and indicate that they prefer “Mrs.” instead. In particular when I’ve had dealings with the Internal Revenue Service, its representatives I’ve dealt with have with one exception all been women, and all of those women identified themselves as “Mrs. X” in telephone conversations, declining altogether to give their first names. The uniformity of this has led me to believe it is a policy imposed upon them rather than a choice.Report

    • Nob Akimoto in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Aw. You don’t force your students to call you “The Honorable Mr. Likko, Esquire”?

      Isn’t that half the point of getting a JD?Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        No, the point of getting a JD is cackling gleefully while jumping in to shoulder-high piles of filthy lucre like Scrooge McDuck, and thereafter receiving oral sex from a coked-out supermodel in the back seat of a limousine being driven slowly from the courthouse to the Staples Center before taking courtside seats for the Lakers game.

        …Oh, wait, that’s movie production. Or organized crime. Damnit, I knew I was doing something wrong back in graduate school!Report

      • Coke-Encrusted Hollywood Exec in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        It’s the second thing.

        And the third thing, but I repeat myself, baby.Report

  13. KatherineMW says:

    Male professors commenting on my friend’s post said they did get called “Mr. Y.” So perhaps my reason (1) is mistaken, although it would be interesting to see how often it happens to each. The commenting male professors, however, seemed more likely to request to be called by their first name or to dismiss having their students refer to them by a title. I’m guessing that has something to do with more confidence that they are taken seriously.

    This was very much the case at both universities where I’ve studied. I called some profs “Dr.”, some “Mr.”, and some (many, in fact) preferred to be called by their first names. One of my female profs (quite young, I’d estimate 30s, maybe early 40s) was asked by a student if we could call her by her first name, and said no because in the past it had decreased the level of respect she received from classes. I think female profs are less confident about maintaining a position of authority so they prefer respectful titles; male profs don’t seem concerned with this at all.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to KatherineMW says:

      I think female profs are less confident about maintaining a position of authority so they prefer respectful titles; male profs don’t seem concerned with this at all.

      This fits with my general impression, despite my geologist friend who’s on a first-name basis with her students. I wish I could argue the female profs didn’t have good reason to believe this, but I don’t think I can. My geologist friend is an outlier, not the norm.Report

  14. KatherineMW says:

    And offensive, in its presumption that women do (or should) remain virgins until married.

    Well, I don’t know about “offensive”. I think both women and men should ideally remain virgins until marriage, although I recognize that in our current society I’m very much in the minority with regard to this view.Report

    • Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

      I’ve heard the opposite arguments, and I find them stronger, personally.
      Put Simply: If sexual compatibility is a large part of what makes a good marriage, one ought to assess compatibility BEFORE making a lifelong public comittment.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Kim says:

        Wouldn’t this assume that sexual compatibility has little or nothing to do with previous sexual activity? I think there’s a case to be made that sexual compatibility is often learned, either before marriage or after.

        Which isn’t to say that I am with KMW on this. I could be, under the right circumstances. But the right circumstances can’t be produced and generally haven’t been produced without the use of social norms that I am uncomfortable with.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        hmm. Yes, sexual compatibility can be learned. Also, sexual incompatibility can be learned/discovered. I think both of these are generally best learned through the mechanism of trying it out.

        Are you okay with fetish XYZ? What if it’s only an affectation? What if your parts and your partners parts don’t get along well?

        A marriage without sex may be someone’s ideal, but its definitely not mine. It seems dishonest to make a commitment without knowing what you’re getting into.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Kim says:

        A marriage without sex may be someone’s ideal, but its definitely not mine. It seems dishonest to make a commitment without knowing what you’re getting into.

        That’s a good point, because that I am convinced is biological more than social. On the other hand, it’s uncertain how much you actually learn about that through premarital sex. That’s something that can change over time, but with age and over the course of the relationship.Report

      • Reformed Republican in reply to Kim says:

        I think it is very important to know what are things you are unwilling to live without; what things you would prefer, but that are not deal breakers; and what things you really do not care about. If something is a deal breaker, it is good to find out the potential partner’s stance on it very early. Otherwise, you are just wasting one another’s time.

        That does not only apply to sexual compatibility.Report

  15. Mike Dwyer says:

    Somewhat related story: I was doing my pre-season scouting a few years ago and stopped to talk to a cattle farmer about hunting on his property. He introduced him self as John Smith and told me to call him ‘Smith’. Because he is a senior i told him that if it was alright I would call him Mr.Smith and so our friendship began. This went on for a few months until I was looking for his address online and discovered he was an orthopedic surgeon (admittedly i should have realized something was amiss when the cattle farmer had a Mercedes in the driveway and a huge house that can only be described as stone-cold pimpin’).

    I have since talked to him about his medical work but it is too weird to start calling him Dr.Smith. So I still call him Mr.Smith and so it shall stay. Something tells me he doesn’t mind and I hope I am right. Otherwise he probably thinks I have terrible manners.Report

  16. Pinky says:

    “Ms.” always struck me as a pejorative. It means “female who gets upset easily”.

    If you guess Miss or Missus and you’re wrong, the recipient can correct you with no hard feelings. If you say Ms., the implication is that the recipient is the type who would fly off the handle at little things like this. (I realize as I write this that it comes off as an insult to the author, but there’s no way I can say this any better.) “Ms.” also bothers me as an artificial term. I’m a programmer, so believe me I understand the benefit of precision, but I always try to appreciate the beauty of real languages as they’re encountered. Terms like “maiden name” are rich, while terms like “Ms.” are sterile.Report