Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #3:
How to Put Your Foot in Your Mouth with "Hello"
This blog was inspired by an email I recently received from a student seeking advising so he could register for classes. He contacted me because it was near the end of the semester, and he'd not yet heard back from his original assigned faculty advisor. He opened his email by addressing me as "Mrs. Reames." First, I'm not married (divorced actually, for some years now, and Reames was never my married name). Second, I do happen to have a phud, so I'm Dr. Reames.
Often, students aren't sure how to address college professors. In public school, most female teachers are "Mrs." (a few "Miss"), and most male teachers are "Mr." I rarely see "Ms." used in Nebraska, although I know it's employed elsewhere and (personally) think public schools should be pushing a title that doesn't depend on a woman's marital status. Be that as it may, I understand why especially college freshmen may not be entirely sure what honorific to use.
But this student called me -- the female faculty member -- "Mrs.," while referring to the other -- male -- faculty member as "Dr." Yet I know this student never received any email from my colleague that had "Dr. ___" in the signature, or saw the title posted on his door, or heard the secretary call him "Dr." and me "Mrs." In short, he had no clues whatsoever beyond our gender. We are both full-time, tenured faculty, both slated for undergrad advising, both entirely equal in all department presentation from the website to the sign outside the History department door.
No, he defaulted (probably unconsciously) to the assumption that the male professor was "Dr." but the female professor was not. Yes, sexism is alive and well on college campuses. There's only so much information I'll publicly share, to protect identities, but I'm quite sure this young man had no reason to assume my colleague was a Dr. but I wasn't, beyond gender. "Male faculty advisor" vs. "Female faculty advisor." That's all he knew.
This is not the first time I've encountered such bias, but is among the more blatantly obvious. I rarely make a stink about it, and don't deal with a lot of sexism (especially blatant sexual advances), but like many women, I DO face these "unconscious" assumptions periodically. Yet if we complain? We're being too sensitive! Or we're reading into it! There must be another explanation!
Er, no. Not in this case. Let's call a spade, a spade, shall we? I don't face sexism around every corner, but that means I damn sure know it when I see it, thanks.
Students, if unsure, "Prof. ___" is ALWAYS safe. If one must err, err on the side of flattery, use "Dr. ___." The teacher will correct that if it's incorrect. But NEVER address a female professor as "Mrs. ___" unless she's told you to do so. It assumes a lot of problematic things. Likewise, never call a professor by his or her first name unless s/he has told you to do so. Some of my colleagues absolutely prefer that, and are uncomfortable being either Prof. or Dr. I have no issues with that. In fact, I felt that way myself when I first began teaching. "Dr. Reames" was WEIRD. I've got used to it, but it took time (and a lot grayer hair).
Yet this young fellow's blunder does raise the thorny issue in modern times of politisms and honorifics, and quite varied (sometimes regional) expectations. I was reminded of this recently by another colleague who comes from the American N.E., who found the very southern/midwestern endearment "hon" offensive when coming from a stranger. This surprised me, as I use "hon" habitually myself, being raised in the South by Midwestern parents. I promised not to use it for her, but she said, "You're my friend, it's okay. It's strangers who use it that bug me." To her, "hon" felt overly familiar -- and thus rude. To me it's just a friendly way to address someone, especially a younger person. I wouldn't call an elder "hon," but I often call my students that. Yet her comment made me stop and think -- maybe I shouldn't call students that, especially if I don't know them? I mean nothing by it -- in fact, I intend it to sound "warm and friendly" instead of "coldly formal" -- but it may be perceived as overly familiar by others.
I don't think it's such a bad thing to stop and ask ourselves these questions, now and then.
Are the words we use perceived by others in the ways we intend them? To some degree, accidental offense is probably inevitable at some point in our lives, but it behooves us to learn from the experience, not dig in our heels and insist the other person is "too sensitive."
We all have personal triggers.
For me, I have a deep, personal objection to anybody, especially a man, calling me "baby." There is only ONE living person who gets to call me that -- my father. (My mother died 15 years ago.) I might make an exception for my brother, who changed my diapers (he's a lot older than me), but even he doesn't call me that. No one else alive may do so. I find it belittling. I think many of us have such personal triggers, if we think about it -- honorifics, pet names, or endearments that strike us like nails on a chalkboard, for whatever reason.
That brings me back to handling honorifics in our increasingly changing society. How DO we politely address strangers without putting our foot in our mouth?
Most people are NOT asses, although they may display unconscious assumptions. I don't even assume that young male student was trying to insult me. In fact, I assume the opposite. But he DID insult me by making some pretty big blunders. I tried to view it as a "teaching moment," and sent back an email that first answered his question, and then (gently) corrected his error. I have no idea how he'll take the correction; he might get offended himself, which I can't control. All one can do is respond politely and honestly, and hope the other will HEAR, not be too busy talking.
So how does one avoid insult? Well, I'm not Miss Manners, or any expert on etiquette, but there are some safe bits of advice to keep in mind when writing a formal (or even informal) letter to someone whose title isn't immediately clear. First, look it up, if possible. Avoid assuming. I have a lot of students who assume without doing something as simple as checking my syllabus (where my title is given) or the signature on my letters (where, again, my title is given). In this case, the young man had neither a syllabus nor had he seen my letter signature, but I DO have students who have one or both and STILL persist in using the wrong title because they don't pay attention.
Frankly, this is dumb. Replying to a reply of mine and continuing to use "Mrs. Reames" or even "Ms Reames" while the signature to my letter clearly has "Dr. Reames" shows a certain failure of simple observation. And that, in turn, doesn't impress me with one's intelligence, even if no intentional insult is meant. Students need to be aware (and BEware) of how such "goofs" appear to professors ... or (later) to potential employers.
Taking a little extra time to track down information in order to make a good first impression is important. In our increasingly informal world, students forget this. Perhaps there are some venues were informality is assumed, even preferred. But both education and the business world are not among them. While some occupations, and a few businesses, prize informality ... most don't. This is something college student need to learn, if they have a hope of getting hired later. Again, there are occupations that don't have such expectations, but the expectations are still useful to know, as they may come in handy in unexpected circumstances.
Details matter. My grandfather, a carpenter, used to look at the SHOES of potential employees. This was back when men wore shined leather dress shoes or boots, and when all his applicants were male, too. Why shoes? He said (paraphrased), "If a fellow won't take care of details like his shoes, I can't trust him to take care of proper finishing on cabinets." Job applicants need to realize potential employers notice such things and evaluate accordingly -- and it's not even an unfair evaluation. My grandpa had a point.
Details matter. People who can't pay attention to details in one arena are often uncareful in others. Exceptions exist, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.
If you really WANT that job, prove it. Spell- and grammar-check letters. Dress neatly. Have clean shoes. (*grin*) And for pity's sake, CHECK THE INTRODUCTION to any letter. There is little worse than 1) Misspelling a person's name, OR 2) using the wrong (and potentially insulting) honorific.
If you aren't sure, GOOGLE IT. Invest a little time. Care of details pays off. If not today, then tomorrow.
Practice the Art of Getting it Right.