Growing up, I wouldn’t have dared address an older person using his or her first name.
Even if I’d been told it was OK. Using an honorific title with an elder had been drilled into me and was code for letting grown folks know that I had been “raised right.”
My schoolteacher parents were old school and always insisted on using a courtesy title of Mr. or Mrs. as a show of respect, reminding us that it was a nicety rarely afforded to African Americans of their era, particularly those in the Jim Crow South. They had endured the indignity of hearing whites refer to adult black men as “uncle” — or worse, “boy.”
Social mores change. These days, it’s common for students to call their professors or teachers by their first names. We think of flip-flops as appropriate footwear for practically any occasion, even church. We will call a CEO “Bob” if that’s what his name is.
I’m all for evolving, but my style still freezes when my stepson’s friends call me “Jenice.” It’s not their fault. It’s the culture. It seems as if everyone is on a first-name basis. At work, we call everybody by their first name. That kind of informality has gotten me into trouble, though. I’ll never forget interviewing Bill Cosby years ago and calling him “Bill.” He bellowed through the phone, “You don’t know me to call me Bill!”
The correct way of addressing someone, particularly an elder, is an old conundrum and a debate that resurfaced recently after a 1989 video of Maya Angelou began circulating on social media earlier this month. On the short clip from the TV show People Are Talking, a teenage girl poses a question to the noted poet and author about interracial marriage and makes the mistake of addressing her by her first name.
Anyone else would have let it go. Not Ms. Angelou.
In her trademark gravelly grandma voice, she gets the girl straight, saying, “I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first,” she says as the audience applauds. “Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. You see?”
It was as if she had barked, “Put some respect on my name.”
Or as if she’d warned the girl, “You had better put a handle on it.”
The effect was the same. Later in the show, Angelou apologizes for being “short” with the questioner, Kim Watts. By the time of her death in 2014 at the age of 86, fans had begun referring to her as “Dr.” Angelou because of the numerous honorary doctorates she had received.
But judging from the considerable positive reaction to Angelou’s dramatic response, that clip resonated with a lot of people. Many of us women still prefer being called Mrs. or Ms. when being addressed by considerably younger people.
“You’re going to give me that respect,” explained one colleague, who insists that children she interacts with address her formally. “I’m not ‘Angie.’ I’m ‘Miss Angie.’”
My own sister told me, “I’ve had adults bend down to my child and introduce themselves as ‘Joe.’ I then turn and introduce him to my children saying, ‘This is Mr. Shepherd.’ Then he said, ‘Oh it’s OK.’ But it’s not. Just because you think it’s OK, it doesn’t mean that you get to tell my kids it’s OK.”
Some parents go so far as to name their sons “Mister” or “Sir” to make sure that’s what they get called.