Call Me ‘Mr.’

In the New York Times, this man is known as "Mr. Pop"

A few weeks ago, Bob Diamond, the ousted chief of Barclays, uttered the following in front of House of Commons, which was investigating his bank’s activities:

  • “John, we have been through this a number of times.”
  • “The investigation—what I would want to point out to you is this—Jesse, can I finish?”
  • “It’s a very, very pressurized situation, Michael.”
  • “So, you know, it’s interesting, Teresa.”

“John,” “Jesse,” and “Michael” are all members of Parliament. So is Teresa Pearce, who subsequently appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and told the host Robert Siegel: “I was surprised that he continually addressed us by our first name, especially as I’ve only ever met him once before and that was in a formal setting. That was a select committee. So it seemed inappropriate and showed a lack of respect.”

A few days later, in a commentary on his NPR program, Scott Simon spoke on this topic. He made no mention of Bob Diamond, but he did strongly defend his own near-obsessive use of courtesy titles with interview subjects, noting:

Our aim here is not just to be correct, but to try to do effective interviews. I think I’ve learned that courtesy titles can help assure guests that while we will ask challenging questions, they will be treated with audible respect. Not only the secretary of state, Dr. Stephen Hawking, Ms. Jodie Foster or the mayor of London, but people who have lost their job or just won a moose-calling competition.

Simon acknowledged that the custom can come off as a little precious. “We interviewed Meat Loaf, the hard-rocker,” he confessed, “mostly to be able to say, ‘Thanks for being with us, Mr. Loaf.’”

Simon may have been alluding to the urban legend that The New York Times—whose style prescribes courtesy titles on second reference (except in the sports section and the Sunday magazine)—at one time favored the loaf-based one. In fact, the first time “Mr. Loaf” appeared in the paper was as part of a jocular headline: “Is He Called Just Plain Meat or Should It Be Mr. Loaf?” (It is undeniable, however, that the Times has been referring to the rocker Iggy Pop as “Mr. Pop” since 1977. You could look it up.)

Loafs and Pops aside, Mr. Simon is fighting a losing battle.  I have long been accustomed to all sorts of people I have never met before calling me “Ben”: salesmen, elementary-school students, doctors, nurses, customer-care representatives speaking from every continent on the earth. The Parliamentary testimony of Bob Diamond—a U.S. native, significantly—merely suggested that this level of familiarity may soon extend to elected and appointed government officials. (I, for one, would like to be on hand to witness what happens to the first lawyer who calls Antonin Scalia “Nino.”)

Some years ago, I looked into how students address their professors and wrote a piece about it for The Chronicle. I discovered that Dr., Professor, and Mr./Ms. were all commonly used, roughly in inverse proportion to the prestige of the college or university. There was some first-naming as well, which appeared to be correlated to:

smallness of college and class size, location in California or the Northeast, nearness to the humanities of the subject taught, and youth and maleness of the professor. In other words, while you can never be sure, it’s a fairly good bet that a 62-year-old professor of engineering at Mississippi State wouldn’t take kindly to a student in her lecture class greeting her with a “Hi, Susie.”

Since I wrote that, the only development I’ve noticed is the popularity of just-plain Professor (no last name), as in an e-mail like “Professor, I won’t be coming to class tomorrow.” I have no particular objection to this, but I find it a little odd, with a hint of  Blackboard Jungle-era teens addressing their instructors as “teach.”

The truth is, at this stage of the game, I don’t much care what people call me. Just as long as it isn’t “Mr. Loaf.”



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