The Mrs

I blogged this over on Crooked Timber yesterday. It got tons of comments (over 80 as I write this) many of which are very interesting so I recommend checking that out. Kevin Drum picked it up – and added an interesting comment about how sports commentators refer to tennis players – so you may want to check that out as well (in addition to Kevin’s point, some of the 130+ comments there are also an interesting read).

On occasion, I get emails in which people address me as Mrs. Hargittai. I’m not suggesting that people need know my personal history or preferences. However, if you are going to contact someone in a professional context and they have a Ph.D. and they teach at a university (both of which are very clear on their homepage where you probably got their email address in the first place), wouldn’t you opt for Dr. or Professor?

Most of the time when someone contacts me and says “Dear Dr. Hargittai” or “Dear Professor Hargittai” the first line of my response is: “Dear X, please call me Eszter.” So the status marker that comes with these is not what’s of interest to me. Rather, I’m intrigued by how gender ties into all this and would love to hear how male junior faculty get addressed in such situations.

Today, I received a message that had an interesting additional component:

Dear Mrs. Hargittai,

Professor Name-of-one-of-my-senior-male-colleagues recommended that I get in touch with you.

My male senior colleague is a Professor while I’m a Mrs. Perhaps not being a full professor is what’s preventing me from being considered a Prof. Given that these notes have always come from Europe (e.g. Germany, Netherlands, Russia), I suspect that may be the issue. Perhaps you’re not considered a Professor until you’re a Full Professor. Nonetheless, Dr still fits even if you don’t find Prof an appropriate greeting.

Another related anecdote underscores the importance of gender in all this. I was presenting at a conference (in the U.S.) a few months ago. It was not necessarily clear who on the panel was a student vs a faculty member, we all looked fairly young. There were two women on the panel and a man. In the end, it turned out that I was the only faculty member, the other woman was a Ph.D. student, the man a Master’s student.

The discussant (seemingly American) stood up to give his comments. He started mine with “Miss Eszter”. I don’t remember how he addressed the other woman. I do, however, remember that he addressed the man – the Master’s student – as “Professor X”. While I realize that my last name may be a challenge to pronounce, everyone on the panel had hard-to-pronounce foreign names so that doesn’t quite explain the distinction in how we were addressed.

When in doubt and you don’t have the necessary information, how about just writing/mentioning both first and last names and skipping the rest?

9 Responses to “The Mrs”

  1. scott Says:

    I myself always opt for “professor” or “Dr.” when addressing people in academia, especially if I am unsure of their proper title. I would rather be told that the recipient is flattered but does not hold a doctorate than be in error for not using a title that he/she does have. I also use “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am” quite a bit. Not in a subservient way, mind, but showing respect for others when I speak and write is a habit I enjoy.

    Faculty members who are personal friends… that’s another matter. There are deans and vice provosts whom I regularly greet with high-fives, first names and sometimes even hugs.

  2. Beth Says:

    Though not in academia, I tend to default to Dr. or Professor if I know I’m speaking to an academic.

    Otherwise my default for women is “Ms. Lastname”.

    There’s a lot of assumptions made about this outside of academic circles as well. I am usually called “Mrs. Kelleher” and I usually correct people and say “I prefer Ms.” or something along those lines and I might even try to get a laugh by saying something about “Mrs. Kelleher will probably always sound like my Mom”.

    Even if I’d changed my last name when I got married, I’d insist on Ms. I think part of the issue with some other countries is that there is no equivalent to Ms. It’s either “Madame” or “Mademoiselle” in France as far as I know. I usually cut Sabs’ ageing grandparents slack on this because they are very old and not well and it’s not that big of a deal. However, I’m planning on reminding his father that there is no such person as “Mrs. Sebastien Billard”.

  3. Steph Says:

    Very interesting. I couldn’t get through all the comments–it seems there’s a lot of unwillingness to just say “wow, eszter, i’m sorry to hear that people are such sexist jerks to you.”

    instead the converstaion gets into how to call cashiers and what happens in norway and the south and there’s debate about these silly side issues.

    sometimes people are just sexist jerks! and that’s much more interesting and blog worthy than all that junk in the comments.

  4. eszter Says:

    Scott, this wasn’t about friends, of course.:) (I’m not suggesting you misunderstood, I’m just saying.)

    Beth, I guess I can see going easy on grandparents, but what’s up with parents/parents-in-law not getting it?!

    Steph, THANK YOU SO MUCH for that!

  5. Katie Says:

    Wow – I have had this exact conversation with my colleagues, both male and female! The men never noticed a problem, but all the women were in agreement that this happens all of the time.

    We have the problem with students (usually first years) and we attributed it to coming from high school and always calling your teachers Mrs. So and so, but that doesnt answer the gender difference.

    I have always instructed my students to error on the side of formality and address any faculty member / expert as Dr. If for some reason they aren’t, most likely they will not be offended while the opposite is not true.

  6. eszter Says:

    Hi Katie, neither of the cases I talk about have to do with undergrads though. They are usuall professionals contacting me about something (prospective grad students about our program or academics asking me to do something). the second example had to do with colleagues from other institutions. The discussant on that panel was likely a senior prof from what I recall.

  7. scott Says:

    Here’s an interesting experience. I once addressed an email to two females with “Ladies:”. This was, oh, 6-7 years ago. One of them brought me up short saying it was totally inappropriate. I responded by saying I had no intention to offend and that I regularly address men similarly with “gentlemen,” but also promised to not do it in the future. Shortly thereafter I got a message from the same woman saying that she overreacted and that upon reflection it wasn’t a big deal. To this day, however, I have refrained form using that kind of greeting. Live and learn.

  8. Jenny D Says:

    What Steph said!

    And I am sorry to add that one of my senior colleagues has taken to beginning his e-mails to small groups of junior faculty with the words “Dear ones”…

  9. eszter Says:

    Ouch, is that supposed to be a joke, Jenny? (Yeah, like “Miss Eszter” is supposed to be “endearing”.)