You Annoyed Me at Hello: Why Kids Still Need to Learn Manners

A perplexed parent asks the Emily Post Institute how children should address adults in an age of informality

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It’s fall, which means that the new academic year has started. It also means that my husband, a 37-year-old college professor, has started to shake a fist at his inbox. Why? Because, as surely as leaves fall from trees, my husband’s new crop of undergrads won’t know how to address him. They’ll toggle between no salutation, using his first name only, or greeting him with a cheery: “Hey!”

Sadly, being called “Hey!” by a teen doesn’t inspire my husband’s cheer, nor does it establish the rapport the sender may have wished. Instead, it makes the vexed professor and his wife wonder whether titles are as defunct as an iPhone 4 charger.

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Our concerns aren’t just academic. We have a daughter, not yet three, and like many parents, we have grand ambitions for her. One is that we’d like her to be a polite member of society starting, we believe, by addressing adults as Mr., Mrs. and Ms.

But we have an awkward problem. None of our parent-friends agree.

Now, these parents are our friends because we like them, their values and their kids. Yet despite our similarities, their children address adults by their first names, and we don’t want our child to do the same.

Are my husband and I irredeemably stuffy? Most likely, but to find out for sure, I sought professional help.

Peggy Post, director of the Emily Post Institute, and descendant (by marriage) of the eponymous writer who’d formally introduced America to etiquette, was kind enough to take my call.

“I still say it’s a good idea to teach our children to use appropriate titles,” Post said, after listening carefully to my quandary. “Mr., Mrs. and Ms. are not necessarily old-fashioned. Though our world is informal these days, a lot of adults still expect children, especially ones they don’t know, to refer to them by their titles.”

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My parenting philosophy validated, I was ready to end the call. But she wasn’t finished. Post noted that many adults feel old when children use titles so they ask kids to address them by first names instead. Post thought that this was okay (which surprised me because I’d expected all manners mavens to be stuffy). To prevent confusion, Post suggested that parents teach their children to use titles at the outset. If an adult asks that their first name be used, then the parent can decide what to do. Some may be comfortable with the less formal option while others may stick to their etiquette guns.

That’s us, I thought: fans of formality and the only gun-stickers on a lonely road. So I asked Post how parents who insist on titles might prevent themselves from losing all their friends. “Say to them: ‘I hope this isn’t coming across as stuffy, but this is our tradition. I’m not being critical of you using first names, but we would like to use the titles,’” suggested Post.

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This bite-sized advice seemed reasonable, but I wondered whether our peers still might think us priggish. I imagined my husband and me caught in a riptide: everyone from our generation moving forward, us being dragged back with the folk who get sniffy about fish forks. “You’re not alone,” my adviser-turned-therapist replied, noting that many parents find it tricky to navigate changing customs. But even if other families don’t play by the same rules, she insisted that it’s not a mistake to teach kids formal modes of address. “Customs offer a blueprint for how to behave, and children want some kind of instruction.” This applies just as much to holding a fork or writing a note as it does to saying hello, she explained.

Sure, Peggy Post had emboldened me to urge my child to say “Mr.” at a play-date, but maybe I’d emboldened myself too fast.  When I told her we live in Texas, which follows the southern-style of calling adults Miss and Mr., followed by the first name, she thought it wise to compromise. “There’s a point where you want to bend a little bit and go along with the local tradition,” Post suggested, adding that my daughter could use Miss and Mr. plus first name for those close to her, and Mr., Mrs. and Ms., plus last name, for those at one step removed. “You can be flexible but still teach tradition to your child,” she added.

Miss Peggy had a point.

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But I still felt tetchy about my husband’s undergrads. After letting me grouse for a minute, Post observed good-naturedly that email and texting are both informal by nature. She guessed that many students simply don’t know how to address their teacher, and advised that my husband help his class by saying what he’d prefer. “Knowing how to use formal modes of address will help them in the business world too,” she added, effectively showing that hers was a more practical prescription for the problem than my muttering darkly (and priggishly) at a screen.

My family has followed Post’s advice for a month now and I can happily report that my perplexometer is at an historical low. I don’t dread introducing my child to an adult, I seem to have held onto my friends, and I’m now only mildly disapproving of teenagers who call my husband “Hey!”

I chalk up that success to Peggy Post’s advice being, at heart, practical and kind. While I’d expected America’s arbiter of manners to be starchy about anyone not following form, she even-handedly considered what every perspective might be. If etiquette is to make life easier, as Post believes, then in clarifying how my family might proceed, she’s certainly simplified mine.

As for the bigger question of how to show respect in the age of informality, Post had a simple answer. Etiquette isn’t about primness, as I’d feared, but about having a template for being thoughtful and kind. “We can still be mannerly and considerate in a casual world,” she said, “Those fundamental principles never go out of style.”

 Zimbabwean by birth, Carolyn Jones is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas with her husband, toddler and wayward dog.  You can read her monthly parenting column here on TIME.com.

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40 comments
SchoolsNMore
SchoolsNMore

I don't think there's anything wrong in requesting kids to use a title if that's your preference. Giving some importance to eqituette and manners makes for a more pleasant interaction all around. I also believe it's imperative for parents to start the process early enough since when they're very young having the right manners can also help build kids' social skills and confidence. We covered this when we interviewed some etiquette teachers from around the world:
http://www.schoolsnmore.com/articles/article/76-tips-to-raise-well-mannered-kids

MaryD
MaryD

As a postgraduate student at a university where I also did my undergrad, I was a little irritated by this.  For the sake of background, my university is arts-focused and the lecturers encourage a collaborative and open atmosphere with their students, even those who mainly teach theory.  As a nervous 19-year-old in my first year I opened emails with 'Dear Dr' or 'Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms' if I had not conversed in person with the lecturers, and took my future cues from their signature.  So if an email was signed 'John' I addressed them henceforth as John, if it was signed 'Dr Smith' they were Dr Smith, and in person we all generally go on a first name basis.  The feeling at a good university is that students are respected and held in high regard for the gifts that brought them to the institution and their ongoing hard work, and the lecturers are respected and held in high regard for their knowledge, kindness, and hard work.  Socially penalising these students for using a greeting you and your husband deem too informal is a little haughty at best.  At worst if this attitude comes across in person it will negatively impact his relationship with his students.  I was raised with excellent manners, stricter than many of my peers, but I have always found that following the lead of the other person to gauge their desires and what they are comfortable with is the most polite thing a person can do.  Most of all, they're only 18.  Give them a break.

elizaanne
elizaanne

There are some issues with this article, namely that undergrads are not children. University students are expected to attend lectures, write papers, contribute to discussions, and many also have jobs that pay for rent and their food. A university is supposed to be an open environment in which to discuss and learn, and while I object to starting an email with 'Hey!", "Hello," or the person's first name is completely acceptable. Everyone in a university setting are adults, and should not need to defer to professors by Mrs. or Mr. Do the professors address their students likewise? I doubt it. 

JulianMouton
JulianMouton

Too many people screw just for personal pleasure. They have no idea what parenting is.  Therefore, their children often end up in jail.

dr.luandao
dr.luandao

I  see nothing wrong with requiring children to address adults as Mr. or Ms.  In fact I require my daughter to do the same, regardless of what her friend's parents allow them to do.  One of the most enduring legacies that my mother passed on to me and my siblings are good manners.  In many ways they do seem quaint, but in the end they will get you very, very, far.  In most instances in life when you apply for school or a job and get an interview the interviewer knows you are qualified, just as all the other people who are interviewing are qualified, what sets you apart from the crowd is how you hold yourself and how you treat others.  I still routinely refer to those who are older than I am as Mr. or Ms., unless otherwise requested.  When I was in an academic setting I also expected my students to refer to me as Dr., Mr, or professor.  Mr, was just a polite and Dr. and professor were honorifics that I had earned and while I didn't dock my student's grade for not using an honorific, it certainly did not make me think very highly of their manners when they would refer by my first name.

TomDenson
TomDenson

I see a lot of rallying to the attack on this article, i wonder though: Are manners really that confronting to us as individuals? What does it cost to polite and well mannered to those around you? I smile a lot when i walk a round, say please and thankyou and address even those younger then me as Sir and Ma'am. Why not be polite? I really think society would run just that little smoother and maybe even a little happier constantly used something that takes no effort and improves the quality of life around us.

SeanWEasterly
SeanWEasterly

I am a 22 year old working professional enrolled in college. After reading this article I looked through some previous emails I found that I wrote teachers "Hey Professor". I don't believe any of my teachers would call me rude.

One thing college professors seem to forgot is that the students are paying for a service. In banking if I came out and wrote an article about how customers are so rude and disrespectful and you were a customer of my bank, you would likely be very upset. Do not forget that the students are paying your husbands salary. Not only that, we are paying a lot. 

As well I don't believe that all college students are kids.

 To me, manners is about respecting all types of people and if someone is saying "hey" it is displays a lower attainment of manners if you are offended by this rather than accepting their vernacular. In short: Yes, you and your husband are being stuffy.

tit4tat
tit4tat

Dear Carolyn, I loved your article, but found one hiccup in your grammar. You said "I imagined my husband and me caught in a riptide..". I didn't think the sentence looked right so I checked with Dr. Grammar at the University of Northern Iowa who agreed that your sentence should have read "..I imagined my husband and MYSELF caught in a riptide". The common rule of thumb is to leave the first person out of the sentence when you're constructing it. In your case, if you left your husband out of the sentence, you would have naturally said  'I imagined myself caught in a riptide'.

Piacevole
Piacevole

I think of courtesy as the lubricating oil of society: just as an engine requires some to reduce heat and friction, so does a society. 

This involves the frequent acknowledgement of other people as being "other people," not as extensions of ourselves.  So adults are (title) (last name) until they offer a more familiar form of address:  "Call me (first name)."  It's not "priggish," but a reasonable admission of separation.  It is presumptuous to be addressed as (first name) by absolute strangers, for example, used-car salesmen or doctors' assistants.  (Then there's the type who asks for a first name, and then says, "Do you mind if I call you (first name)?"  Well, yes.  We don't know each other at all.)  Saying that "we're on a first-name basis" ought to mean something: specifically, that the acquaintance has advanced to that level.

I'm also fond of "please" and "thank you," fairly frequently distributed.  Other niceties, like slowing to let another vehicle into a traffic stream, holding doors (either gender) and generally being helpful are also useful traits for living in society.

"Hey" is not a valid salutation, any more than "You, there!" is.  It's practically graffiti.  It's a shame that a college professor should have to write on the chalkboard his name and title, but it sure beats "Hey!" as a greeting.

PaulA'Barge
PaulA'Barge

So, of course I fell out of my chair laughing when I got to the part where the writer tells us that she lives in Austin, Texas. You know, the place that along with Portland cherishes the "Keep it Weird" motto? Good grief. You're lucky your husband isn't referred to as "Hey Mutt!".

segesta65
segesta65

I bet you could find a Saturday Evening Post from 1923 and it would have an article about how our kids are taking the country straight to hell.

Though I admit, an Idiocracy-style future seems more likely all the time. On the other hand, I tell my polite, non-tattoo'd teenage son that the achievement bar is now set so low, that if he just speaks English well, shows up for work on time, and shows some interest, he'll run the place before long.

Sayyid412
Sayyid412

The first line of a first email to a professor is a student's hardest. I've had professors that joked with me for using my now-standard "Hello, Professor [Last Name]" for being too formal and responded with "Hello, Student [Last Name]." Lots of professors prefer "Hi, [First Name]," or even less formality than that. I've had other professors that are upset if they don't receive the title/last name treatment in an email. "I spent a long time earning that, so please use it," they'll say. I've had still other professors that say "email me like you'd write a letter. That means "Dear Professor" are the first two words you should use."

Mrs. Jones, as a student I would suggest that if your husband wants a particular tone in his emails, he should just put a line about it in his course syllabus. He'll make his students' lives easier (no more wondering about how formal to be when emailing him, score!) and he'll get the tone he desires.

Zenzero
Zenzero

I tell my children to address anyone over the age of 18 as "Mr.," "Mrs." (if known), or "Ms." If the adult is a close family friend, then it's alright to address them as, say, "Mr. First Name," or "Ms. First Name." This is common in the American South, and it represents a good compromise.

I work in a university where the students come from a world of forced intimacy. They often have no experience of anything different. When responding to emails from them for the first time, I sign off using my initials. This creates a sense of a polite, neutral space between us. "Being civil," we used to call it. It has nothing to do with hypocrisy or whether the person actually deserves respect. I'd like to think that it simply made social neutrality comfortable. I'd like to think, too, that this helped to make friendship and intimacy more meaningful. The lines were brighter.

From what I'm told, this distinction still holds true in most of the countries on the planet. Many people from around the world will tell you that they find American informality and friendliness superficial. They feel let down. It may be that the real hypocrites are those Americans who insist that you allow them to address you as some kind of informal, intimate pal, and then berate you for being "cold" when you don't return the intimacy. I'm not surprised that non-Americans often find this creepy or bewildering.

dnb03
dnb03

One of the most wonderful women I know, an adult neighbor when I was growing up, was and still is Mary Lou (not Mrs. last name).  I respected her immensely when I was young, and now that I'm old, I love and respect her.  It's not the title, but the actions of a person, that sustain respect.

pendragon05
pendragon05

The author is an exception.

Too many "parents" are too busy trying to be big buddies to their kids. Children do not need "big buddies", they need parents.

Ann Sanderson
Ann Sanderson

Pat -- do you think adults are lacking manners because it starts with a lot of respect and a pinch of formality -- like using titles? All rude adults are grown up rude children.

Pat Collender
Pat Collender

I would get too hung up on how a child should address an adult as long as that child has good manners which a lot of adults now seem to be lacking

Bonnie Blake
Bonnie Blake

Civility and citizenship ease tensions in this competitive and crowded world.

Kat Winkler
Kat Winkler

I'm a second grade teacher in Denver, CO. I'm 25, one side of my head is shaved with a skull and cross bones dyed in it. I value creativity and truth. I've been at the same school for 8 years! Since I was 18. I have taught for 4 years and know the community very well. I'm in the lower income area of Denver. I'm going to say this and it'll probably enrage many people. I want to shake some of the parents of my students and scream at them and tell them how they need to get their lives together! It seems like people have forgotten about core values, which begin at manners, rules, & consequences. Guess what, you had a child it's your responsibility to raise them properly, no matter your economic status. If you're a wealthy stay at home mom, stop thinking you have a "gt"'student. They're "with it" because you're educated. If you're "low income" take some freakin responsibility and stop expecting the classroom teacher to teach value, hard work, and the basics to your child! Back the teacher and set boundaries for them from DAY 1! I am an educator so that I can teach your student academics, not life skills, appropriate social skills, manners, right vs. wrong. If you disagree with this post, you're more than welcome to come teach my 31 students! Sincerely, The Second Grade, Punk, with the side of her head shaved, working herself to the bone teacher in Denver!

Yahaya Abdurrahman
Yahaya Abdurrahman

Childrens in the western cultures have the autonomy to do whatever they deem fit in the name of child right, this has made them increasingly disesfectful and lacking manners.

Tsvetana Dimitrova
Tsvetana Dimitrova

College students and teens are NOT kids ("kids", fgs). Why don't you call them Mr and Ms (and Mrs - college students, you see :-))

DrProdipta Chowdhury
DrProdipta Chowdhury

........ local staffs at US Embassy in Dhaka,BANGLADESH, who check details of each of the visa applicants prior to issuing of the visas had also failed in tracing such notorious tendency of the Bangladeshi youth. It was earlier reported in Weekly Blitz that hundreds of youths with Jihadist mindset had entered a number of Western nations either with study or immigrant visas. In United States, large number of Bangladeshis as well as nationals from Pakistan and India are regularly giving Jihadist orientation to their so-called congregations under the garb of Tablighi Jamaat. Similar activities are also spreading wings in United Kingdom for past few years. http://www.weeklyblitz.net/2652/bangladeshi-campus-turned-into-breeding-ground

John C. Albutra
John C. Albutra

in the philippines kids are trained to respect the elderly. ITS MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES!

Sai Nimmagadda
Sai Nimmagadda

Completely agree. Manners (at least to me) have always been taught to be used automatically. Manners isn't simply convention - it is the way to convey respect to someone else. It awes me that people of my own generation just don't seem to get it. But that might just be me.

glennra3
glennra3

@SeanWEasterly No, you are NOT paying for college.  Your parents are and they should have taught you better manners.  The author isn't stuffy...you are rude.

Professors aren't your buddies.  They are professionals who worked long and hard to attain a position where they can help you earn an education and hopefully a job that will allow you to pay for your children's education.

Show them respect by using their well-earned title.

BurtAllen
BurtAllen

@segesta65  You're thinking of Yesteryear, fellow 65. Hopefully, your son is a scientist or top-level engineer. Because otherwise, as in Idiocracy, if he speaks English well he'll likely be regarded as a "fruit", if he shows interest and is punctual he will be regarded as a spoiled, privileged, brown-nosing know-it-all. His boss will be from a "protected social class" who earns 25% less than he would if he "ran the place", and that boss will sit on the job like a stereotypical DMV clerk. This is the new paradigm, and it is rampant and apparently irreversible.

KathyBertone
KathyBertone

@Sayyid412 First, good on you for addressing him or her formally to start; bad on him/her for the totally unprofessional response back to you. I appreciate your vibe, your show of respect, and your comment to the author. There is nothing wrong with using first names after you are given permission. When someone emails me with "Ms. Bertone", in my reply I say "please, use Kathy" but be assured I noted not only their attention to detail, but their willingness to go against the unfortunate trend to the informal. Keep it up. You won't be disappointed.       

uckermanf
uckermanf

@Kat Winkler You TOTALLY have my support on your comments, Mrs. Winkler. Parents have almost completely given up on their responsibilities in terms of raising children, and expect the schools to do it for them. However, any attempt to discipline children for misbehaving at school is met with complaint. They won't do it at home, and they won't allow it at school. So the teachers are left with ill-behaved cretins creating havoc in the classroom which sucks valuable instruction time away. All it takes is one misbehaving student to bring a classroom to a crawl. And this is not just "low income" kids...there are plenty of bratty wealthy kids with parents who have no clue how to instill proper behavior in their kids. While I primarily blame the parents and society, part of the blame DOES belong on schools and teachers. There is a large number of teachers who seem to believe that they can do it all--they can right the wrongs created by broken families and irresponsible parents. I say this because there is not nearly enough of an outcry from the teaching profession to fix this problem. Teachers and school administrations are just sitting back and taking the ABUSE that gets heaped upon them by parents and society-at-large. By not speaking up en-masse, teachers are basically giving tacit approval to the situation.

uckermanf
uckermanf

@Tsvetana Dimitrova Let's see, when these college students are doing things like alcohol enemas, I'm totally OK with them being referred to as kids.

SeanWEasterly
SeanWEasterly

As well, some of them are my buddies and we email back and forth regularly about things other than school. I respect them and they respect me. A respectful relationship is not one where you bow down before someone simply because they are helping you learn something. When I help classmates on assignments and project, I do not expect them to call me Mr or Sir. When I call people Sir they are often offended, saying I am not a sir call me John or something. As well do not assume you know anything about me, that is rude and really just makes you look like n ass.

SeanWEasterly
SeanWEasterly

@Glenn: No, they aren't. You know what they say about people who assume!