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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