Dear Miss Manners: I am an African-American woman whom some might call “elderly” but who still has a full-time career. I find, as you observed, that the “line between friendliness and impertinence is getting thinner and thinner.”
For example, receptionists, bank tellers, store associates and others whom I have never met seem to believe that it is appropriate to call me by my first name. I do not know when this familiarity became acceptable. But I am old enough to remember when black women in the South – the area where I was born and lived my formative years – were never afforded the title Miss, Mrs. and now, I suppose, Ms.
Members of the majority population deemed the title one that conveyed gentility, class origins, purity of race and body – statuses to which women like my mother and I could not lay claim. (Histories of black women teachers recount the campaign to be called by these titles.) It might be that I still smart from that memory; it might just be that I am old enough to recall when people asked for the privilege of this familiarity.
Often I say to the stranger who reads my name from my credit card or identification, “My name is Ms. ––-.” However, frequently the addresser does not understand the hint.
So have rules of etiquette changed this markedly? If they have, but I choose to remain old-fashioned, how do I make my request about the term of address known short of an aggressive correction?
Gentle Reader: The practice of denying titles of respect to African-Americans (and female office workers, household employees, and whoever else was dismissed as inferior or childlike) violated the most basic requirement of manners, which is to show respect for others.
It took an unconscionably long time for people to realize this. But it happened in a period when the bizarre notion prevailed that the pretense of universal friendship would solve the world’s problems. The greatest proponents actually urged hugging strangers, formerly known as assault, as a form of philanthropic therapy.
And so when it was recognized that forms of address needed to be equalized, the solution that Miss Manners would have thought obvious – granting titles of respect to all – was bypassed. Instead, equality was to mean that nobody would be entitled to that dignity. Under the pseudo-friendship model, people were no longer allowed to choose their own friends.
Well, that’s how things changed. But, as you no doubt gather, it is not an authorized change, and you do not have to accept it. You will, of course, be polite, knowing that the offenders are ignorant of the history, but you should be insistent. If the first correction makes no impression, you should say, “Excuse me, but I said I prefer to be addressed as Ms. (surname).”