When I was young, as in still in elementary school, I was taught that you addressed your elders by their title and their last name. Mr. Fisher. Mrs. Wentworth. Mr. Irvine. Ms. Goodman. (And yes, these were all teachers that I had at some point during my education.) If I didn't know the person's last name, I was to address them as sir or ma'am.
And I wasn't the only one who was raised with these ideas. I remember when I was 12, a friend and I went to the beach and we forgot to take a watch with us. We approached an older gentleman and asked, "Excuse me, sir, but do you have the time?" I remember this clearly, because I remember the state of shock on his face.
To this day, I don't know if he was shocked because we were two youths showing him that level of respect, or if it was because two youths had approached a complete stranger to ask for the time.
I will be the first to admit that the world from my childhood has long ago disappeared. But there are elements of the past that have eroded to the point that I'm now wondering if titles and salutations like sir and ma'am even have a place anymore.
More on my history with titles
If I really sit down and think about it, I have used titles for my elders throughout my education, right through my university years of studying for my Bachelors and my Masters. All of my lecturers were addressed by their ranks within the university structure. Professor Bhattacharyya. Doctor Silyn-Roberts. Associate Professor Mace. Mr. Blanchard. (Again, these were real lecturers that I had during my undergraduate and Masters studies.)
When I was studying for my PhD, it was a mixture, where some were addressed by their titles and names (Professor Hearnshaw), while others might have been awarded titles of prestige, but I called them by their first names (for example, my PhD supervisor was Associate Professor Peter Cottrell, although I always called him Peter).
In fact, it really wasn't until I finished my PhD that the world of using titles and last names seemed to have left my vernacular forever.
I have never subscribed to the idea of addressing mail to Mr. Anderson or Ms. Tilly. In fact, I was taught that for my own safety, I should insist that my mail be sent to J. Mohr—no title that specified gender—and I was taught this back in the 1990s.
The way my mother explained it, the bad guy who is intent on doing you harm could go through your mail and see that you are a woman living alone. Best not to give them any such clues. (And I think some of you are now starting to see why I'm so good at thinking like the bad buy. My mother had a lot of lessons on how to be a "bad-ass woman" in a world filled with "bad guys intent on physically harming you".)
When I got married, I never used the title of Mrs., simply because I wasn't Mrs. Mohr—my mother had that honor—and I didn't take my husband's name either.
But when I got my PhD, I had another reason to not like the titles of Mr. or. Ms. I had earned the right to use the title of Dr. And a few years later, my husband earned the right to use the title of Ir. And trust me… when our children went to high school, it was always a conversation starter with the teachers explaining how I'm the one with the PhD and that my husband is the one who has the international certification for engineer.
So, with my assorted history and strange relationship to titles, it's not surprising that I don't use them at all if I don't have to. And it's not surprising that when I send business-type emails, I often use the full name (first and last) assuming I have the last name. That said, I have become slack in more recent years, using only the first name when possible.
But again, this just adds more questions as to whether titles even have a place anymore.
The situation that sparked this post
My readers hopefully know that I'm actively querying agents, hoping to seek representation for my personal writing. And how you should address the agent in your query letters seems to be a source of anxiety for many writers.
When I construct those query letters to send off, I always use the same salutation: Dear [first name] [last name]. I don't bother trying to get the correct title in there, because I can guarantee that I'll get it wrong somewhere along the line.
Remember, I'm not a Mrs., although I'm married. I can't be a Miss anymore, because I'm married. And I'm not a Ms. anymore either. I'm a Dr.
My husband left the title of Mr. behind years ago, in favor of Ir.
And I know the drive for genderless titles has led to massive confusion, opening up another whole can of worms. (A topic that I'm not going to dive too deeply into in this post.)
Yet, I know some writers do insist on using the Mr. or Ms. titles within their salutations. And there are some agents who do take offense to them—only reinforcing my personal practice of addressing the query to the first and last name and ignoring the titles.
But all of this has got me thinking… If the usage of titles is becoming a thing of the past (I certainly don't use them anymore), then why do we need to fill in certain forms with our titles? I mean, if we're now allowed to have "prefer not to say" for gender on our driver's licenses (I was pleasantly surprised to see this on the form when my son was going for his license), then why were titles still needed for medical forms and the like?
Okay… I know I'm rambling here, but titles… Really… Do they matter anymore?