THE BLOG

Call Me Mr. Bennett: First Names, Last Names, Respect, and Diversity

06/10/2015 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

The more I take on the responsibility to lead diverse groups, the more I am aware of the importance of perceptions, symbols and subtleties, and the more I am skeptical of abstract rules. We often fail to communicate what we intend, without fault. I see these mishaps begin the moment we greet a person.

When I started my first job as a law professor, I was 27 years old. I had moved from California to Washington, D.C. to join the faculty of Howard University. I was determined to demonstrate my commitment to equality through informality: I asked students to call me by my first name, "Frank."

I had not anticipated that at the leading historically black college/university (HBCU), with heavy enrollment from the Deep South, some -- many but not all -- students were uncomfortable using my first name, while a few presumed a relationship that we did not have. My attempt to be casual did not put people at ease. They defaulted toward formality.

The more I insisted that they were not obligated to address me with any honorifics, the more anxious those in the former category became. They had a sense of propriety that would have impressed my Asian immigrant parents. Their practices were reassuring to them in familiarity.

They were accustomed to saying, "Sir," with resolute sincerity rather than the typical sarcasm, and they resorted to the colloquial formulation of "Mr. Frank." If forced to do so, which would be wrong on my part, someone with this tendency would explain that due to their upbringing they simply felt it inappropriate to refer to me as "Frank." For our purposes, my first name was "Professor," and theirs was "Mr." or "Ms.," or, now and then by request, "Mrs."

Ironically, my effort to be egalitarian produced the opposite effect. There was a noticeable inequity between those who treated me as more distinguished than I deserved, and those who enjoyed a false sense that we were peers. If that were the case, there would be no reason for me to stand behind the podium delivering a lecture.

I concluded that I was the one who needed to adapt. I was there for the students, not vice versa. I came to understand their expression of respect. It comes from a complex cultural history, associated with more than oppression. Generations ago, an African American who was in domestic service might also be a deacon of a leading church, so the substitution of a single word might take on more significance because of that dichotomy of statuses. I am not surprised that a training program for African American male teachers has been set up as "Call Me Mister." (Recall the famous line, "They call me Mr. Tibbs" from the classic movie In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier.) Sociolinguists describe, I hope with due regard, these locutions as "hypercorrection."

As I gained experience elsewhere, I realized my decision should be extended beyond a predominantly black classroom. Independent individuals may assert that they do not display deference to anyone, but their behavior suggests otherwise. Hierarchy is difficult to eliminate. Equality along one axis (teacher to student) generated inequality along another axis (student to student). (Others have noticed similar patterns in how journalists refer to professional athletes.)

The inequality among students correlated to race and gender. The students who were most privileged were those who presupposed we were on a first-name basis even without an invitation in that regard. On some campuses, the students seemed to assume a superiority to their teachers -- or at least some of them; my African American female colleagues who are at elite, overwhelmingly white institutions would vouch for me about this problem. I cheer them for taking to task those who would omit "Dr." when asking a question. They earned that degree their interlocutors might never hold.

I admire the convention at St. John's College. The Great Books school located in both Annapolis and Santa Fe relies on seminar discussions, embracing what might seem quaint to some nowadays, learning for it's own sake. The faculty, who are denominated "tutors," and their students alike use "Mr." and "Ms."

It turns out I am no different. As far as I am concerned, my parents lack first names; I am baffled at the notion of youngsters being on a first name basis with their forebears. My father's first name is "Dad." I have worked with judges, members of Congress, generals, ambassadors and others with high ranks preceding their given name and various initials following their family name. I have felt gratitude when they regard me as a friend, but I generally cannot bring myself to use their first name if I met them in a professional setting. Even those whom I knew before their appointment or election, whom I have witnessed in less dignified moments, I feel I owe the courtesy of acknowledging their achievement.

These protocols may be as warm as they are cold. It depends on context and other cues. Standing when someone else enters the room, making direct eye contact -- these are rituals and signals that are well-established but culturally normed.

My own home is an example. I have always wanted to speak to my wife as "Ms. Izumi."

She has multiple names. Her Christian name is "Carol." That is what appears on her business card. Her nickname is "Debbie": it is an Anglicized shortening of the Japanese word for "fat baby," which is what her older sister called her when she was a newborn (they are sansei, third-generation Japanese Americans). As she is able to joke, being petite and svelte as an adult, her extended family all know her by the equivalent of "fatso." A feminist, she has not taken my last name, since "Mrs. Wu" was my late mother. But with some local businesses, such as the dry cleaner, it is convenient for us if our household shares the same name. (Bebe our dog has my last name, but Walter the bird has her last name.)

To be an Anglophile is a cliche of assimilation, no doubt. For those who would have been inferiors in the Empire, the affectation of mimicking its etiquette can only be self-conscious appropriation -- with the humor that claims equality at last. I am not sure when it ceased to be common, but my wife's English period dramas depict spouses using "Mr." and "Mrs." with one another. My sister-in-law, who in fact is from London, disdains our preposterous notions from watching altogether too much BBC.

When Carol/Debbie and I saw the last film adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, starring Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as the parents of Lizzie (played by Keira Knightley) and her unruly sisters, I noted that the elders refer to one another as "Mrs. Bennett" and "Mr. Bennett." As we exited the theatre, I said to her, "Why don't we do that."

So now when my wife wants my attention, she uses a term of endearment: "Excuse me, Mr. Bennett."