Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What's in an honorific?

In my second year at Cambridge, I shared a set of rooms with my (female) friend E. We had a party, the table (visible in the background in its undamaged state) got damaged, and a repair bill, addressed to Mr L and Mr D, duly arrived from the Clerk of Works. I went into their offices waving it around and demanding an explanation. They had a list of everyone's names, in fact they were the people who painted people's names on their doors at the beginning of the year, and in those days (and possibly still) men were just listed by surname while women were called Miss. So it's not like it would have been *hard* to ascertain that we were in fact women. Well, they explained, we just address all our students as Mr, it's usually right.

I'm not paying it, I said, until you actually address it to me. I'd like to think I flounced out, but I expect I stomped. And, if memory serves, a new bill to Miss L and Miss D was forthcoming.

I didn't have the stamina at that point to challenge the Miss -- I was a Miss when I got there and a Miss when I left and am a Miss to them still, but everywhere else, ever since there have been forms to fill in, I've been ticking the Ms box.

It's great being a Ms. I remember when I opened my first bank account at 15, running my fingers over the MS that was embossed on the cash card, and thinking 'I chose that'. I love it when they ask, as they still SO OFTEN do, 'is that Miss or Mrs?' Neither, I still SO OFTEN enjoy saying, it's Ms. Yeah, I can see some of them thinking, that figures. I don't care. I am happy to be defined by the fact that I won't be defined by my marital status. Make of it what you will, that's why I do it.

And every now and again, especially online, you see a form that just has Mr or Ms as the main options. That, brothers and sisters, is progress. You'd never have seen that in the 80s. Although, now I think about it, it still doesn't leave space for people who identify as neither male nor female. I am not sure they have any option except to get themselves a PhD.

But it's not all progress. As I get older, and have to talk to people about boring grown up things, those who used to default to Miss (which is at least technically accurate) now default to Mrs. What I particularly hate, and I'm sure I'm not alone, is when someone rings up for M, aka Mr D, and I answer instead. "Is that Mrs D?", they say, in that flat monotone that call centre people have.

"There *is* no Mrs D," I say in my scariest voice. "Well, actually, there is, but she's in the attic."

And then yesterday I had the pleasure of calling an anonymous appliance service centre FOUR TIMES, because our cooker is playing up, and I can't get through a recession without a working hob, thank you very much. The whole experience, with the automated menu that doesn't have any of your options, the checking with the kitchen installer to find out where the gas isolation valve might be, the inexplicably getting cut off twice, was so exhausting that I didn't have the energy to disentangle myself from the lazy assumption that only married women might need their burners servicing. Fnarr.

The phone rang this morning and it was the engineer, telling me what time he'd be coming round. 'Is that Mrs L?', he said. Yes, I said. Yes it is.




Blogger Ben said...

"I am not sure they have any option except to get themselves a PhD."

Or go into the church, or join the armed forces. (Your one-liner is better ...)

9:00 am  
Anonymous M said...

Lazy assumption no. 2: That only a married woman would be around during the daytime to take the call.

By the way, the Rolling Stones have a song called "Dancing With Mr D" (where the D is as in "Sympathy For..."). My rock star alter ego, maybe?

9:51 am  
Blogger Jo said...

I'm enjoying imagining the Army recruitment advert that might come about though.
'Be the best! Have a gun! Eat cheese from a tin! Get yourself a gender-neutral honorific!'

1:46 pm  
Blogger Charlie said...

I'm sorry, are you saying you thoughtlessly damaged a table, young lady?

3:18 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

Not quite... One of the party guests, D (pictured far left) asked me where the bottle opener was. I said 'it's on the table'. She apparently thought I said 'just use the table'. So she opened her bottles by prising the lids off with the tabletop edge. Which made a splintery mess of some rather nice wood. At subsequent parties I made sure bottle openers were highly visible and well-secured. I still do, in fact. You live and learn.

4:09 pm  
Blogger Beth said...

Oh yes, I very much identify with you on the whole Miss/Ms/Mrs thing. The first time I applied for a passport I wasn't ALLOWED to be Ms, there was no such option. I got a bit stroppy in the post office, but that was a battle I was never going to win.

Consequently, I try to be really careful never to ask the 'Is that Mrs Whatever?' question.

7:50 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

"Getting a bit stroppy in the Post Office" is basically the story of my life! Although Gandhi built a social revolution on such behaviour, so I'm not giving it up yet.

10:16 am  
Blogger tomato said...

"it still doesn't leave space for people who identify as neither male nor female. I am not sure they have any option except to get themselves a PhD"

Heh. Funny how true that often turns out to be....hence the boy gets called 'Dr' on the phone/in writing, and asked for age ID when trying to buy a pint.

9:34 pm  

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