Using titles assures guests that they will be treated with respect.
Using titles assures guests that they will be treated with respect. iStockphoto.com
We've had some discussions around here recently about how and when to use courtesy titles. I use courtesy titles most of the time: "Sen.," "Mayor," "Dr.," "Pvt.," "professor," "imam," "Mr.," "Ms." — and "Mrs." when requested, like I was by the late women's rights activist, Bella Abzug.
I get kidded about all this "mister" and "mizzing." Lots of people like it, but some think it sounds dated or disingenuous, like Eddie Haskell.
And I know it can sound funny. We interviewed Meat Loaf, the hard-rocker, mostly to be able to say, "Thanks for being with us, Mr. Loaf." He replied, "You're welcome."
But we also sometimes get complaints about calling the president of the United States "Mr. Obama" or "Mr. Bush" on second reference. Many news organizations have the same practice. "Mr." is not a diminution of respect, but a form of address that can be traced to George Washington, who thought "Mr." conveyed that presidents are citizens, not royals.
Over the years, I've come to see good sense in my mother's advice: "If you're always slightly overdressed, you're never underdressed." So if you begin by addressing someone as "Mr.," "Ms.," "Sgt." or "Rev.," you may rile them with a question — but not with discourtesy.
What's regarded as courteous can change over generations. Most of the messages a lot of us write during the day — email, tweets, posts — are without salutation. Maybe just a "Hi there!" much less "Mr." or "Ms."
These days, utter strangers on the other side of the world call you by your first name when you call up to complain about a spurious charge on your cellphone bill. They think it's friendly, but I sometimes want to ask, "Have we met? Can we try being a customer service agent and an irate customer first?"
Our aim here is not just to be correct, but to try to do effective interviews. I think I've learned that courtesy titles can help assure guests that while we will ask challenging questions, they will be treated with audible respect. Not only the secretary of state, Dr. Stephen Hawking, Ms. Jodie Foster or the mayor of London, but people who have lost their job or just won a moose-calling competition. Other interviewers may have different ways of doing this.
Often a guest will say something like, "My father was 'Mr.' — call me by my first name," and I try to comply. As my wife points out, I've interviewed an awful lot of people by now, sometimes several times, who think of me as "Scott." We work in an intimate medium.
But I won't call a politician by his or her first name, unless Beyonce is elected to Congress. Even then, it will be "Rep. Beyonce."