How To Address Each Other ... And Our President What's in a name? The question of how and when titles should be used is getting renewed attention with Barack Obama in the White House. Tony Cox discusses naming conventions with NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates and former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge-turned-blogger Kevin Ross.
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How To Address Each Other ... And Our President

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How To Address Each Other ... And Our President

How To Address Each Other ... And Our President

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is News and Notes. What do you like to be called, and how do you feel when someone addresses you in a way that you think is improper or unbefitting your age or your status? The question of what's in the name and how and when titles should be used is something we've heard a lot about since Barack Obama was elected president. Or should it be Mr. Barack Obama or Mr. President Barack Obama. Listen to this exchange I had with a former L.A. superior court judge last week.

(Soundbite of previous News and Notes show)

Mr. KEVIN ROSS (Former Superior Court Judge, Los Angeles): This whole point about Barack's name, the president's name, right now it doesn't matter what you call him. Folks are hurting and they need jobs and if we are not able to address that on a level that people can relate to, they're going to be calling him more than just what we're referring to right now.

COX: Those remarks were by Kevin Ross and they generated a lot of discussion. We're going to hear from Kevin again in just moment. But first, we're going to address the issue of how to address our elders, our parents, our superiors, with NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates. She's also co-author of the book, "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times" and she blogs on etiquette manners at Welcome to News and Notes, Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRISBY BATES: Thank you, Tony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GRIGSBY BATES: It's nice to be back here. I think I can call you Tony because…

COX: Yes you can.

GRIGSBY BATES: We're friends and you're not the president.

COX: All right. That's - you know, and that's one of the points of the protocol for addressing people, what your relationship is to them. So, lay it out for us. What's the rule about being on a first-name basis with people, especially if they are leaders or superiors?

GRISBY BATES: I think for leaders or superiors, they're human beings but they're also the embodiment of the office they represent and so when I hear people referring to the president as Barack, excuse me, Judge Ross, it makes me a little bit nervous because he is the president, he's a president of the United States. I know that as black folks, we like to consider him our own personal president, and he is, but he's still the president of the United States. Everybody - people elected him. He sort of owed that due, and there's the respect for the office even if we're comfortable slipping into first-name basis.

COX: This goes much further than just Barack Obama as president, doesn't it, in terms of within our culture and others, how we address one another properly and improperly.

GRISBY BATES: It does and I think it goes, way, way back to how we were addressed when we were owned by other people and immediately after that. When we were considered less than the then- majority population, it was considered perfectly proper in many parts of the country for someone to be Mr. Jones and for Mr. Jones to be able to call you Tony even if you were older than he, if you were black and he wasn't. That's still stings and I think that as black folks in general, for generations, we have been very, very careful to use these honorifics because for so long we were denied them.

COX: But that's not happening now, is it?

GRISBY BATES: It is in many places.

COX: But it's - and it's not in many places, too.

GRISBY BATES: Yeah. And part of that, I think, is generational. You know, the further you get from that kind of old school home training that says, this is not Susan, this is Aunt Susan or this is Mrs. Cox depending on how she prefers to be called and what - how intimate your child's relationship is with her, for instance. That you get people who sort of feel like, oh that's the old timey, we don't need to be bothered. Think again.

COX: Well, let's bring Kevin into the conversation, and Kevin's been a good sport about this. We played that clip a couple of times. Kevin, I want to ask you about when you were on the judges - on the bench as a superior court judge, what would you do if someone were to call you Kevin and not Your Honor?

Mr. ROSS: Well, thank you for having me, Tony and Karen. It's always a pleasure.

What's interesting when I first became a judge, people immediately started referring to me as Judge Ross even before I took the oath of office, and even before I actually assumed the position. And then as time went on, it seemed very weird to me, it was the same sort of feeling when people will refer to my wife by my last name as opposed to her last name. And there was that transition period where, oh, yeah, that's right, she is Mrs. Ross, because up until that point the only Mrs. Ross that I knew was my mother.

So, you know, I went through this phase of people referring to me as Judge Ross and then for a time, I would correct them and say, no, no, it's just Kevin, it's fine. But then I had a situation where I had sentenced a defendant to, you know, a pretty good amount of jail time, and I was at Costco with my family and because I am from the Los Angeles area, I grew up with a lot of folks here. And while I was in Costco, I was walking when someone went Kevin, Kevin, hey, what's going on? And so I looked and I thought oh, well, maybe this is someone who knows me or someone I grew up with. And I said do I know you? And they were like, yeah, I was in court. And I was, like, you're not the defendant that I sentenced. Are you (unintelligible)?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS: And the person said, yeah, yeah, Kev. How are you doing? And I was like, oh, no, my brother.

COX: Yes, that line had been crossed. Well, you know what, Kevin? You're calling the president by his first name and your explanation got some of our listeners hot under the color, as we've said. Politics aside, though, do you still think it's OK to call him Barack? And if you do, why?

Mr. ROSS: Well, here's what I find interesting. This is day 28 of when he was officially inaugurated into office. And so from January 28th until today, we've had 28 days of getting used to the notion of President Obama. And my point was very similar to what I was saying about my wife. We are in a transition mode.

If you look at Michelle Obama, our first lady, First Lady Obama - getting used to that as well - when she spoke before the Housing and Urban Development office, here are some of the things that she said - Barack and I and all the folks in the West Wing and the East Wing are very proud of what you've done for the country. She went on to say, Barack and I always believe that investing in the community that you live in is first and foremost, very critical. So here, you have the first lady even addressing our commander-in-chief by his first name. Now...

COX: Yeah, but that's a different circumstance. That's his - that's - isn't it?

Mr. ROSS: But it's not. No. Here's the point, though. When you listen to Laura Bush, our first lady, referred to her husband, she never said George. She always said the President or Mr. President or President Bush because she had gotten accustomed to using that title. That...

COX: Well, let me bring Karen back in to ask her this question, because what you raised is something that perhaps we can provide a service for our listeners who are wondering what in the word they should do when they are confronted with circumstances like this. So what do you say, Karen, to the person who has, as they say, called you out of your name? And more importantly, how do you correct it?

BATES: Well, You know, I like Sidney Poitier approach. He counsels somebody who was calling him out of his name. He said, they call me Mr. Tibbs(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSS: Yes, I loved that.

BATES: And I think it's OK to say, you know, to a child - Sandy, in our house, we call the adults Mr. and Mrs. Or it's OK to say to - I don't know - somebody that's just met you that you're referring to as Mr. and Mrs. and they're calling you by your first name, and you don't know if you'll ever see them again. Actually, you know, I'm a little uncomfortable with that informality. How about we call each other whatever? And usually people get the hint pretty quickly.

COX: Will respond. You know, I actually had this circumstance happen to me yesterday because, as you know, I'm an associate professor at California State University, and one of my students who was older and who I had a relationship with outside of the university, who's in my class, called me Tony in class one time. I had the opportunity to talk to him in the hallway and I said, look, you and I have a relationship, but don't call me Tony in class.

BATES: See because there's this presumption of the fact that you all are equals when sometimes that's not the case. There's a differentiation because of age, for instance, so that you wouldn't - I mean, your student was an older student and so he was presuming you were equals because you're about the same age...

COX: Yeah.

BATES: But he's breaking down your lines of authority in class. When children in the fifth grade call their teacher Hilda, that's a problem for me.

COX: This is true. And this guy...

Mr. ROSS: You know what...

COX: We were friends and I - but I didn't want to put him down because it wasn't that...

BATES: You did the right thing.

COX: You know...

BATES: You took him aside...

COX: And I said...

BATES: You didn't embarrass him.

Mr. ROSS: And I agree. Listen, I am very formal. I have two kids. One's - you know, both under the age of 12 and their little friends - you know, six through 10 - will come and say, well, Kevin. And I was like, Kevin? I said, oh, no, Jordan and Evan, my kids, I said their dad's name is Mr. Ross. So it's interesting that I find myself even in the situation of , you know, I'm around the same age as the president. You know, we're married around the same number of years, we have kids the same age, we're in law school at the same time, so I've never met the president, and yet, I do still assert an amount of familiarity.

But I think what we're getting ready to see as time goes on, for the very reason that Karen said, we as African-Americans, we're very hypersensitive to this issue. But I think six months from now, a year from now, anyone who's still referring to the president as just Barack or Obama, I think that's when we start looking at it and going OK...

COX: As an issue.

Mr. ROSS: You had enough time to get used to the name.

COX: Absolutely. Our time has run out, but this has been a really good conversation. We didn't get to talk about the reverend, the good reverend doctor in church, which is another title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That black folks have issues with sometimes.

BATES: Sometimes we like our multiple honorifics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: All piled up on each other.

COX: Absolutely. And people that get Ph.D's wanting to be referred to as doctors. NPR's policy, by the way, on something like that is we don't refer to doctors on the air generally unless they are medical doctors.

BATES: Interestingly enough with black shows…

COX: Can you say it in ten seconds?

BATES: Sometimes we do because of the culture.

COX: I guess you got that right. I appreciate you coming on. This was Karen Grigsby Bates. She's also a NPR correspondent and an author, and writes at, and Kevin Ross. I appreciate you all, Mr. and Mrs. Thank you.

BATES: Thank you. ..COST: $00.00

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