SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We've had some discussions around here recently about how and when to use courtesy titles. I use courtesy titles most of the time - senator, mayor, doctor, private, professor and 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 Mr. and Ms.-ing. Lots of people like it; 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 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., sergeant or reverend, 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 are without salutation. 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.
Now, 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 a guest that while we ask challenging questions, they'll be treated with audible respect; not only the secretary of state, Dr. Stephen Hawking and Ms. Jodie Foster, but people who've lost their job, or have just won a moose-calling competition. 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 their first name, unless Beyonce's elected to Congress. Even then, it will be Rep. Beyonce.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO RUN THE WORLD? GIRLS")
SIMON: Senator Beyonce? You're listening to NPR News.
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