I’ve noticed something the past few months. It’s been a subtle shift, almost imperceptible, and it’s almost passed me by. People have started to call me Mrs.
It’s such a rare thing to use a title now. Maybe it’s just the industry I work in, where everyone’s super-casual and first-names-only, or maybe it’s across the board, but I can’t think when I last introduced myself without saying my first name.
Last week I was giving a lecture at Nottingham Trent University. I arrived at reception and explained who I hoped to meet.
‘What’s the name?’ I was asked.
The receptionist picked up the phone and dialled the internal extension number.
‘Hi – Mrs Derry is waiting downstairs in reception for you.’
Mrs Derry is my mum. She was actually frequently called Mrs Derry up until a few years ago, because she was a teacher and teachers are some of the few people who still get called by their titles in normal life.
Even politicians don’t get the benefit of a Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms anymore. Only if they’re Dr, Sir or Lord. Think about how much whether you call our only female Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher or Margaret Thatcher or Maggie Thatcher means in terms of the regard you hold her in. Maybe it was Mr ‘Call me Tony’ Blair who started it – a cultural slide into informality.
Frankly I don’t mind it. I’d prefer to be called by my first name. And usually I never get called by a title unless someone is trying to be deferential or super-polite, like the lovely man at reception was.
The thing is, I don’t know when I got old enough to look like a Mrs.
In French at school I learned that once a woman reached a certain age, regardless of whether or not she was married, it was polite to refer to her as Madame. I pictured this older woman as grey-haired but genial, worthy of respect due someone of her age and experience.
I am 33. I have the odd grey hair, but I’m not elderly. Or worthy of the respect one commands when one gets old.
Unlike the French, we have a third option, and it was probably around the age of 28 when I decided I was probably a bit old to be a Miss. I was only ever Miss Derry when someone was trying to flirt with me, or gently chide me for slightly brash behaviour.
So I changed my title on all my bank statements to Ms, because they’re the only people who ever use my title anyway and let my mind rest easy with my new social honorific.
Ms feels like it fits me. It feels sophisticated and older and single and respectable, where Miss had begun to feel a bit silly and girlish. It stopped sounding like I was divorced or a lesbian or a strident feminist, and started sounding like a very practical piece of English vocabulary. I was grateful it existed.
People don’t like saying Ms though. It sounds funny, like the sound a bee which is tangled in your hair right next to your ear might make. Mzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
The past few months, I’ve obviously acquired the air of a Mrs. No longer a youthful Miss, I’m not sure what it is that’s marked the transition. But it’s a landmark in my life. I either have the gravitas of an older woman or the air of unavailability of the married woman. Neither is going to weigh in my favour any time soon.
And in the meantime, though it feels painfully obvious to state it, men never have this problem of deciding what they ought to be called, or the angst of being called something other than who they think themselves to be. They’re always just plain Mr, whatever their age or status.
Someone ought to write in Debrett’s (or perhaps they already have) that it’s polite to refer to people in the same way as they refer to themselves. If I arrived at reception and said it was Johanna Derry, I was implying that it was okay to use my first name. After all, that’s a title that is uniquely my own. Just don’t shorten it to Joanne.