Naming names


I am female academic research fellow with a PhD (this will be important). I am organising an academic conference which is advertised on our university website. Today I received an email: someone had seen the advert on the website and asked for further information.

So far, so good. To my considerable surprise, however, the email was addressed to ‘Mrs. [my name]’. This is rather unconventional: I, and most academics with me, always address someone unknown in academia as ‘Dr’ – for better to flatter than to offend!! If that title is not applicable, however, I would still usually use Ms.

So, I wondered, had there been a mistake in the conference announcement? No, the website reads: “for enquiries, please contact Dr [my name+email]”.

I am bafffled. Somehow this enquirer (and it was a he) upon reading my name not only completely overlooked my clearly advertised title, but then inferred that despite working in a university I (1) would be most likely not have a degree, and (2) would prefer to be addressed as a married woman.

How blind and/or biased can one be???????? But I guess that despite rightfully earning a higher degree after years of hard work, it’s still #MFIF. Maybe I should have worked hard to earn a Mrs title instead!!!!

Academic, London


34 Responses to “Naming names”

  1. C Says:


    I get prospective PhD students contacting me who address me either as Sir or make it clear in their email that they believe I am a man. Not the best way to demonstrate critical thinking abilities.

  2. A Different Sam Says:

    Even if I’m absolutely certain that someone in an academic position doesn’t have a doctorate, I still don’t address them as simply “Mr.”, and certainly not as “Ms.” or “Mrs.” when I haven’t a clue whether or not they are married; generally, I use “Professor” as the honourific in that case. But even then, the situation of knowing for certain that they’re not a doctor isn’t that common, and it certainly doesn’t apply here, given that you were explicitly stated to be a doctor.

    Obviously, in email-sender’s fantasy world, Ph.D.’s are earned by men through research and married into by women.

    • Brie B. Says:

      Well, Ms. is meant to be neutral on the issue of whether or not a woman is married–that’s why it was coined in the first place–not as an abbreviation of Miss. But otherwise, your comment is spot-on.

  3. sz Says:

    Very bad manners indeed.

    Despite having a doctorate too, my nan still insists on writing to me as Mrs [My partner’s name]. I can’t change her, but I do get a lot of joy from answering anyone who asks “Is it Mrs, Miss..” with “no, it’s Dr”. Endless, endless joy.

  4. L Says:

    I consistently get emails from students, and occasionally someone outside the university, addressing me as Mrs. And not only have I had my doctorate for more than a decade, I am chair of my department. And I’m not married. I don’t know whether that bothers me more, or them moving straight to my first name without their having ever met me. I worry a bit about what manners they cultivate in schools prior to university.

  5. Snk Says:

    Was the person who sent the email German by any chance? I say this because I’m currently a post-doc in Germany and here, people refer to each other as Frau X or Herr Y in day-to-day interactions – they are trying to me more egalitarian by leaving out the Dr title. Sometimes Germans wrongly adopt this custom when writing emails in English, and call me Mrs. S rather than Dr. S. They don’t seem to be aware of the meaning or existence of the more neutral ‘Ms.” The Germans decided to completely ditch their version of “Miss”, which was “Fraeulein” in favour of “Frau” (their old form for Mrs.) for all adult women. They assume without thinking that this has also been done in the English-speaking world. I have had to write many tedious explanations.

    • Emma Says:

      It’s not just Germans either.

      I am considered extremely formal for a Scandinavian. I do not call academics I have not been introduced to by their first name, I address them by their highest title (Dr. being lower than Professor, which, by the way, is an achievement and not the title of any PhD who teaches) and if I am uncertain of that title I will Google it.

      That said, the convention is to call everyone by their first name. Always. If you have a professor whose name is Dr. John Smith you will call him John to his face. If you do not know him and write him a letter, you would usually address him as “John Smith”, and certainly not “Dr. Smith”.

      Combine this with poor training in writing formal letters in English, and you get some rather embarrassing letters. Heck, it needn’t be to academics. I’ve done some editing of business letters and the most consistent problem is that *everyone* signs their letters “Kind regards” or “Best wishes” – perfectly fine here.

      • constanze Says:

        In this case I have to agree. In Switzerland it is also very common to NOT address someone with his/her title – just as no one really signs the response with his/her title. This also goes for correspondence within academia.
        If letters are written in English, it is usually “Mrs.”, as in German the polite way is to write “Frau” (which has nothing to do with one’s marital status).

        If the person who wrote this email is from a non-English speaking context, this might very well be a case of differing rules about how to be polite.

    • Maria Says:

      This is a good point. I’m also Scandinavian and using our equivalent for Mrs and Mr is what we default to if we want to be very formal and respectful. I’m living in England now and it infuriates me when I’m called Miss and or called by my husbands name. There seems to be some sort of obsession to categorise me as owned by some man here.

  6. emzmcgee Says:

    Not saying anything about the post itself really, but I for one just think people sound snotty when someone corrects their title to “Doctor”. For most people, unless you’re a medical doctor, they don’t care. I understand it’s a lot of work to attain that, but it still makes you sound like an elitist douche imo.

    • Meg Says:

      I for one think people sound snotty when they scold people for asking other people to please refer to them by their preferred name and title. In the case of “Dr.”, it makes you sound insecure and defensive about your own level of education. I’m not a doctor, but guess what, I don’t care if you don’t care whether I refer to myself as “Miss” or “Ms.”. I don’t care whether you care if I refer to myself by my full first name or a shortened version or my middle name or anything else. I don’t care whether you care about whether I prefer to be called by a masculine or feminine pronoun. I get to pick which one of each of those is the correct one. If you use the wrong one, I will politely correct you. If you blatantly disregard that because you “don’t care”, that’s you being a jerk, not me.

    • Meg Says:

      Not to mention, this story takes place in the context of an academic conference that she is organizing. Her PhD is directly relevant to their contact. This isn’t just someone random off the street who assumes that any married woman is a “Mrs.”

      I wonder how much *extra* work the emailer had to go to in order to discover her ‘real’ (in his eyes) title? Was it listed on the site, or did he have to dig for it?

      • Enoon Says:

        I’d wager none. You don’t seriously thing whoever was processing these researched her marital status, do you? What I’d be curious to know though, is if the other female PhD’s on the list had a similar experience.

      • emzmcgee Says:

        That’s why I said I wasn’t saying anything against the post. In a work or professional situation, that’s fine which is what this was. I was more just generally ranting about how some people get uppity about their titles (some of which I’d seen in other comments)

    • Ran Says:

      In non-professional interactions, if you make someone’s acquaintance and they insist on being called “Doctor”, then yes, you should proceed to un-make their acquaintance; but in professional interactions, professional norms apply. If you’re in a hospital and address someone as “Nurse”, and they reply that they’re actually a doctor, I hope you’d have the good sense to apologize and correct yourself? Well, this is pretty similar. Within academia, academics with doctorates are not addressed as “Mrs. ___”.

    • Kali Says:

      It’s a mark of basic human respect to refer to people by their preferred form of address. Tbh, it’s pretty lazy and self-centred to believe that your “not caring” matters to anyone.

      • emzmcgee Says:

        Well the times that I have been corrected (which was done in a non-professional or work related environment), it was done in a condescending way. If people did it in a respectful manner, I wouldn’t mind, but I’ve never had that happen. So until then, yeah I don’t care, and I don’t care if it matters to anyone 😛

      • Emma Says:

        It *is* lazy and self-centred, no doubt about it. As time goes by it’s also pretty infuriating, I imagine. I’ve had a few instructors (golf, piano, hunting…) who even failed to learn my name (in the top three most common women’s names for my generation), which you’d think would be a common courtesy especially since I was paying them.

        However, it is also impolite to publicly correct people or make them feel bad about what might have been an honest mistake.

    • ProfKris Says:

      I have earned a Ph.D. and would like to point out that the Ph.D. requires original research. The M.D. degree, however, does *not* require any type of original research. We Ph.D.s are, perhaps, *more* deserving of the title.

      Be that as it may, people have the right to be called what they *ask* to be called.

      We do have a faculty member (not yet terminally degreed) that has requested to be listed as “Mrs.” It’s her choice.

  7. Emmeline Says:

    Have you checked the guy who sent you the e-mail is a native English speaker and would adress a male as “Dr” ?

    My husband is completing his PhD, I always double-check his e-mails to non-French academics because he’s unsure of his English, and I must confess we’ve always adressed people as “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” (sometimes “Dear Miss”), except for Germans because we knew they were very formal (it is not uncommon to see cards with “Herr Doktor Professor Xxxx Zzzz”).

    And he certainly will not want anyone to call him Dr Hisname when he’s indeed a doctor.

    • attie Says:

      It’s Prof. Dr. – the titles go from most important to least important.

      Even more fun is the Professors who have a second (sometimes honorary) doctorate – they are “Frau Professor Doktor Doktor XY”…

      In Germany, it is actually an insult to use Mr/Ms instead of Prof or Dr if one has earned an academic title – if you are familiar enough to elide the title, you are familiar enough to use first names. It actually serves to instill some amount of respect in the other person – my mother is a woman of color with a PhD, and the difference in treatment from people calling her Doktor and people calling her Frau is significant.

  8. Toni Says:

    I agree that it would be important to know if the sender of the email is a native speaker or not. I am from Germany, and here it would be highly unusual to address someone as “Doctor XY” regardless of gender (at least if that person is not a medical doctor). Also, when we say “Mrs.” we don´t assume that someone is married. It is just that Germans chose not to make a distincton anymore between married and unmarried women, as that is considered discriminating.

  9. Mordecai Says:

    I’m not sure using Mrs instead of Dr is necessarily a mark of patriarchy.

    • Mordecai Says:

      We’d need to know more about the person who sent this before we can come to that conclusion.

      • Marie Says:

        Actually, you can right off the bat tell that this is patriarchy at least. Maybe the sender didn’t intend to be sexist, but obviously he made the assessment that A: A woman with this kind of work is for some reason or other married, B: This doctor’s marital status is relevant to this kind of interaction with her.

    • Alibelle Says:

      Using Mrs. instead of Ms. is a mark of partiarchy.

    • Trix Says:

      Rubbish. If they were uncertain – even though it said it RIGHT THERE in the promotional material – they should have used “Ms”.

      The only excuse would be if it were a German person mistakenly translating the generic “Frau” as used these days to “Mrs” rather than “Ms”. But I’d also expect someone in academia to know better (fond hope).

  10. Art Doc Says:

    I hear what you’re saying. However, maybe the person is actually blind. Maybe they are actually biased and under-educated to know proper email etiquette when addressing a person unknown with a PhD.

    Regardless, I bet this doesn’t sit well with you when your university probably has policies in-place in-terms of addressing unknown academics for networking. Also since you’re organizing this event, which takes tons of extra time out of your already busy schedule. Don’t let it get you down and I hope your event went well!

    • Emmeline Says:

      ArtDoc, thank you so much from my husband and myself. It’s true, during our respective 6 and 8 years of study we didn’t take the fundamental “In which country do you adress academics as Doctor/Professor/Sir ?” course.
      Does that qualify you to say we’re biased and under-educated? I honestly don’t think so.

      P.S. : I just checked with my brother’s godmother, who happens to be an American Professor with PhD. She prefers to be addressed as “Madam”. Gosh, that course must really be sophisticated… Glad I didn’t take it, I certainly wouldn’t have passed.

  11. Arsen D. Says:

    This is awful thing that happened, but please don’t use ‘blind’ that way. I know blind people. They are smart. They are perceptive. They are human They are not an adjective, anecdote, or metaphor.

  12. gogocerauno Says:

    Apparently even doctors abuse multiple question/exclamation marks.

  13. atozinco Says:

    Thanks for sharing this – I have two personal examples about the misuse of titles to add:

    1. I often work for my father’s business, answering customer emails (worldwide, but mostly from the UK). Many of the emails are addressed, “Dear Sir”, or “Dear Sirs” – almost all of them from men. I am amazed that that is considered okay, gender neutral, and not offensive (clearly “Dear Madam” is offensive to men!) Is it too much to ask for them to address emails as “Dear Sir / Madam” or simply “Hi” or “Greetings”?
    I once received an email from a man named Joe who called me “Dear Sir” – I emailed him back, accidentally calling him “Peter” instead, which he amiably corrected me on. I wanted to type back: “Apologies for getting your name wrong. You called me “Sir” in your first email, however, so I guess that means we’re even.” But I didn’t, because I don’t want to hurt my father’s business.

    2. I am studying Law, and am currently preparing to do a Moot (a mock trial). For the Moot I have to be known as “Ms. Smith”, while my (male) partner is called simply by his surname, “Jones”, with no title whatsoever. This frustrates me, because it makes me feel like my surname is not seen as entirely my own, but rather something that connects me to a man (father/husband). I love my surname, and I won’t change it on marriage, so I don’t see why my surname should be treated differently to that of a man’s…
    I’m told that this is “traditional legal practice” – but, honestly, this particular practice should go out the window. It is unnecessary.

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