Give a Little Respect: How Do you Address Your Elders?

As I rounded the corner of my parent’s house, I nearly ran into my neighbor, who also happened to be my godfather. He was walking on the cement sidewalk that ran along our house and next to the short fence surrounding their patio.

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“Hello,” he said.

“Hi, Bill,” I said.

There wasn’t much more to say so we continued on our way. Nothing too remarkable in the day of a child.

Except later, my dad stopped me, “Did you see Dr. C before?”

I nodded.

“Did you call him Bill?”

I nodded.

“Don’t do that. You call him Dr. C.”

Lesson Learned

The fact was, I always had used the more formal name to address Dr. C. That morning, I don’t know why I thought I could call him Bill, as my parents and their friends did. It was something I just threw out to see if it would stick. I don’t really remember if my dad was very mad. What I do remember is feeling really dumb for thinking I could call my neighber, an adult, by his first name. The thought of him talking to my dad really made me feel bad.

I tried to call my neighbor by his first name more than 40 years ago. My godfather and father are no longer living, and I’m a Mrs., but I still call his widow, and all of my parents Mr. and Mrs. So and So.

I only recently learned that this might have gone out of fashion. A few months ago a Twitter user caused a stir when he posted an old video of Maya Angelou correcting a teenager who called her Maya when asking a question.

Angelou, who died in 2014, told the girl, “And first, I’m Ms. Angelou. I’m not Maya. I’m 62 years old. I’ve lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, has no license to come up to me and call me by my first name.”

There were more than 1,400 responses to the tweet. Some people said Angelou was disrespectful to the girl, some thought she had no right to ask to be called Ms. Angelou, others thought she was spot on.

It sparked a bigger conversation about whether using titles was cultural, regional, generational, or if it had gone the way of the Model T. The discussion moved from the Internet to newspaper articles and even found its way to television as the women on The View discussed it.

Even Ms. Angelou tweeted from beyond the grave to respond.

Only equals can become friends.” Maya Angelou. Dr. Angelou addressed people by their last name that she worked with as Ms., Mrs., and Mr. and made sure people around her dinner…

Some did think Angelou was teaching the girl a lesson that she needed to learn, no matter how embarrassing. I can’t say how that girl took it, but for me, I would say the lesson I learned from Dr. C was the same lesson. I still respect my elders today even if the lesson stung a bit back then.

What do you think? Do you still address your elders with Mr./Mrs./Ms. even though you are an elder yourself? What do you tell your kids to do?

Originally published at on June 19, 2019.

Narrative nonfiction and memoir. Querying my memoir about my family, told through the lens of brain tumor and father’s stroke.

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