When I moved to the South in 1994 I experienced many new cultural expressions. One the most interesting was the unique use of honorific titles plus a first name (Miss Margaret, Mr. George, etc.) for adults with whom you have a close relationship.
I often hear people from Oklahoma say that they are from the South, and I agree that my home state has been greatly influenced by the South. However, when I heard honorific greetings such as “Miss” and “Mr.” paired with first names, I knew I needed to take note – I was not in Oklahoma anymore. This honorific custom presented me with an extra level of culture not practiced in my region of Oklahoma. I was faced with a cultural dilemma – continue with my default cultural mode and risk offending people I cared about or pick up the naming convention in my new home. Since, I never considered the practice wrong, only different, I decided to learn it and use it.
It wasn’t easy at first. Culture of origin is a powerful force. The use of “Miss + first name” when referring to married women perplexed me the most. Where I grew up, “Miss” always and only referred to an unmarried, unusually never married, woman. I needed to turn off my old way of determining what to call someone and turn on new “cultural filters” to help me decide how to address adults in a culturally appropriate way.
I learned that the honorific + first name usage in the South is designed to convey both respect and closeness of relationship. It took me a while to grasp, but in the more formal culture of the South, this honorific usage makes perfect sense.
Warning, what I am about to write will shock and possibly horrify some people: As a child and adolescent, I called my parents’ close friends by their first name. No Miss, no Mister, just their first names. And that is the way they expected me to address them. In my culture of origin, placing an honorific before someone’s first name represented distance rather than respect. I was taught to address teachers, unknown adults, and adults with a significant status or distance with an honorific (Miss, Mr., or Mrs.) plus their last name. Using the honorific always conveyed respect, status, and some degree of distance, but never closeness – hence the need for me to adjust my thinking.
After more than 20 years in the South, I can practice Southern honorifics with little effort, but I am always cognizant of my cultural default mode. I have become “culturally bi-lingual” when it comes to honorific usage.
People often argue that one of these ways of addressing people is universally “right” and the other way is universally “wrong.” They usually argue the proper way is the one they are familiar with. I couldn’t disagree more. While the customs of one’s culture of origin always feels correct, this is an example of a cultural practice that is neither right or wrong in any universal way. In other places around the world, neither of these approaches would be proper. That said, it is extremely important to follow the honorific expectations for the place where you live – especially in a formal culture.
More on culture: “Is ‘my’ culture better than ‘your’ culture?”