Call me Madame

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

A few days ago, I phoned to arrange a repair to my washing machine. Having got through to the relevant person – a young woman – who could arrange the appointment, I was asked, as question number one, whether I was Miss or Mrs. This question is of course a standard one in this country, where ‘Ms’ has failed to catch on, unlike the position in the United States. As someone who teaches Language and Gender, I am aware that the way you address someone not only reflects the prevalent social structures, but also shapes and perpetuates them. Classifying women from the outset by their marital status is an instance of ‘everyday sexism’, as a certain massively successful web forum is called. Honestly, why should I have to disclose whether I am married or not to someone I have never met and will never meet, just in order to arrange a washing machine repair?

So I gave my standard reply: ‘Ms’. The reply to that was that this was not a title that would allow the relevant form to be completed. Since my (then teenage) son once filled in his title from a drop-down menu as ‘the Right Reverend Monsignor’, it was not clear to me why this form could not offer this third option. Irritated, I said “In that case please use ‘Professor’ “. I don’t like using my ‘rank’ outside academia, but desperate measures were needed. Once again, computer said no. This was an academic title, and so no use on the form. My Chinese horoscope says I am a tree, and trees do not budge. For a few moments it appeared that the washing machine would just have to keep leaking.

To break the deadlock, I launched into my normal little lecture given in such circumstances, about how there was no need for anyone to know my marital status, how this would not be required if I were a man in such a context, and how this was, as another teenager once said, SO unfair. I added that the person taking my details also being a woman, she ought to understand the need for equal treatment.

“Well yes”, she replied, getting tired of this difficult customer, “but it’s been like that ever since ever, so it’s a bit late to change it now”. I pointed out that in other countries, such as France and Germany, they had managed to make the change, and that now in France for official purposes everyone was “Madame” and in Germany everyone was “Frau”, the terms for “Miss” having been abandoned in both countries. I should also have pointed out that the company she was working for, Siemens, was German. On hearing this, her tone changed from one of mild irritation to an interested purr: “Oooh”, she said. “I’d rather like to be called ‘Madame’!”

A mini-triumph for the tree?

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2 thoughts on “Call me Madame

  1. I am single. On drop down menus I choose whatever takes my fancy – Baroness, Lord, Rev -and my mail arrives and gives me a chuckle. If computer says no and insists on Miss or Mrs I choose Mrs. Unless there’s an option for “none of your damn business.” As if they would dare ask a man, and refuse to proceed without the information!

  2. I agree with your arguments in principle. However, I find it inappropriate to give that lecture to low-paid customer services staff who have no control and no say over how their in-house computer system works. All they have is a drop-down list. If you had spoken to a manager, a supervisor or even the IT Department, you might have had more success in actually changing things.

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