There was a professor at the college where I used to work — I won’t use her real name — who insisted that everyone, the president included, refer to her as “Dr. Smith.”
The problem was this woman got angry and even downright belligerent if someone mistakenly called her “Mrs. Smith,” or worse, used just her first name.
I called her by her first name. Once. After the tongue-lashing I received, I relented and called her “Dr. Smith.”
What she failed to understand, though, was that she wasn’t respected by many on campus. Just the opposite. I certainly didn’t respect her. I found her to be pompous and egomaniacal.
A few years ago, during a committee hearing, a female U.S. senator scolded a brigadier general for having the audacity, the pure unmitigated gall to call her “ma’am.”
“You know, do me a favor,” the clearly irritated senator said. “Could you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am.’ ... It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it.”
Never mind that the general was following proper military protocol by referring to a female superior as “ma’am,” the senator got her nose out of joint as if being elected to Congress requires some special skill, some special intelligence, some special talent. It does not.
Don’t misunderstand me. My mother made it clear to my brother and me that we were to say “yes, ma’am,” “no, ma’am,” “thank you, ma’am” and “please.” We were to call adults “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
It was a lesson well learned. When I meet someone for the first time, I say “Mr.” or “Mrs.” until they tell me otherwise. And I even say “ma’am” to the young checkout girl at the grocery store, partly because I’m afraid if I don’t, my mother will step out from behind the candy display and pop me upside the head.
But what the professor and the senator both failed to realize is that you don’t demand respect. You earn respect.
When I was a young reporter in Macon, I interviewed a man named Bobby Jones, an education professor at Mercer University.
We sat on a bench on Mercer’s campus and talked one morning. Dozens of people, including students, walked by and nearly everyone spoke to him. But not a one called him Dr. Jones.
A few called him Bobby. Most called him B.J.
I asked him why he allowed people to refer to him so informally, and his response has resonated with me over the years since.
“Respect is not what you call me,” he said. “I’ve been in schools where students said, ‘There’s goes Mr. Washington, that son of a gun.” Only he didn’t say gun. He said a word that rhymes with my name.
“Calling me ‘Dr. Jones’ is not how you show me respect.”
I decided right then and there that I agreed with him. I still use “sir” and “ma’am.” And I still call people “Mr.” and “Mrs.” But I insist that everyone — no matter their age — call me Mitch.
When I was teaching journalism, I asked my students to call me Mitch. A few had a hard time with. Most didn’t. And it didn’t affect the respect I felt from them.
B.J. was right. Respect isn’t in a name. It's a whole lot more.