An open letter to Joseph Epstein
What a fantastic opportunity Mr. Epstein has given us to discuss titles and salutations. As the Communications Director for the National D.B.A. Society, I appreciate the opening for educating the public, especially Mr. Epstein, about the etiquette, tradition, and expectations of titles.
I am a retired airline pilot, twenty-year military combat veteran, and a social science researcher with a Doctorate of Business Administration (D.B.A.), to name a few of my professional, licensed, earned, and documented credentials. That makes me specially qualified to write this piece. You may call me Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, or Doctor.
First, let’s discuss manners. If someone introduces themselves to you, they are directly telling you what they would like to be called. It is more than just what they are named; it is how how they identify. My full name is Bethany. This is how I introduce myself in casual settings. It’s a common name but harder to pronounce for non-native English speakers. Nonetheless, if a name is difficult to pronounce, or uncommon, it’s not your responsibility to change it.
As always, when in doubt, err up. Use the title out of respect or politeness. It’s grammatically correct and professional of you. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with politeness, not to mention propriety.
As a public speaker, representative of several organizations, and writer, I use my title and last name, Dr. Miller. Civilians who saw me in my military uniform would call me Colonel, Sergeant, or Lieutenant. These were all the wrong rank for me but their decorum was on point. They may not have known the rank structure (an admittedly difficult thing to understand) but they were being formal and polite. As an airline pilot, most passengers and operations personnel would call me First Officer or Captain, as appropriate. Even the coffee baristas at the airport would refer to me as Captain when I was in my pilot uniform, regardless of how many stripes I was wearing.
Second, there’s the matter of title versus position. Titles are earned, hereditary, or bestowed, and in a professional setting they are used almost always. Celebrities and political figures are constantly in the public eye, and are consequently nearly always acting in their professional capacity. Therefore, the use of their title, particularly if that is how they introduce themselves (reference the manners discussion above), then this is how to properly address them.
Finally, there’s the matter of whether the person is being addressed or referred to. When directly addressing someone you’re not familiar with, call them by their title whether they go by it or not. After formal introductions are made, you may address them as they introduced themself to you. Exceptions are made for those in power or holding positions of honor. They should always be addressed by title or formal salutation. When referring to someone, you’re discussing their position, not their title. In this case they would be “the professor” or “the First Lady.”
And though, Mr. Epstein, I have never delivered a baby, you may call me Dr. Miller. If you would like to dispute that or comment on the quality of my doctoral thesis or other trained work, I welcome a professional and philosophical discussion. But please, have the degree, license, or medals first so that I know you know what you’re talking about.