When we need to “put a handle on it”

The phrase refers to putting a prefix such as Mr., Ms., Dr., professor, or whatever in front of one’s name. There was an interesting debate occasioned by an old clip of author Maya Angelou upbraiding a young person who called her just ‘Maya’.

“I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first,” she said to claps from the audience. “Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. You see?”

Angelou, who was black, apologized later in the show to her questioner, also black.

Where one stands on this issue depends on many factors. If one has been part of a marginalized group, then other people not using a ‘handle’ can be a sign of disrespect, and civil right pioneers like Mary Hamilton fought for its use in courts, in a celebrated case that is now often referred to simply as the ‘Miss Mary’ case.

The reaction to the clip of Angelou upbraiding the young woman tended to split along generational lines, with younger people being more critical of her.

Pierre Phipps, who tweeted the snippet, has heard from all sides since then and said opinions are varied and plentiful. After his March 14 tweet sent Angelou’s name trending on Twitter, Phipps said the Kim in the clip reached out.

“Her response threw me off. It was a little awkward for me, but at the same time it was like, oh my God this is Maya Angelou,” [Kim] Watts said. “I remember feeling like, oh my gosh I insulted one of my icons, a person I look up to.”

“They think Miss Angelou’s response was very elitist. They were really, really pissed about it,” said Phipps, who lives in Los Angeles and writes for television. “We’re living in progressive times and a lot of people said once they turn 18, they feel like they have an even platform no matter how old you are. History is no longer playing a part in how we go about our everyday lives. History is becoming history.”

Phipps grew up in Chicago, but he has plenty of older female relatives from the South, including Mississippi and Alabama.

“It’s an unwritten rule on respect for elders in which a lot of us were born and raised to ‘put a handle on it,’” he said. “Me personally, coming from a strong black Southern family, I didn’t see anything wrong with her response. Everyone is raised differently.”

In Sri Lanka, it would be considered somewhat rude for young people to refer to people of their parents’ generation or older by their first names. They are always given a ‘handle’. In the special case of people who are friends of your parents or the parents of your friends, the honorary title of uncle or aunt is conferred on them to reflect the closer relationship, without going so far as assuming that you are on a par with them.

I tend to refer to people formally unless there are clear indications that an informal first name is acceptable. Conversely, I accept people addressing me informally or formally, leaving it up to them to use whatever they are comfortable with.


  1. larpar says

    I’ve had friends who taught their kids to call me Mr. Larry. I thought it was kind of strange, but never said anything.
    I’m in my 50s and still call my aunts and uncles Aunt Jane or Uncle Doe.
    For my preference, I go with the old joke; You can call me anything you want, just don’t call me late for dinner.

  2. says

    At 63, I still call the parents of my friends Mr. and Mrs.

    As a professional journalist I called everyone I interviewed Mr. or Ms.

    As an educator I always call the parents of my students Mr. or Ms., regardless of how much younger than me they are.

    When my students graduate I tell them, “Now you can call me Jeff.”

    Some do, some don’t.

    Sidney Poitier wasn’t wrong.


  3. Sam N says

    To me, the use of handles, is just another method to force respect and authority where it may or may not be deserved. I see correlations with people that insist upon use of handles and their proclivity to shut down reasonable dissent.

    I prefer my students call me Sam, but accept use of professor or Dr., if they prefer it. And I am always much happier to be questioned than have anyone accept anything I say uncritically. Fortunately, I always have reasons for my positions, even if they it is, unfortunately, ‘I am forced to do this as a condition of my unemployment thank to bureaucratic bullshit.’

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I’m somewhere the middle. I treat anyone who looks like they might be able to vote as worthy of a minimal amount of respect, and will refer to them by their appropriate handle (and pronouns) -- assuming I am given them when introduced -- unless and until they tell me not to. I shall expect the same from them.

    If I don’t get that respect, don’t get the appropriate handle… that person goes down in my estimation, and drops off the list of people I’m going to bother myself about. I might, if I have to continue interacting with them, quietly correct them later.

    Won’t I would never do is embarrass someone else and make myself look like a prize arsehole by DEMANDING they alter the way they address me. Nobody comes out of that encounter looking good. If they respected you, they’re mortified. If they didn’t, you’ve given them an excellent reason not to.

  5. anat says

    My parents were way more formal than the typical Israelis so as a kid I was more formal than my peers, resulting in plenty of awkward situations. But by the time I was about 17 I adapted to addressing familiar adults by their first names.

  6. Holms says

    It baffles me that some people insist on being called Mr. / Mrs. and such, and I am amazed that a person would feel insulted from the omission. People phrase it as a lack of respect, but I have yet to hear an explanation that made sense that a using person’s first name is disrespecting them. About the only people I bother using titles with are those with seniority at my employment, and the elderly. Mostly because I don’t want awkwardness with my employers, or indignant clucking.

    For my part I vaguely prefer my first name be used, though I’m not going to bother asking for it, let alone insisting on it. Mr. Surname simply comes of as unnecessarily formal.

  7. ridana says

    I remember hearing someone in med school say, “After all the years of study and work and interning, once I get my license even my own mother is going to have to call me Doctor!”

    Personally, I prefer no handle, but I’m still of mixed mind about it because it also feels a little annoying when my doctors and nurses call me by my given name while I’m expected to use their title, reinforcing our unequal status. Part of the problem is that I dislike both my given and surname, and all things being equal, would rather not be called anything unless absolutely necessary. “Hey you” works for me.

  8. kestrel says

    I used to be involved in martial arts and in the dojang, it’s always “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.” So-and-So. A lot of the other students really liked this a lot. In fact some were downright thrilled with this aspect. I was on the fence about it… and got myself into a great deal of trouble by referring to someone as “John”. (In my defense, he had walked up to me, held out his hand to shake mine and said, “Hi, my name is John”.) I think for some people, it reminds them to be on their best behavior as it sounds so very formal, and I think for some it makes them feel like they are important and that others respect them. I always felt it was not that big of a deal, as I felt people are equal and that using titles was a bit pompous. And besides, in my opinion, you have to earn respect you can’t force it, by just forcing someone to call you a certain title.

  9. cartomancer says

    I find titles of this sort irritatingly pompous, formal and unnecessary. I don’t think I have ever used them in my life, for anyone. To me it is rather embarrassing when people insist on calling me Mr. or Dr., and I almost always ask them not to. In fact, it actually strikes me as a sign of disrespect to do so, because it is treating an individual with their own name and identity in terms of gender, marital status, professional degree and family name, as if those things are what matter about a person rather than their individuality.

    I am reminded of the old Roman custom whereby men had three or four parts to their name -- personal name, family name, clan name and often an epithet, where women had only one -- family name. It was a transparently discriminatory practice that emphasised men’s individuality and role in society at large but women’s role as representatives of family. I see our modern obsession with titles as something similar.

  10. lanir says

    I’m middle aged currently and while I was brought up with the idea of what you called people being a measure of respect, it didn’t stick. I don’t think the handles are very relevant since they enforce a strict difference in how one addresses females in general depending on whether they are married or not. This seems pretty pointless and vaguely demeaning to me.

    I tend to think of preferences for handles or not in the same way as preferences for pronouns. If someone just asks, this is not really a big deal. I’ll try to call them whatever they want as long as it’s not uncomfortable or awkward. If someone has a snit about it, this is intensely disrespectful of my autonomy as a person. It feels like an attempt to enforce a particular view about them, one which is manifestly unwarranted due to the way they have made their request. It is inherently harmful to show respect to people who do not give you any in return and I try my best to avoid doing so.

    If I were younger and people were still demanding respect based on age alone, I think I’d have an earful for them. Older generations are “gifting” the young with an out of control climate crisis, worldwide deference towards austerity policies, fascist nationalism, terrorism as a counter to terrorism, and other bogus ideas that not only don’t work but actively make the problem they purportedly address worse. If older generations want respect, they can fix any one of these or better yet, all of them. Then we could have a very interesting dialogue where their pompous feelings of self importance might merit some consideration.

  11. machintelligence says

    I think you can apply the same rule that applies to seating dignitaries:
    Seat then anywhere you want.
    The ones that care don’t matter.
    The ones that matter don’t care.

  12. Curious Digressions says

    Personally, I find titles awkward. I’m strongly annoyed when called Mrs or Miss. Ms. is ok. I still smirk a bit when the kids bagging groceries calls me ma’am. It’s further complicated in that my husband and children share a last name and I kept my original last name, so someone who calls me Mrs. M., as opposed to Ms. D. is particularly on my bad list, especially when they do it pointedly after being corrected. Granted, it’s a fight I signed up for when I chose not to change my name. I’d rather just be called by my first name.

    That said, I was raised by some horrible people (and my parents who married them). We lived in an area that was extremely bigoted. The very few minority people who couldn’t leave were ALWAYS referred to as “boy”, “son”, or “missy” regardless of their age or the age of the person addressing them. It was an intentional slight and jerks really enjoyed dishing it out. If Ms. Angelou had to deal with that, being called by her first name by a young person would be particularly bitter.

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