A Note on Titles, and Dr. Biden
As I wrote yesterday after the Dr. Jill Biden kerfuffle, I grew up in an academic family where no one with a PhD used the title "doctor." We were raised to be self-effacing and self-deprecating and to be dismissive of titles.
That modesty was, of course, a position of privilege. Those who know they will be heard the first time they speak do not need to shout.
I told my students they could call me whatever they liked, as I was confident in my authority. First names were fine.
When I did earn my PhD from UCLA in 1999, the college changed the nameplate on my office door from Mr. to Dr. I made a bit of a show, I'm afraid, about how I wanted it changed back. The administration was confused by my insistence. No one had complained before. I was adamant, however, because this was what I thought I needed to do to honor the family code. “Dr.” looked like vulgar braggadocio, and a gentleman does not brag.
A female colleague, the first in her family to earn a PhD, pulled me aside. "Cool it, Hugo. You don't have to use a title you don't want, but you do need to make sure you're not insulting those of us who do want to use it. It means a lot to my parents and my siblings -- they put me through grad school. Your reverse snobbery is shitting on my family."
I was chastened. I hadn't considered it that way.
It is true that a gentleman never boasts. It is also true that a gentleman does not ever wish his manners to be perceived as a reproach. So the right thing to do is to make the choice that makes others feel comfortable, even if it violates one's own sense of propriety.
I withdrew my request for a changed name plate. It would read "Dr. Hugo Schwyzer" until I resigned from Pasadena City College. I never asked to be called Dr. Schwyzer, nor did I hang my diplomas as some of my colleagues did, but I ceased making witty, disparaging remarks about those who insisted on the use of the honorific.
Manners are designed to make other people comfortable, not to display your breeding. It might be true that "Our Kind of People" don't use a title that they've earned, but it is also true that our kind of people are supposed to be kind, first and foremost. If kindness means using a title that makes one feel awkward, but makes one's friends and colleagues feel less alone, that is what one must do.