Gwen Ngwenya
Gwen Ngwenya

Stuff it: Titles and their place in the 21st century

The allure of adulthood includes being allowed to drink alcohol, enter a club or bar, browse any website and other pleasures. The period of abstinence is designed for us to later abhor these things or love them in moderation. Growing up really is a journey towards the light because childhood is a sort of tyranny in many ways. Although a justifiable tyranny, it’s perhaps the only period in one’s life when being safe is more important than being free.

One of the rites of passage into adulthood includes the ability to call adults by their names without admonition. Imagine my surprise then, upon reaching adulthood, to find that many adults do not address each other by name. As a child, adults would not infrequently refer to each other by titles they expected me to use. It was common for one’s parents to refer to each other as mommy or daddy or for teachers to refer to each other as Mr or Ms so and so. The obvious assumption is that the child will forget, and they do it as a means of reinforcement. This patronising treatment I long accepted as atonement. We were all paying for the folly of some other dumb kid too simple to realise that they’re in a game where such subtleties as calling your parents and teachers by their titles instead of their names says something about them, the respect they command and how well they have instilled discipline. And because I generally liked my parents and teachers I was willing to afford them the reassurance that they were respected and sometimes even admired as parents and teachers. But it does seem silly, embarrassing even, to continue with this game into adulthood.

There is a feeling of being cheated out of a rite of passage when someone insists you address them by their title as opposed to their name. It’s not just that it is pretentious but rather that societal norms dictate quite arbitrarily whom I should appear to afford reverence to, for it is only appearances that titles are concerned with. Whether or not I believe in God, and whether or not I respect the position of those who dedicate their lives to the mystical, I find myself ushered to a position of reverence before any man of the cloth. Similarly, one should make a much greater fuss over men such as businessman and former MTN CEO Phutuma Nhleko than most of our ministers. (I single him out for no other reason than that I’ve just recently spent quite a bit of time reading up on the man.) Instead we develop protocols over a minister’s entrances, exits and greetings. Many of us have no gripe with protocol as far as it relates to ensuring the safety of an important individual; it might be reassuring, however, to learn that incompetent officials who produce too little work to disagree with in the first place are very seldom the object of assassination attempts. The assassination of Trevor Noah would likely sell more papers. Be that as it may, I have little problem with reasonable inexpensive measures to ensure their safety. One must chuckle in disbelief, however, at the fuss over ensuring that a government official or religious man or learned man is greeted correctly.

Anybody that has ever lost any competitive event to a smug opponent knows the nauseating feeling that flows from the societal expectation to congratulate the victor, no matter how dishonourable they may be. The same vile feeling is induced when one is compelled to humble themselves before someone deemed to be deserving of awe merely by virtue of their status.

There is no convincing argument for hollow pleasantries. Titles would be more meaningful used by those who wish to truly flatter – in such cases there would be cause for some blushing and the expected ‘oh please call me by my name’, and, really wishing to flatter, the other would respond, ‘oh no but I couldn’t.’ And the pair could bask in a moment of admirer and admired. Instead what we get is the superficiality of learned protocol, the awkwardness of a performance and the dissatisfaction of an empty greeting.

Titles have their place, and that is in social interaction where they are designed to convey truly intended recognition and respect and are welcomed as flattery, not expected as a matter of course. Indeed many consider titles as a form of good manners. A.C Grayling in an essay on manners quite accurately made the point that when etiquette (of which the use of titles is a form) is used to snub and exclude, manners become their own negation. One cannot take away the fact of being a doctor, or professor or minister but unless one is referring to the factual situation there is little reason to use the title in everyday greetings and conversation.

If you despise unearned respect and attending to low self-esteems as much as I do, then alongside the right to any substance and information you wish is the right to name things as you wish, and to extend your respect to whomever you wish. It is taken for granted that one should be able to voice their disagreement or grievance against anyone or thing. But what is less articulated is that the voicing of our respect, pleasure and fondness of something and especially someone is just as integral to our integrity.

Habits and norms have always been the most reliable indicators of the true nature of people. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the professions we afford veneration to today are not very different to those revered before the renaissance. That, in a largely secular and liberal democratic world order, it is still the church and state we revere and not the individual we afford with pomp and ceremony. The reality is that,for the most part, people are happy to be obsequious and to have the high level questions about life and their place in the world decided for them. And to the person who thinks it’s just a title, and has little to do with control and submission, you’re wrong.

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