Please Miss…

“Miss, where are the books?”

“Miss, why have I got a fine?”

“Yo Miss, why do I need to swipe in?”*

I have no problem answering any of the above questions, I understand that University and Library rules and procedures often seem quite complex** before you get the hang of them (and sometimes even after you get the hang of them) so it’s really not the questions that I have a problem with. It’s the Miss. Or, to be more accurate, the Miiiiiiiiiiiiiss. It’s that long, whining I in the middle, Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiss. The only thing more likely to get my back up from the start of an enquiry is the thankfully rare “darling.”

What is the problem with Miss? I often get asked this by Americans, which suggests the irritation with the word is a UK thing (because I know from many, many conversations that I’m not the only librarian who feels like this!) In this country, the vast majority of children go to schools where, from the age of 4 to 16, they refer to their female teachers as Miss and their male teachers as Sir. There is nothing quite like hearing that whining Miiiiiiiiiis to send you straight back to the playground. And therein lies the problem; this is a University, not a school, and I am not their teacher. These are 18 year olds and this is supposed to be an adult environment. I understand that I’m here to help them, but calling me Miss puts me in a position that I am not comfortable with. It assumes that I have some sort of authority over them and their behaviour, and I don’t want that. If I did, I would have become a teacher!

Some people (see previously referred to Americans) argue that it’s a sign of respect, but I disagree. All of the questions at the start of this post would be perfectly polite and reasonable questions without the Miss in them. It’s not necessary! I wouldn’t go to the bank and ask “Miss, can I pay in this cheque?” Nor would I ring the Council and say “Miss, I already paid my council tax this month.” Nor, for the record, would I say Sir. Both assume a level of subservience; they are in charge and I am asking for help, when in fact, I am an adult speaking to other adults. I do not need to use a formal address, I merely need to be polite. Excuse me… Could I ask… Perhaps you can help… Maybe this is just a symptom of what the Daily Mail would call the Death of Good Old Fashioned British Manners, but I think that’s going too far. I just don’t think we’re going a particularly good job of teaching young people how to become adults. I’m doing my best to help, by encouraging them not to call me Miss!

There are other reasons that I dislike the word, one of which is that being called Miss is enough to make any young, fun loving librarian feel like they’re about 82 (because you never feel like you’re actually old enough to be a teacher.) The other is the assumption of knowing my marital status which does annoy the strident feminist in me, although I’m sensible enough to know that that is not the student’s intention and it’s just the patriarchy rearing its ugly head.***

Am I alone in this, lady librarians? Does being called Miss get your hackles up, or do you like it? Or do you not care either way? Have you been called Darling? Did the offender survive? And male librarians, do you get called Sir? And how do you feel about it? Let me know in the comments!

*Actual question that I just got asked. Innit.
**Kafkaesque, according to a student at the weekend, although he was caught in a loop where he couldn’t re-enrol because he didn’t have an IT account, but he couldn’t have an IT account until he re-enrolled, so that’s probably fair criticism.
** sorry, did I not mention that I’m a strident feminist? :p

11 thoughts on “Please Miss…

  1. I don’t get this in the library where I work (not academic admittedly) but it would really irritate me. When I was a public librarian the children called me Miss then and I didn’t like it but I could kind of understand it as they saw me as a teacher figure and that’s what you call female teachers. I did tell them they could call me Katherine, partly because I wanted them to know that there was a world outside school where children are seen as more equal and people don’t mind you using their first name. Some did, but I think most thought I was winding them up.

    • I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my irritation! And it’s really nice that you tried to show them that a world exists outside of school; I think that’s something we should try to do more often.

  2. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that I HATE AND ABHOR AND DETEST being called ‘Miss’. Several reasons, some the same as yours:

    1) I’m not a Miss. I’m a Ms. That’s what polite adults should call a woman when they don’t know her preferred term of address, if they want to be polite by using a title: this isn’t so common in spoken language in the UK but is when you’re writing an email, for instance.
    2) The bit you mentioned about it being a school thing. Except it’s even worse, because I *didn’t* go to a school where teachers were ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’: I was always taught it was the height of bad manners not to use [Preferred Title] [Surname], so it grates even more for me.
    3) I never hear male librarians being called ‘Sir’. Not once. Which kind of makes me suspect that it’s not so much a subservient-to-authority-figure thing as it is a ‘nod to politeness so I can get her to do what I want’ thing.

    However… whilst it irritates me when it happens, I think it’s the feminist bits that get me MOST irritated, which means it’s probably so deeply socialized people don’t realise why I might be annoyed, so I make very sure NEVER to be rude or dismissive or anything to a student about it, Instead, -I gently barely-noticeably-correct them, usually by telling them they can use my name (it’s splattered all over the Library website anyway, and I want to be approachable, adult-to-adult).

    This, I think, has the nice side effect of making them feel like I’m treating them like an adult, and I’ve noticed that ‘Meeeeiiiiiissssssssss’ing generally stops a few weeks into Term anyway, though that probably varies.

    (Aside: it never really bothers me when non-UK student from anywhere does it, because the cultural norms vary so much & so do English teachers, but I still say ‘please call me Samantha’. Also, if you have to, I’d rather it was Ma’am. Makes me feel a bit like the Queen. :D)

    • I’ve asked some of my male colleagues about this, and they said they do get called Sir, but its quite rare and they don’t seem to mind as much. apparently Boss is pretty common though, and some of them really don’t like that.

  3. I’ve thankfully not worked in a library where that has been an issue – corporate firms – but it does drive me insane when the assumption is made for me on forms – I am constantly correcting people from Miss to Ms (additionally, I always know when my details have been sold on as I turn into my mother, many a cold call has gone: “hello, can I speak to Mrs. [surname]?” “no, my mother doesn’t live here.” [phone down])

    When I went to sixth form college, my teachers made it clear that they wouldn’t answer to ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’ and I always called my uni lecturers by their first names – although I was older than most students when I started, which probably helped…

  4. Same as Meg, in corporate libraries I’ve never been called a Miss, it’s first names only, or when people are showing visitors around and their brains go blank, I’m “The Librarian”.

    School was always Mr X for a male teacher, and Miss or Mrs X for a female teacher, depending on what they’d stated to be their preference. There was even have been a Ms too, who became that from Miss while I was there.

    I too can gleefully dispose of cold callers, as I’m not “Mrs Dumpling” either, although some firms that do legitimately contact me assume I’m a Mrs, I know not why (and hate)!

  5. Wow, university students do this? I could understand 6th form students still being in the “all adults are called Miss or Sir” mindset, but surely they should have grown out of that by the time they reach uni?!

    I’m not surprised you find it so infuriating – I would do too! Thankfully, like Meg and Jaffne, in the corporate sector this isn’t an issue. I’d be very worried indeed if the lawyers started calling me Miss! I will of course answer to “Your High Worshipful Librarian-ness, Mistress of All Knowledge” – my preferred title 😉

    • You three are reminding me of the only thing I miss from being a corporate librarian; not being called Miss! However, I was never allowed to tell the lawyers off for talking, or fine them for hiding books in their offices, so there are some upsides to Higher Ed :p

  6. I think there are two very different uses of the address ‘Miss’. Firstly it is used (probably more in America) just to be polite, ie excuse me Miss/Madam/Sir do you know the time of the next train? Using these honorifics in normal daily life is purely a sign of good manners and in no way infers any subservience however I personally feel it unnecessary and you can ask the same question in an equally polite way without them.

    Secondly is in an environment where there are authority figures the most typical being UK schools where most primary and secondary children address their teachers as ‘Sir’ and the catch all ‘Miss’ addressing your teacher as ‘Miss’ does create a boundary between teacher and pupil and reinforces authority.

    When I worked in a public library I can’t remember being called Miss or darling or any of my colleagues being call Sir for that matter and if I had been called Miss it would have only been as a way of polite address so I would not have worried about it but in the case of a university library then yes I would be slightly uncomfortable for the same reasons as you, and why don’t these 18 year old’s realise their now adults?

    After working in a public library I worked in a prison library for a time, there the women were required to address all female staff as ‘Miss’ and male staff ‘Sir’. As I was in my early twenties at the time at first I found it a bit strange that after giving a instruction to one of my orderlies who was old enough to be my mother she would respond with ‘yes miss’ but I soon got used to it and like a school environment it created a boundary which sometimes needed to be there, although some of my female colleague’s did later allow first names but I never did.

    I don’t get too stressed about Ms/Miss in public or on forms letters etc it’s still a bit of a grey area for some people and why I can understand reasons people get upset about it does not worry me to much at the moment.

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