Back in the 1970s there was a movement to create a relationship-neutral title for women. “Mr.” for men was already relationship-neutral. A man was Mister whether he was married or single. Women were Miss until they married and became titled Mrs. So we came up with Ms., a female form of Mr., which did not indicate whether the woman was married or not.
Fast forward to 2014. I was on a mock jury. The presenter, an intelligent, educated millennial, surprised me by assuming that a woman who had chosen the “Ms.” title on an application form was declaring herself to be single. Somehow Ms. has come to be viewed by some as a shorter way of writing Miss, an unmarried woman.
At first this disturbed me, since I was there for the fuss involved in getting a relationship-neutral title accepted. Then I thought about it. Our culture clearly still cares whether a woman is married or not, more than they care whether a man is. We want the label right up front, so the neutral label has at least partly reverted to a relationship indicator.
Compare this to the Japanese method. In Japan, everyone is addressed with the respectful title of “san.” Except for family and very close friends, all are referred to by their last name, and the title san. Brack-san, Smith-san. If there are two Smiths present, then John-Smith-san and Sue-Smith-san. Not only relationship-neutral, but gender and age neutral as well.
Too bad I don’t have the energy to start another social movement to get us all using san. It wouldn’t last anyway, we still want to categorize people and put the label on right up front.