Jean-Paul Villere: Fear of a Polite Planet

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Jean-Paul Villere

The other evening, without thinking and in passing, I addressed a colleague who I’m guessing is a few years my senior with a “Miss” and her last name — let’s call her Jane Doe.  We ran into each other on Magazine Street, and I was trying to keep track of my 4 girls when she walked by.  Frankly I didn’t think she had recognized me as, much to my wife’s dislike, I’d recently trimmed my beard down to a fu manchu, and let’s be honest, a fu manchu makes a face present differently (and debatably embraced).  So here I was keeping count of my brood when after she passed she turns and says with a smile “Oh, hello!”  To which I, admittedly somewhat distracted while actively parenting, utter an “Oh, hello Miss Doe – – -“

She stopped, and her jaw dropped.

Then she said, a “Now, come on – – – “ or an “Excuse me” or maybe a “You’re gonna have to live that one down” or something to this effect while I quickly edited myself and added somewhat questioningly “Miss Jane???”  Only this was also met with more jaw dropping, pause and protest, to which I lazily tossed my hands in the air in a fit of trying to keep from getting my kids run over on Magazine but also not to offend my peer and with a final and maybe a little over the top “It’s nice to see you, Jane!”  No children escaped or were run over by oncoming traffic during this exchange.  We promptly sat down to dinner, and Jane carried on, but I became mired in the experience; had I really offended her?

Today is my birthday.  I turn 38.  I share this day with other greats of our time including Chuck D, Coolio, and Tempestt Bledsoe.  But also the late Jerry Garcia too; one out of four isn’t that bad, is it?  As I age I remain curious when and under what circumstances I get carded (happened last week with my two oldest kids standing right next to me) as well as when I might be addressed as “sir.”  My kids affirming or negating in my direction with a “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” I am OK with, and actually I insist on.  We are after all raising four Southern girls; there are expectations.  But if the grocery store clerk or whomever throws a “sir” around my eyebrow raises, I accept it and move on.  No huff, no question.  I am aging.  Could be worse, right?

But then Jane Doe comes along and pseudo makes an example out of me in front of my wife and children no less, and I have to question myself; was I wrong?  First, I asked my wife.  Her solitary thought was “Let it go.”  We’ve been married long enough she knows that won’t happen, and hey, here comes another column!  I could have tried to discuss it with her further, but I like harmony more than discord so I took it to the ‘net, Googling ‘southern manners’ and so forth.  After firing off a couple of emails to some ladies steeped in the subject regarding the exchange, I received these responses.

First Miss Janice of replied:

“You behaved as any Southern gentlemen should by addressing the lady as ‘Ms. Doe.’  She is older than you, and it should have been taken by her as a sign of respect.  I would have been pleased to accept that greeting, and I am the same age as your female peer!  Continue practicing good manners and you will definitely be a good influence on your daughters.”

Ok then.  Next and lastly Sharman Ramsey of offered:

“She was not right to be offended.  Your address to her was your example to your daughters as to how they should address her. Making you feel uncomfortable in an innocent exchange in front of your daughters was improper on her part.  It is credited to Jonathan Swift to have said, “Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse.  Whoever makes the fewest people uneasy is the best bred in the room.”  She could have smiled and said, “Call me Jane, dear.” Still, your daughters, being well-bred Southern girls would know to call her Mrs. Doe unless there is a close relationship there and they have been given permission by their parents to address her as ‘Ms. Jane.’  Simply being a professional peer would not warrant that address.”

A-ha!  So, I’m not crazy after all.  Southern ladies of the New Orleans metro area be warned; you will be addressed appropriately.  Learn to like it!

Lastly, happy birthday to me.

Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and the Du Mois gallery on Freret Street and father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at, he also writes an occasional real-estate blog at and shares his family’s adventures via pedicab on Facebook and Twitter.

14 thoughts on “Jean-Paul Villere: Fear of a Polite Planet

  1. In my book – EVERYONE who looks to even remotely be my elder is Ms./Miss or Mr. until I am told (by that person directly) otherwise. Same even for close family friends/relatives, though I usually substitute in Aunt or Uncle. And, frankly, I expect the same of others who are my junior.

  2. I have a similar problem when addressing my bf’s mother. I would like to call her “Mrs. Elise” but she insists on “Elise”. It goes against every bone in my body and I have to edit out the “Mrs.” in my head as I address her!

  3. Your manners were in tact while the woman (no lady in my book) appeared to have lost hers somewhere on the sidewalk. People, especially females, often find it hard to accept aging. I remember being addressed as Miss/Ms in my early 20s by the teens I assisted in camp. I wasn’t offended then nor was I at any stage/age of my life. You are a gentleman, J-P. I would expect nothing less of you than the way you behaved on Magazine.

  4. A proper address would be Miss / Ms. “Last Name” NOT Miss / Ms. “First Name”. Jane Doe should always be addressed as Miss / Ms. Doe and NOT Miss / Ms. Jane. Or simply Jane if that is her preferred address. I know that Emily Post is dead and I am old fashioned but it is like nails on a chalkboard to me and I know I’m not alone.

  5. It seems like you chose to show this colleague more, not less, respect by using a more formal greeting. Perhaps she may have to “live down” that she could not just say, “Please, call me Jane”. That would be a “respectably Southern” way to indicate that you don’t have to be so formal with her.

    OR…Could it be that she was married and you called her “Miss” instead or “Ms” or “Mrs”? or that you had mistaken her for someone else? I can’t tell by the article.

  6. In Sweet T&T (Trinidad and Tobago) it would be Mistress Moss ! who is also having a Birthday today along with other greats.

  7. Jean-Paul, when I moved back home a few years ago, after 20 years gone, I was reminded that a habit here is to refer to people as “Miz” and “Mr.” often regardless of their age, social status, etc. Sometimes it’s just used as a greeting before being dispensed with, as among friends and neighbors (“Hey, Miz Brenda, how’re y’all?” “Good afternoon, Mr. Murray”), sometimes it’s a regular form of address, as between me and my plumber. But it is not, by a long shot, wrong or an insult to any, or a reference to “age” (whatever that means).

  8. I am a sixty-seven year-old native son, a “cradle” New Orleanian. I still reflexively use “sir” and “ma’am” to even those young enough to be my grandchildren, unless I know them well.

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