HSBC should forget Mr, Mrs and Mystery. Here’s the only title we need | David Shariatmadari

David Shariatmadari
‘In the interests of gender neutrality, I would like to unveil my proposal for an all-purpose title, whether you’re a Mr, Mrs, Lord or Lady, to use anywhere.’ A letter addressed to Theresa May. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

Plain old Mr, Mrs and Ms just don’t cut it any more. At least, that’s what HSBC thinks. It may no longer be “the listening bank”, but it’s listened to its customers in all their gender diversity, and provided them with 10 new titles to choose from on official forms. These include “Ind” for individual, “Mre” for mystery, “Pr” for person and “Misc” for miscellaneous.

Though this was billed as a service to trans customers, HSBC said that the changes “allow people who don’t identify as a particular gender, or who don’t want to be identified by gender, to choose the title that works for them”.

But is a mortgage application form the best place to shout: “I am what I am”? There are good arguments for gender-neutral pronouns (why does my bank manager need confirmation that I, David, am a man, rather than an eccentrically named woman?). And it’s important that trans people are able to change their titles without any fuss. But the HSBC list does a lot more than that. Peter Tatchell said he was “not sure 10 different titles are necessary”. I reckon that if you want the person approving your loan to call you “Mystery”, you’re less of an enigma than you think you are.

Is it possible that, rather than liberating us, the new abbreviations do the opposite, inviting us to specify ourselves in ever more precise ways? I’m not arguing that we should stick with Mr and Mrs, but if we’re going to overhaul them in the interests of gender blindness, why not just do away with titles all together?

Abolition feels like it ought to be possible. But I believe it would only be a matter of time before terms of respect popped up again, albeit in new forms. In a pioneering 1978 study, linguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson showed convincingly that all languages (read: all humans) follow predictable strategies for politeness. This includes “positive politeness” – for example, expressing praise – and “negative politeness”: exercising restraint. The titles we use in formal situations, known as honorifics, are an example of the latter. By using Mr (which comes from “Master”) and Mrs (from Mistress – of which Miss and Ms are also derivations) we establish distance between ourselves and our interlocutor.

The opposite of master is of course slave, and “slave” is actually used in very formal registers in some cultures, such as Iran or Japan, to mean “I”. Although the sense of abasing ourselves before another person is gone, the intention behind Master and Mistress carries over into their abbreviations: to show deference, and not to presume familiarity. Languages have different ways of doing this, of course, and titles don’t always come first: think of Gandhi-ji, accorded the courtesy by his followers of a reverential suffix. Ji, by the way, is gender-neutral.

I don’t believe the bank manager will ever be my friend, and I have no wish for her to call me Dave. She could use my full name, but that makes me think of a roll-call after a fire or in a doctor’s waiting room. Just the last name sounds too much like barking orders or public school. So there’s probably a need, after all, for titles.

In which case, why not just have one? As a society we have tried to remove gender from our calculations of where people sit in the hierarchy. For officials it is supposed to be irrelevant – and certainly shouldn’t enter into judgments about whether you’re eligible for a savings account. But then neither should the fine gradations of my personality that might mean I see myself as a bit of a Mystery, or an Individual above all, or a pic-and-Misc of enchanting qualities.

So, in the interests of gender-neutrality, I would like to unveil my proposal for an all-purpose title, whether you’re a Mr, Ms, Lord or Lady, to use anywhere, but particularly at the bank. It’s appreciative. Ever so slightly hesitant. A bit of a buzzword. Just say Mmm.

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