November 04, 2003

What Do You Call Your Boss? How About Your Jailer?

Address forms in many languages, including American English, reflect and reveal certain aspects of the culture's social norms. But usually they're implicit. Your greeting to your drinking buddy (``How ya doin', you old S.O.B.?'') probably shouldn't trip lightly off your tongue when you're greeting your corporate-honcho boss (unless he -- or she -- is also your drinking buddy, and even then...). If you're a 9th-grader, addressing your young classmate as ``Ms. Clark'' will sound odd; and if you've just met her stuffy father, calling him ``Johnny'' will sound even odder. You absorb the mostly unwritten and untaught rules for what to call people as you exit toddlerhood and proceed toward adulthood.

But if you happened to learn the wrong rules for American English, you can get help from the Inmate Handbook that is issued to all residents of the institutions administered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

-- Or, at least, you can get this help once you're incarcerated in a state penitentiary in Pennsylvania. (I won't say where I got my copy of this Handbook because I don't want to jeopardize the happiness of a student of mine, an inmate who broke another prison rule by slipping me his copy one evening after class in the prison school.) Here's the Handbook's only language regulation (which I'm quoting accurately, including the grammar and the sexist assumptions about who's likely to hold which titles):

``Addressing Staff Personnel: Inmates should approach all staff personnel with respect and courtesy. Staff personnel should be addressed by their title (Superintendent, Captain, Doctor, etc.) or by `Mister' and if their last name is known (`Mister Smith, etc.) or by `Sir' if their correct title or last name is not known. For women, the appropriate Mrs., Ms., Miss, Ma'm, etc. should be used.''

Like the other directives in the Handbook, this one has teeth: failure to comply can land an inmate in the hole, a.k.a. solitary confinement. Enforced courtesy! Would Miss Manners approve?

Posted by Sally Thomason at November 4, 2003 09:02 PM