Thursday, November 09, 2006

You Can't Call Me "Mrs."

When it comes to learning a foreign language, the impediments to becoming fluent aren't only linguistic. They are sometimes cultural. You find that these problems are relatively hard to dislodge, particularly among lower level students. Even when the correction is simple and there is a hard and fast rule they can memorize and follow, they get stuck in conceptualizing a situation in a particular way and forget the rules.

One of the persistent problems I've experienced with this is over whether or not students can or should call me "Mrs. MyLastName". The problem for them is that I'm married but I didn't take my husband's family name. They seem to understand the notion that a married woman may be addressed as "Mrs." and a single one as "Ms." or "Miss." They can't seem to process the idea that I'm married but it's improper to address me as "Mrs."

There are a few reasons for this. One is that the Japanese don't change titles based on gender or marital status. They change them based on status, relationship to the other person, or age. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is that a married person in Japan can't have a different name than his or her spouse. There's a family registry system which requires that a married person choose a family to register with. A wife can register as part of her husband's family and take his name or vice versa for a husband (though the latter is relatively rare, it isn't legally prohibited).

I'm not really all that bothered by being improperly addressed but I do find it peculiar to be addressed in the same manner as my mother would. The main reason to continue to teach the correct way to students is to facilitate some level of cross-cultural understanding on this point.

Of course, I prefer that my students just call me "Shari" and that fixes the entire problem.


Roy said...

I don't think this is cultural because I would have made the same mistake and called you Mrs. XXX. This is the first time for me to hear this fact which makes perfect sense.

Ken said...

I've had trouble with it as well, always wondered why it wasn't taught at a much earlier stage. Explaining that Mr. Ken was wrong usually resulted in copious apologies, which were unnecessary and beside the point. It's an attempt to be respectful, and hard to fault people for that. Just a cultural hurdle that can be hard to clear for some, I guess.

Helen said...

I don't mind when my students call me by my first name, I encourage them to do so. However I dislike it when I go to a bank and they call me by my first name. I used to work in a bank and I never called customers by their first name unless I was invited to do so. I've written my name "Japanese style" in the forms, in Romanji and Katakana, but I still usually get called "Helen-San". The one time the clerk got it right I almost fell off my chair!

Now, if I could just get my friends back home to get my name right. I didn't take my husband's name when we got married either, foreigners don't have to change their name when they marry a Japanese person. Invariably I get letters addressed to "Mrs. Sato". That's not me, that's hubby's mother!