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Best You Can Do Now Is Apologize

Judith Martin United Features S

Dear Miss Manners: I am a student who is lesbian, and I’m attracted to an older professor.

I asked around and heard that she is bisexual, just broke up with a guy and is not involved right now. So I volunteered to be a student representative on a committee she’s on, in order to get to know her better.

When she asked my name after the meeting, I said my first name and she said, “Mary who?”

I told her my last name, but I don’t want a last-name relationship with her, so I blurted out, “May I call you Sally?”

I didn’t think it was a big deal. A lot of professors ask us to use their first name, and I did ask first. Also, I’m more mature that most of the other students, which makes me feel closer to the professor.

However, she gave me a nasty look and said, “Not in class - I can’t control what you do on your own time,” in a really cold voice.

Now I’m in a situation where I call her Sally and she calls me Ms. Smith.

When I asked her to call me Mary, she said, “Oh, I couldn’t do that, I barely know you.”

I can’t get to know her better, because when I stop by her office, she asks about the committee, and if I try to talk about anything else, she says, “You’ll have to excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.”

I feel like I’m being blamed for trying to get too close too soon. She is much friendlier with other students who call her Professor Jones, even though she calls them Ms. So-and-So. If I suddenly start calling her Professor Jones, though, she might think I’m angry and not interested in her friendship.

Is there a polite way to let her know I’m willing to go back to the more formal way? I am dying inside at the thought that I ruined my chances by sticking my foot in my mouth.

Gentle Reader: Miss Manners is afraid that she cannot resuscitate you by telling you that you didn’t.

By usurping your professor’s etiquette privileges and persisting in doing so, after she has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated her displeasure, you demonstrate a lack of respect for her position, authority and feelings.

Is this your idea of courtship?

Respect is a big deal. The privilege of authorizing use of a first name belongs to its owner. Thus, “May I call you Sally?” is an impolite question, as it puts the other person in the awkward position of having to allow or deny a favor when she should have the power to grant - or withhold - one.

It’s worse in this case, because your professor outranks you in both age and position, which means that she sets the terms, not you. You know her only in a professional capacity, where formal manners apply unless she waives them. And even if she wanted to make a social connection with you - which she has explicitly said she does not - most universities have rules against personal relationships between students and their professors.

So unrequited love is not your only problem. You have offended your professor, and Miss Manners strongly recommends that you apologize.

Perhaps if you humbly - and formally - explain that you were ignorant of the etiquette involved and had no intention of showing any lack of respect, you will soften her heart.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate

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