Q. Some years ago, an elder relative told me one should not announce oneself as Mr. Soandso, because "Mister is a title and one does not give a title to oneself."
Having been around for some time and traveled a lot, I have come to know a number of persons with titles of nobility, from the heir apparent of a former maharaja, to American women who had married European title holders and who, after these men had shed or been shed by the women, went on calling themselves the Baroness von This or the Countessa di That forever.
In the British Isles, I once had occasion to telephone Lord Suchandsuch; he answered simply, "Suchandsuch here!" Thus he followed my kinsman's system. But at a convention in England last year, a man in the elevator recognized me, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hello! My name's Lord Thusandso!" He did not obey my relative's rule.
Now, what is the drill on this, if, indeed, there is any rule for (a) "mister" and (b) titles of nobility? Not that, as an American, I shall ever have a title of nobility; but it would be nice to know.
A. Your kinsman is obviously one of nature's noblemen. Isn't it nicer to have Miss Manners say that than for him to have to announce it himself? For that matter, anyone familiar with Victorian British etiquette books is aware that it is "Lady Manners," but you will never hear Miss Manners allowing that title to pass her lips.
Why? Because a person who uses a title in reference to himself or herself, whether the title is Grand Duchess, Doctor, Maharaja or Mister, seems suspiciously anxious to establish that he is entitled to that title. People naturally adore addressing others by fancy titles, but they grudge even the simplest to those who insist on them.
The correct British peer would no more dream of using his own title than he would of using his own umbrella, although he carries both and is proud of their age. Your Lord Thusandso probably has a new title and a new unbrella, too, which he enjoys opening in people's faces.
Miss Manners has been trying for years to get people who have doctorate degrees to understand this principle of modesty, but they keep protesting that they earned their titles and want to show them off. They fail to understand the greater impact there is in being discovered to have a title that one has not bothered to try to show off.
People who have titles that are not officially recognized learned to be even more careful in doing this. Your Baroness von This and Contesse di That are badly in need of such a lesson. Never mind what happened to the baron or the conte -- the German and Italian titles themselves have been legally abolished and are only used socially, by courtesy.
The best way to insure their use is by protesting, "Oh, no, we're just plain Hapsburgs now, like everyone else." Your ladies could try the now fashionable Proud American route that goes, "Please, I can't bear to be called princess -- why I was born and bred in Grand Forks, North Dakota." Either of these approaches will have people on their knees; but an American woman who calls herself contesse is assumed to be in the boutique business.
This is true on down the line. The person who announces stiffly, "I'm Mr. Ipswich" has undoubtedly given you his highest claim to dignity; but the one who says quietly, "My name is Isabel Bourbon" has left some room.