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Pigeonholes and prefixes: is there still a place for honorifics?

While the debate around the role of banks in societal issues rages in Australia, the global bank HSBC has announced plans to add 10 new gender neutral titles to their retail bank accounts, allowing customers to choose from non-gender specific prefixes like Mx, Msr and Pr.

" In the modern world in which we live, do any customers really want to be pigeonholed by prefixes?"
Nick Godber, BlueNotes contributing editor

HSBC’s move in the United Kingdom, which follows similar action from RBS, Barclays, Lloyds and Metrobank, aims to make disclosing or affirming gender an easier and less nerve-wracking process for customers – which HSBC recognises are essentially having to ‘come out’ to their local branch.

The hope is it will make transgender and non-binary gender customers feel more welcome.

But, in the modern world in which we live, do any customers really want to be pigeonholed by prefixes? And do companies even need this data? I don’t think they do.

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HANGOVER

Honorifics (Lord, Lady, Dr, Prof, Mr, Mrs and so on) are a hangover from yesteryear when a person’s social status and class really mattered. They were invented for a time when your social standing demanded honouring with a suitable title.

Of course King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Majesty and Highness were the reserve of the most-honourable, most-important people in society – royalty.

Followed by Duke, Duchess, Earl, Countess, Lord, Lady, Sir and Dame, denoting members of the slightly less-important nobility – or in Australia, AC, AO, AM and OAM.

Not to be left out is the professional world, when those with the most-important, most-respected jobs in society – politicians, doctors, lawyers and academics – all got their own prefixes.

From there we finally reach the ‘commoners’, greeted with the more austere Mr, Mrs, Master and Miss. 

EGALITARIAN

Sure, all of these titles remain in existence but as western societies have progressed their significance has waned.

After all, when was the last time you went to a dinner party and you introduced your doctor friend as ‘Doctor Michael Wild’ and not just ‘Mike’? When was the last time you went to a conference and saw name badges containing prefixes?

I can’t remember either.

As the LGBTI movement has gathered pace, the suitability of these gender specific prefixes has waned too, as many people simply don’t identify themselves in such binary terms in this digital age.

“While banks’ use of honorifics has become historically ingrained in systems and customer correspondence, they haven’t evolved to acknowledge gender non-conforming customers,” ANZ Pride Network Dave Beks says.  

“Use of the correct honorific is important to many people, including those of non-binary gender. Misgendering people, even through the title on their bank cards, is unacceptable and frustrating to those who face discrimination all too often.”

INCLUSIVE

The intentions of HSBC and other banks are clearly more inclusive and well-meaning. Adding new non-gender specific prefixes does give gender diverse people more appropriate choices to pick from.

However, in order to choose one of these new titles, they still have to ‘come out’ to their local branch.

Only by removing these prefixes altogether from customer accounts or by giving customers the option to pick an identifier of their choosing (like a nickname), can institutions solve this issue.

It’s an idea the tech giants seem to have cottoned on to. Go on, trawl through the apps on your smartphone. I challenge you to find one that holds a salutation for you in your profile.

The likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, AirBnB, Uber, Netflix and Spotify certainly don’t.

And the majority of these companies even allow you to pick a username of your choosing that they can address you by.

Some retailers and Government departments are on board with this too. A quick rummage through all of the plastic in my wallet – Medicare, drivers licence, reward and loyalty cards – and there’s not a prefix amongst them.

In fact the only cards I can find that contain ‘Mr’ are supplied by banks. It really is time financial service providers let go of formality and tradition and followed suit.

Nick Godber is a contributing editor at BlueNotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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