Strangers Who Help Themselves To My First Name
I’m going to vent a little this morning. Please bear with me.
I’m a product of the 1960s when there was great emphasis on intimacy and egalitarianism. It was well phrased a decade later in the theme song from the TV show “Cheers.” Here’s the line: You want to go where people know the people are all the same. You want to go where everybody knows your name, and that almost always means using one another’s first names. I remember a wisecrack in an address by the president of The Claremont School of Theology where I was a student at the time. The custom there was to call everyone: students, faculty, administration and staff by their first names. And the president said that we had to use his first name because no one knew him well enough to use his title and last name. We all laughed.
What got me started was a “cold call” from an insurance agent who was trying to drum up some business. The first thing he did was to call me by my first name. I hope I was polite when I told him I was not interested.
As background, I’ve been dealing with some health problems lately, primarily soft tissue arthritis that has caused me to be gimpy and grumpy and annoyed and frustrated. I’ve been seeing a lot of medical personnel as they try to figure out how to treat me. This leads to the issue. You see, my first name is Orville, that’s why I go by my middle name Bryce, and when I walk into a health care appointment and the person behind the counter immediately addresses me as Orville, I don’t much like it. The first couple of times I requested that they not call me that, but there are so many layers of people one has to get through in modern medical practices, I just keep my mouth shut, work on my “appropriate detachment” skills and pray that all this will be over shortly.
As I pondered this, I remembered a column written by one of my favorite columnists, William Raspberry of the Washington Post who died some time back. He was an articulate and insightful writer, who happened to be African American. Among other things, he taught me much about the civil rights movement in America. As I dug through my files, I found the column. It was dated December 1, 1993, over 23 years ago.
Mr. Raspberry wrote: I work in a business in which the use of first names is commonplace. Not only do newsroom peers call each other by their given names (or worse), but honorifics frequently are abandoned, even across lines of rank. The executive editor is called ”Len” more often than not. The publisher is not startled to be addressed by a subordinate as ”Don.”
Mr. Raspberry went on to say that as he was getting older, he was becoming more and more troubled by people assuming that he wanted to be called by his given name. He wrote:
I guess I [am] reacting to what my friend Edith Smith describes as ”strangers helping themselves to my first name.”
Smith, a retired Washington school official, is a woman of great dignity and silver-streaked hair who reckons that she has earned the right to be treated as a grown-up. And yet, she finds it hard to get through two consecutive weeks without having some stranger help himself to the unauthorized use of her given name.
”I don’t care whether it’s a fellow-professional I’m meeting for the first time or a member of an audience I’m addressing, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for them to wait to be invited to familiarity,” she said. ”The worst, of course, are the people – strangers – who are trying to sell me something, and before I even know what they’re selling, it’s ‘Edith this and Edith that.’ I find it disrespectful.”
Mr. Raspberry then wrote: So, apparently, do the Delany sisters – Miss Sarah Delany, 104, and Dr. Elizabeth Delany, 102, who have just published a joint autobiography, Having Our Say. In their day, they told an interviewer, adults (and especially people of color) ”resented being called by their first names as if they were children or ‘no-account.’
And as Mr. Raspberry added: ‘Or so old that they can be treated as children again. At least that’s what I feel when I hear 25-year-old attendants calling nursing home residents ”Mary” or ”George.”
Mr. Raspberry went on: There are times when I take no offense at being called by my first name. A group of guys attending a ball game or jazz concert should not have to ”Mr.” each other, even if they’ve just met. I am flattered by readers who address me as ”Dear Bill,” if they follow it up with something like ”I’ve been reading you so long, you seem like a member of the family.”
He continues: …what makes me a little cranky is the false intimacy calculated to deliver some advantage to the person pretending the intimacy: the phone company rep, the insurance agent or the used-car salesman who has never seen me before and wouldn’t recognize me the next day. These are people trying to convert what is clearly a business relationship for them into an ersatz personal relationship for me, on the assumption that I will find it harder to say no to a ”friend.” Want to bet?
And I will add the person on the medical staff whose job it is to see that the patient is compliant and cooperative so that things will go more smoothly and efficiently. And I cringe when the physician who is younger than my child will say, “Hello Orville. I’m Dr so and so.” It seems awfully condescending. It is causing me to ponder the use of the title Father when I’m feeling free to call a parishioner by her or his first name. I’d appreciate a little feedback from you, if you would please.
Moving on, ”Miss Manners” (etiquette columnist Judith Martin), who has made a crusade of taming such false intimacy, has an explanation for both the practice and the resentment:
”We Americans always have prided ourselves on showing to everyone the respect other societies save for their ‘betters,’ and on our demeanor of cheerfulness, helpfulness and openness. But we have also scorned and satirized phony behavior, of which social pretense . . . is an excellent example.”
Mr Raspberry writes: I don’t know whether this particular social pretense is more offensive when it comes as company policy (surely there are training manuals that command salespersons to get quickly onto a first-name basis with their prospects [or, I’ll add, medical practice specialists who train their personnel that using an old person’s first name will put them at ease and make them more comfortable and therefore more compliant.]
Mr. Raspberry concludes with this.
[I’m] just practicing up for the nursing home.
What this min1-tirade is about is an affirmation of human dignity. That’s a primary theme of the Easter Season. The one who came in the flesh and died for our sins has risen from the dead. It is an act of affirmation of human dignity. The Church teaches that: The dignity of the human person is rooted in his [or her] creation in the image and likeness of God…(CCC #1700) St. John Paul II wrote that: Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are. (St. John Paul II, On the Hundredth Year [. . Centesimus annus]. . . , no. 11)
As I get older and significant pain is just a fact of life and my mind gets more and more cluttered and clouded, I find that I get a little anxious at times. And I need medical attention more often than I want. Being treated with dignity helps the anxiety by letting me gather my wits, take some deep breaths, say a prayer and keep on keeping on. Being annoyed does not help.
So in response to this, I’ve written to the administrator of Peace Health to invite him to add one more question to their questionnaires about patients. I invited him to please ask each patient, especially new ones: “What would you like to be called?” Some may very well like to be called by their first names. Some of us do not. It is an act of courtesy to ask.
And in the meantime, I am going to be more careful on how I address people, especially older people who are caught up in the perils of aging. Christ came in the flesh, died and rose to affirm the goodness of the human person, in spite of sin and sadness and the brokenness of this fallen world. I find that one of the more significant enemies of aging is the lack of seemliness. When the Church firmly teaches that we are to affirm life from conception to natural death, this means, in part, that we are to treat those who are most vulnerable with the most respect. And I’ve found this to mean something as simple as not assuming they want any of us to call them by their given names. I’ve personally found that when I’m going through some kind of test or procedure, I often feel particularly vulnerable. If I’m not called by my first name, especially one I don’t much like, I can feel a little better about things and it often enhances my sense of security and dignity.
It’s a small thing, but it augments gracious living which in itself is a gift of the Resurrection.
Thank you for bearing with me.