Saturday, November 7, 2009

Because I`m the grownup, that`s why

posted Wed, 17 Nov 2004
I got this note from my friend Ilene, the pediatrician (yes, the bodacious redheaded one) today. She touches on an issue I have been thinking about lately. Here is her note:

“Okay, now it's my turn to get all bunched up at the high schoolers of today. I get emails from high school seniors asking for Rice interviews. Almost invariably, they address the initial email to ‘Dear Ilene.’ When I was their age, I never would have dreamed of addressing an interviewer by their first name. It's only now that I am a doctor and have saved people's lives that I feel I've earned the right to interview for a job and call my interviewer ‘Bob’ or ‘Phil.’”

[NB. I am assuming Ilene means if the interviewer is actually named “Bob” or “Phil,” not that she uses those names exclusively for all interviewers.]

This is not the proper attitude when you want something from someone.

“When they do (rarely) address me as Dr. R------, it goes down as a good check in their favor. Conversely, those who address me as ‘Ilene’ are marked down and get an email reply signed, ‘Dr. R-----.’ Even THEN they will sometimes write me back as ‘Ilene.’ Argh!!!”

When I was a kid, my parents required my siblings and me to address adults as “Mr” or “Mrs.” Even if the adult said it was OK for us to use the first name, they did not waver. For a very few close family friends, we were allowed to use “aunt” or “uncle” in front of the first name.

When I got out of college and started working at Prudential, I continued to call the adults – because of course I was not yet one in my mind! – mister or miz. I had been working there for about three months when the VP took me aside one day to tell me gently that we were on a first-name basis at the company and that I could call him “Dan.”

I was stunned. How could Mr. Smith think that I could call him by his first name? He was over 40! He was old! It was a big effort for me to call the old folks by their first names, but I learned to do it.

Even now, I do not call my friends’ parents or older people by their first names unless I am invited to do so. When Mr and Mrs Soherr, whom I have known since I was six, told me I could call them by their first names a few years ago, I told them I really didn’t think I could. For almost 30 years, I had thought of them as “Mr and Mrs,” not as “Paul and Ellen.” It was very odd.

At Leigh’s baby shower, we were talking about this issue. The other women at the table agreed that they call their friends’ parents, their parents’ friends and older people (i.e., our grandparents’ ages) by their last names unless invited to do otherwise. They all agreed that it was appropriate that while they were children, they had called grownups by their last names.

Yet they want their friends’ children to call them by their first names! And not with the “miss” prefix that is used here.

There is a charming tradition in the south of prefixing a first name with “miss” or “mister” to show respect or affection. To many of my friends’ kids, I am “Miss Class.” I think that is a nice compromise. To Holly’s children (Holly was brought as I was – her dad was career military), I am “Miss Factotum,” which is also fine.

What I don’t understand are the (very few) parents who let their children go straight to my first name. Don’t they realize they are not preparing their children for things like, oh, say, college interviews?

There are situations where a child – or anyone – needs to show that she understands that she is in the position to show respect to someone else, either for that person’s age or accomplishments, or, to be completely Machiavellian, for what that person can potentially do for her.

And unless she is born with a huge trust fund, at some point in her life, she is going to need someone to do something for her. Even with a trust fund, she is going to want to get out of a traffic ticket, or to convince someone to donate a lot of money to her charity, or charm her boyfriend’s parents. Assuming instant familiarity and equal social status is not the way to do any of these things.

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