Tuesday, February 24, 2015

That's Mister Bilbo to You, Buddy!

As I get older, I find that more and more things irritate me, one of which is the idea of assumed informality. Here's an example ... a telemarketer calls the house, shilling for some product or service or religion or political party, and the call goes like this:

Bilbo: "Hello."

Anonymous Voice: "Is Bilbo there?"

Bilbo (in frosty tone): "This is Mister Bilbo speaking."

Anonymous Voice: (pause) "Uh ..."

I know that salespeople are trained to ingratiate themselves with customers, to establish a personal connection that will make it more difficult for the mark to say "no, thanks" when the inevitable pitch comes. This is why they'll start right off calling you by your first name. It's assumed informality, it's impolite, and it's wrong.

I think about this several times a week when I answer the unwanted calls that interrupt my free time*, and I noticed that I wasn't the only one offended by it when I saw this article in by Michael Strain in the Washington Post: Please Address Me as Mister. I Insist.

Mr Strain writes,

"Our society is suffering from a tyranny of informality. It is rude. It is false intimacy. It is a product of the utopian, egalitarian fiction that society is one big happy village. A friendship circle, where we’re all holding hands. Station and hierarchy should be leveled because they are so nineteenth-century. In the modern world, we are all equal — so we are all pals ... (but) ultimately, equality in all things is false. A PhD has added to the stock of human knowledge; an undergraduate hasn’t. A priest can transform bread and wine; a layman can’t. Chancellor Merkel can affect the near course of history; I can’t. My friend’s father has successfully raised four children; I haven’t. The way we address each other should reflect these differences because these differences are real and material, and obvious."

The privilege of calling someone by their first name ought to be something special. It ought to symbolize a degree of friendship and affection that has bridged the social distance between two individuals on a personal level. In many languages other than English, there are formal and informal modes of speech that indicate the social relationship between two individuals. In German, for example, one would always address a stranger or an older person with the formal pronoun Sie. Only family members and close friends to whom the privilege has been granted can use the informal pronoun du without giving insult. In English, we no longer have the formal/informal modes of address, having morphed down to the common you. But we have other ways to show social differences, one of which is the use of titles. When I retired from the Air Force, I was "Lieutenant Colonel Bilbo" to my military colleagues. Today, I'm just "Mister Bilbo." I would be offended if a child** or a stranger called me other than that until I had offered the use of my first name.

Mr Strain sums it up in his article thusly,

"If every relationship begins on a first-name basis, then I am robbed of the ability to signal to someone that he has become a friend or close colleague by inviting him to address me by my first name. If the guy who comes to fix my cable calls me 'Michael,' then what is left for my friends to call me? And isn’t it a little easier for the cable guy to give substandard service to 'Tom' than to 'Mr. Creal?'"

You, Dear Readers, can call me Bilbo. But everyone else ought to use "Mister" in front until I invite otherwise. It's the polite*** thing to do.

Have a good day. Save the honor of using your first name for those who earn it. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Despite the fact that we are registered on the national "Do Not Call List" which, I have come to realize, is pretty much useless.

** I don't mind my grandchildren's friends calling me "Mr Bill," but the use of my first name alone by a child is a non-starter.

*** Speaking of "polite," you might want to read some of the comments left online by people who read Mr Strain's article. Or not.


Duckbutt said...

I assumed that my being called by my first name by complete strangers was because of my last name being seen as hard to pronounce.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

It is an irritant to be called by first name by people who are strangers. I try to find the polite mode. Strangely, Ma'am is riskie too.

Gonzo Dave said...

It's funnier when they reverse my names and think they're being correct by saying "Mr. David" or being familiar by saying "Peterson". This usually occurs when the call's origin is from a certain subcontinent south of China; the caller's name is typically "Sam" or "Fred" or something similarly banal - and false.

Anemone said...

Addressing people respectfully is nice manners. But we're in an almost mandatory informality here is CA. Ms. Anemone?

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

You are speaking to the choir here Mr. Bilbo.

Recently a numbnut came to our home to repair something and referred to Rick as "hey dude" Rick corrected him with his hand extended with, My name is Rick XYZ, you can call me Mr. XYZ.
Hey Dude? Wow, so not cool. Not professional, not polite, not anything but disrespectful.Did their parent really teach that?

Dealing with these types all day long is my job. So much fun. I am called babe, sweetheart, honey and other assorted disrespectful terms. I ALWAYS repeat after that 'babe' my name is Peggy. They do it again, and I say it again, sometimes changing it up and saying, My name is Margaret.

I long for manners. There is a difference between polite and informality. Big difference, it needs to be taught again!

Mike said...

When the telemarketers call and try and use my first and last names they always mangle my last name. I just laugh and hang up.

I had one call the other day and go 'Is Mike........'. She was waiting for me to say my last name. I didn't say anything. She finally hung up.

Linda Kay said...

Looks like you have lots of advice for the telemarketers. Actually, folks in Texas are pretty respectful, including the service people who come, and immediately as if I am Mrs.xXx. I have only my cell phone in use, no land line, so don't have too many telemarketer calls.

Big Sky Heidi said...

One telemarketer called me, "Sugah"!! I almost heaved.