Tuesday, September 04, 2001

Familiarity Breeds

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where it started. Perhaps it was during the fifties when we all started to like Ike. Others might trace its beginnings back to the early 60's when Bobby was tapped by his brother Jack to be Attorney General. Maybe it took root at the 1976 Democratic convention when the man from Plains said, "My name is Jimmy Carter and I want to be your next President." But it really got rolling in the nineties with the dominance of corporate giants such as Bill, sports figures like Tiger and entertainers similar to Britney. That was when you knew that we were truly all on a first name basis.

In the past, things were different, more formalized. While we've always had them, our so called "given" names were used only by our parents and close personal friends. Everyone else used your surname, with some honorific preceding it. It might be pro forma, such as Mr. or Mrs., or earned through years of hard labor, such as Dr. or Professor. In fact, it was not uncommon for even good friends to address each other by more formal handles. Absolutely Mr. Pitney? Positively Mr. Bowes.

This is taken to its highest level in Japan, where everybody is addressed by his or her last name only. Co-workers, childhood chums, golfing buddies.... It doesn't matter what you've been through together, how long you've known each other or what your fathers did together in the service. Everyone calls everybody they meet by their last name, followed by "san." It's such a part of the culture that you would sooner eat day old sushi than call your best friend Irving.

Meanwhile, back in this country, for those that wished to curry favor with you, such as bankers, doormen or salesmen on commission, even this level of formality wasn't enough "Yes, ma'am" or "Yes sir" was standard issue when addressing the senior figure in the relationship, even if the senior figure was junior in age. It was a way of saying, "Yes, you control the outcome, yes, you control the timetable, yes, you control whether or not I get ten bucks out of your wallet."

But along with casual Fridays has come casual relationships. We're buddy-buddy with everyone, everywhere, from our bosses to our doctors, from our clients to our parent's friends, from our kid's teachers to our waitresses. We want to be comfy with every interaction, treating every person we deal with as a good pal with whom we can work together to advance our mutual causes... whether or not we hate, don't respect and want to kill the very person with whom we're talking.

This has led to every customer service rep in every line of business addressing their clientele by their first name, regardless of whether you're buying a polo shirt or complaining about your cell phone bill. Should you doubt this, simply dial the 800 number for Eddie Bauer or FedEx or Verizon Wireless, and see what happens.

"Hello, and thank you for calling Cablevision. This is Sheila. How may I help you?"

"Sheila, this is Bill Jones at 57 Maple Ave in Podunk. I've had it up to here. My cable has been out since this morning, and tonight is the broadcast of 'The Love Boat Reunion' that I've been waiting for all year. And to top it off, this is the third time this month that it's been screwed up. I have to tell you: I've about had it."

"Well, Bill, I'm sorry about that. Let me see what I can find out...."

Bill??? At the very least, you might expect a "Mr." to help placate you. Perhaps a "Sir" would go some distance towards making you not feel so pissed off that you're not getting the service for which you are paying so dearly. But no. The rep acts like she's your next-door neighbor, and her kid's soccer ball has rolled into your yard. You almost feel like it's your fault and you're being unreasonable.

Perhaps they're just trying to be friendly. Perhaps some study has shown that the use of a first name relaxes people. Perhaps it's an extension of what George Sr. called a "kinder, gentler" nation. But for most of us that level of familiarity has to be earned. It's not that we consider ourselves better than anybody, or that we like to put on airs. It's just that we're usually paying for something, and so we expect that the person on the other side of the transaction to treat that relationship with value, and show a little deference. After all, it's as easy to ship that package with Joe at FedEx as it is with Mary at Airborne.

Now, if you're Madonna or Cher, you've made a choice to have the world know you by one name only. And it's a fair bet that if you're in that position, even without the benefit of a last name, people will go out of their way to make sure you get what you want. But for the rest of us mere mortals, there's an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. And while I too like to be friends with everybody, there are some folks with whom I'm just not going to be inviting over for a cookout.

When all is said and done, the form of address says a lot about the dynamics of the relationship. First names are friendly and familiar; surnames connote deference and respect. After all, consider this: who had the upper hand, Wilbur or Mr. Ed?


Marc Wollin of Bedford still calls his parents' friends by Mr. and Mrs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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